Results at Arne Duncan's First Chicago Turnaround School Raise Efficacy and Legal Questions

Posted by Liz Dwyer

Does Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's "turnaround" school-reform model work? News from one of Duncan's first turnaround schools, William T. Sherman Elementary in Chicago, is mixed. Yes, test scores are up, and that's a good thing for the 591-student elementary in the city's violence-plagued Englewood neighborhood. The bad news? It took five years to see results, and the scores still aren't as high as the average Chicago public school.

Duncan ordered a turnaround plan for Sherman back in 2006 when he was still Chicago's superintendent of schools. Sherman was the first campus placed under the jurisdiction of what was at the time a new non-profit turnaround organization, the Academy for Urban School Leadership. As an AUSL turnaround school, Sherman gave students renovated facilities, a new curriculum, and an entirely new staff—new principals, new teachers, even new custodians.

A year after the turnaround, the Chicago parent organization Parents United for Responsible Education researched Sherman's data and found, "during its first turnaround year, Sherman had a 20 percent drop in enrollment, a 10 percent drop in the number of low-income children, a 17 percent increase in the mobility rate, a lower parent involvement rate and lower science test scores."

Even though more critics said AUSL's efforts were unproven, Duncan handed over a dozen more schools to the organization.

After Duncan accepted President Obama's offer of the Secretary of Education job, he touted Sherman and the turnaround method as central to education reform. Indeed, turning around schools is one of the key pieces of Duncan and Obama''s national Race to the Top initiative. Duncan regularly refers to the school as a success, even though Sherman's 68-percent average in math last year is lower than non-turnaround regular public schools, and is below the Illinois state average.

Taking the turnaround method of reform national has another problem beyond effectiveness. It could lead to lawsuits. A group of mostly black, female teachers fired from dozens of Chicago turnaround schools just won a discrimination suit against Duncan. In the suit, the teachers said they were being replaced with, "less experienced, younger, whiter teachers at lower salaries." According to the judge's ruling, Chicago has 30 days to rehire the teachers axed through the turnaround process.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user US_Air_Force