We just don’t know how to turnaround failing schools, but we do know how to start good new schools.  We should do what we know works.  That’s the message from Andy Smarick in his important EdNext article, The Turnaround Fallacy.

I’ve been involved with the development of 1200 new schools and efforts to turnaround 800 schools.  Most of the former worked pretty well.  Most of the later didn’t work very well.  These were predominantly secondary schools which are far more difficult to fix than elementaries (where the form factor isn’t fundamentally flawed).  This body of evidence supports Andy’s recommendation to close bad schools and open good schools.

However, closing struggling schools is very difficult for a local or state superintendent; every school has a constituency.  We don’t have much experience organizing under-served communities for better schools.  The LA CMO’s did a great job turning people out to support Yolie’s initiative to bid out new and replacement schools. Parent Revolution has successfully piloted organizing strategies around failing schools.  If we push for more restarts than turnaround efforts, we’ll need to scale organizing efforts like Parent Revolution to mobilize support.  Turnarounds are a technical problem.  Restarts pose a political problem.

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Tom Vander Ark is author of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, The Power of Place, Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and serves on the boards of Education Board Partners, 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


  1. As a CPS employee, I do not see charter schools being successful. I have seen charters hiring mid year because staff quits. They are desperate. I recently went to an interview at a charter school and voiced my disinterest in joining the organization. I thought I made it clear that I was not interested; however, after spring break received a call about teaching a lesson as a second interview. They are desperate. Charter schools pay less, expect more, and struggle with the same issues that public school deal with. In order to solve the problem of underperforming schools, the problem of underperforming households needs to be addressed. Students in these schools often have emotional and social problems that are not adequately addressed. If schools invested in helping students socially and emotionally, the schools would improve. However, I have seen Chicago’s turnaround organization first hand and can say that the school environment is much more positive than that of the two charter schools I have visited. However, turnarounds and charters will continue to struggle until students’ psychological needs are addressed.

    • Charter usually serve disproportionately low income kids, so they struggle with all the same issues as district schools and often have to pay rent out of what is usually a smaller operating budget.
      Last time I vistied, the Chicago charter I know–Perspectives, Noble, and Chicago Intl–seemed to be doing a great job and were positive places to work.


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