Is There a Quick Fix for Our School System?

mastery-charterThe Obama Administration is betting–billions of dollars–that there is.

In what TIME calls Extreme Makeover: School Edition, the Obama Administration is planning to give the nation’s 5,000 worst schools $4 billion, which they will be expected to use to make sweeping reforms over the next four years.  According to Gilbert Cruz, the proposed agenda basically amounts to: “Fire the teachers and principals, turn schools into charters, lengthen the day and year, or shut the schools down completely and send the kids elsewhere.”

Sounds ambitious. But how do we know it will work?

Well, we don’t. Research on effective strategies for turning around underachieving schools is scarce at best. Essentially, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is waging a $4 billion bet. Fortunately (or not), Duncan is a betting man. Cruz writes: “The system can’t get any worse, he reckons, so why not reinvent? And as any scientist knows, it often takes many failed experiments to figure out what’s going wrong, let alone find a solution for it.”

Duncan does have some solid success stories in support of his plan, most of which revolve around a company called Mastery, which is paid by school districts to clean up troubled schools. Since 2006, Mastery–which essentially turns schools into publicly-funded charters–has seriously turned around each of the three Philadelphia schools it took over, by hiring  new teachers and administrators, improving facilities, and relying on obsessive data collection (numbers reflecting tardiness, performance, and attendance) to push teachers to constantly improve their classrooms.

Lo and behold, three years later, each of these schools seems brand new, with well-disciplined students and vastly improved performance. It’s a bit sad to me that test scores and uniforms are the only measure of a school’s success, but it’s certainly preferable to food fights and fireworks in the hallways, which were regular occurrences at these schools before Mastery stepped in.

But is turning to a corporate model really the only way to fix our broken public school system? I can’t pretend to have the answer to that question myself, but I do know that, should charter school operators like Mastery become commonplace, you can be sure these companies will figure out ways to maximize profit that have nothing to do with student success.

Photo: Bill Cramer/TIME

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