Closing down poor-performing schools is not THE ultimate solution

A recent study was just released from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute regarding school improvement in the states. The Press release read “BAD SCHOOLS RARELY DIE, NEW STUDY FINDS”

The study tracked 2,025 low-performing charter and district schools across 10 states from 2003/04 to 2008/09. The researchers wanted to know: (1) how many of these schools turned around and improved their performance? (2) how many were shut down? and (3) how many remained low performing?

Results: Overall, 72% of the charter schools and 80% of district schools remained low-performing after 5 years.
Although the charter schools had done a little better than district schools – it was not by much.

The good news: In the cases where the charter school did shut down, the kids had the opportunity to go to a neighbouring school that was doing better.

Author’s conclusion: It is more efficient to close the poor performing schools than try and turn them around.

That is certainly one way to look at it. But then again… it might not be so easy to shut down the 80% of district schools who are not doing well. Efforts need to be made to turn them around no?!

Lets move to a different country where education is doing a wee bit better than the US. We won’t go far – just North of the border to Canada – Ontario to be specific. Incidentally, Ontario is being used as a case example in the US because of its success in PISA. I guess being used as an example of what to do tends to happen when you manage to top the international charts in educational achievement.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education is charged with 5000 schools spread over 1,076,395 km squared (the size of the 8 southeastern states put together). It serves a population that includes people from 200 countries who speak as many as 130 languages. Yet, the diversity seems to be a push to innovate rather than defeat the education system.

So how do they do it? Well. To start, they don’t give up on their teachers, their schools, or their kids – whatever the challenges!

In Ontario in early 2000s, the slogan was

“Narrow the gap while raising the bar!”

This led to the creation of a Ministry of Education and Training program called Turnaround Schools. The ultimate goal: reduce the gap between low-performing and high-performing schools.

One way of doing this is to close down the low-performing schools. Problem solved, gap reduced! That was not Ontario’s choice.

Instead, they decided that they would keep and support their public schools to sustainably raise the capacity of the low-performing schools to move the students to meet provincial literacy standards. They invested efforts and made sure that they embedded rigorous Monitoring, Evaluation, and Research (M&ER) to help all the stakeholders make sure that they were on the right track. They did not want to only look at the end result after 3 years. Smart move!

Ontario started to see REAL success (as noted by an EXTERNAL evaluation) after three years when Ontario’s provincial assessment showed:

  • about 10% more students (15,000 per grade) were achieving the provincial standard.
  • The number of schools with very low performance has fallen by 3/4
  • Instructional strategies improved
  • Graduation rates rose from 68% to 73% in 2005/06
  • More Grade 9&10 students were on track to graduate

So how did they do this?

They provided support for leadership, development and instructional effectiveness. The Ministry worked with the boards to provide additional support and expert advice for interested schools facing the most significant challenges in improving achievement. They motivated, inspired, and helped the teachers. They did not blame or condemn professionals and made it a joint effort with the end goal in mind. Student achievement in ALL schools.

As Ben Levin, former Deputy Minister of Education in Ontario put it

The Ontario case is an example of large-scale change in education that is respectful of educators, fair to students and communities, and based on the best available knowledge. When many of the right elements can be brought together, energy and positive results ensue. We can have results without rancor or ranking.


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