Bad Schools Are Like the Living Dead

Chronically low-performing schools have become a problem of zombie-epidemic proportions in Wisconsin’s public school systems. And like zombies, these schools almost never get better, and rarely die.

A new study released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examined these consistently failing schools and found that waiting for a renaissance is a sucker bet. Across the country, and especially in Wisconsin, schools that were persistently bad usually stayed that way.

Over 80 percent of regular public schools and 72 percent of charter schools studied were unable to present significant progress in their classrooms between 2004 and 2009.

This flies in the face of recent initiatives designed to turn around the lowest performing schools and reform education in America. Programs such as Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants have shown off a recent emphasis on reclaiming the country’s worst public schools from the graveyards of academic failure. This urgency for reclamation isn’t just reliant on regular public schools, it also spills over to charter schools, which are expected to help shoulder the load in bringing the American education back to a position of leadership.

However, this Fordham release suggests that new methods will have a long way to go in making progress. The report, authored by Dr. David Stuit, founder of Basis Policy Research, singled out 10 states for analysis to better understand the turnaround success in public schools across the country. The study identified 2,025 elementary and middle schools that ranked in the bottom 10 percent of statewide reading and math proficiency rates that also failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress marks. These schools were then tracked from 2004-2009 to examine what progress, if any, was made in the most recent five year span.

Wisconsin lagged behind the national average when it came to turning around both types of public schools. In all, only one of the state’s recognized low-performing schools progressed from the bottom quartile of the educational achievement rankings.

Though the state had the lowest rate of low-performing charter schools at just 12 percent, there wasn’t much good news when it came to improving these institutions. Wisconsin’s failing charter schools showed no significant increase in attainment over the five-year period, but did see 33 percent of its underperforming schools shut down. However, since the state had a very small sample size – just three chronically bad charter schools – it’s impossible to say just how significant these results were.

The state’s public schools provided a larger dataset for comparison. Of the 1,398 schools in the sample, 53 of them – four percent – were rated as low performing. In the five years examined in the study, one school earned the “turnaround” label, boasting an over 25 percent improvement in student results. Eight more underperforming schools were closed entirely, and the remaining 44 institutions were mired in the lowest quartile of student achievement. This rate of closure ranked second amongst all states, lagging only behind Ohio.

Across the country, charter schools were more likely to fit the turnaround model – though neither side should feel confident in their abilities. 80 percent of all regular public schools were unable to dig out of their deficient rating. 72 percent of charter schools fell victim to the same lack of progress. Charter schools were also more likely to be shut down while underperforming; 19 percent of institutions selected in the sample size were shut down during the five year period. Conversely, just 11 percent of all regular public schools faced the same fate.

Stuit’s results paint a grim picture in the face of reform from the bottom up. However, since these results don’t cover many of the years in which rebuilding has become an emphasis or the states that have won Race to the Top funding recently, it isn’t clear just how much new regulation will affect the nationwide reclamation project. What it does tell us is that regardless of funding and ambition, transforming the lowest-performing schools is going to be an arduous process.

This means trouble in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s leader for chronically low-performing schools. These zombie schools have become commonplace in the state’s largest city, and have been a drain on Milwaukee Public Schools for generations now. Results that show that these schools have been mostly unsalvageable suggest that we may have an epidemic on our hands.

It’s clear that a business-as-usual approach won’t work; the past five years led to significant change in just one Wisconsin school while closing nine others. Time will tell if recent emphases on revival will be worthwhile. One thing is clear – innovation is the only step we can take to bring these schools back from the dead. If Wisconsin can’t think dynamically about how to save their schools, the zombies may just overrun our classrooms.  

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst