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Improving Low-Performing Schools: What Works

In the past 20 years, educators have witnessed a series of reform initiatives to turn around failing public schools. In a new working paper, Beth E. Schueler, from the University of Virginia, Sarah Mehrotra, from the Education Trust, and Cynthia Pollard, Catherine Armstrong Asher, and Katherine E. Larned from Harvard University set out to see whether rigorous quantitative research shows any progress in improving student performance. Or whether it confirms the pessimistic public narrative surrounding turnaround reforms: that they are costly and ineffective.

Using a meta-analysis of 141 estimates from 67 studies of turnaround policies  the researchers found that on average, turnaround policies have had a moderate positive effect on student math scores, but no effect on English Language Arts achievement, as measured by high-stakes exams.

The researchers determined that policies such as extended learning time and replacing teachers produced the most positive outcomes. Though more than half of the studies included schools with majority Black student populations, the researchers found these reforms were most effective in majority Latino populations. These findings suggest that there are credible methods for improving low-performing schools, but that there is still a gap in our understanding of how to best to serve specific populations of students, including African American students.

By Vasilisa Smith

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action