BENTON HARBOR — The idea that failing schools can be rapidly turned around is a myth, say two Michigan professors.

“School turn-around means that you have someone come in and they change some things and test scores dramatically improve,” said Tom Pedroni, an associate professor at Wayne State University, who specializes in researching urban school districts where the students are mostly poor and of color. “Most cases where that has been claimed, those claims have been debunked in a couple of years.”

Robert Carpenter, a professor at Eastern Michigan University in the College of Education, agrees.

“Districts get where they’re at over time,” he said. “The best way to move them in a positive direction is the same. Quick fixes don’t often happen.”

One example of a debunked quick fix is the “Texas Miracle” in the Houston Independent School District in the 1990s under Rod Paige, who later was secretary of education from 2001 to 2005 under President George W. Bush.

Carpenter said researchers discovered two to three years later that school officials gamed the system to produce the results.

“The drop-out rate went to zero. Come to find out that everybody simply transferred rather than drop out,” he said. “There’s all sorts of ways to game the system. Once you set the target, people figure out how to work the target.”

Pedroni said Paige’s turn-around model was used to write the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in 2002. The central piece of that law was that school districts administer statewide standardized tests to all students in order to receive federal funding. 

Pedroni said another way the “Texas Miracle” was created was by not including the test scores of all the students.

“When you controlled for all of those things, there was no miracle,” he said. 

No Child Left Behind

Pedroni said he’s been watching the state’s attempt to close Benton Harbor High School very carefully. 

A tentative agreement reached Wednesday between the state and Benton Harbor school board trustees to keep the high school open calls for “national experts” who have experience turning around struggling schools. School board President Stephen Mitchell said that if trustees approve the agreement that was negotiated by three of the board’s members, they expect to interview six to eight transformation specialists the following week to hear how they would turn the district around.

Pedroni said he’s interested in hearing what the transformation specialists have to say. 

He said marginal gains in test scores, up to a 3 percent increase, can be achieved if school districts relentlessly focus on preparing students for the test. 

“We’ve seen urban schools do that all over the country in the last 15 years,” he said. “What they do is they get rid of music, art, gym, all of the things that don’t contribute to the test scores. What’s the trade off? You’ve got a very, very small, essentially insignificant increase at the cost of completely gearing the curriculum towards the test and getting rid of many of the things that actually keep students wanting to go to school in the first place.”

He said schools are not funded by taxpayers to produce test scores. Instead, he said schools should be evaluated on how well they prepare students to be well-rounded citizens for life. 

Because standardized tests tend to focus mostly on math and reading, those subject areas are the focus in most rapid turn-around plans.

“But the way that math and reading is taught to increase the test scores is not the way that math or reading would be taught in more affluent suburbs,” he said. “It would be taught through memorization and very rote skills – not critical thinking, not creativity. It would be a dumbed down version of math and English for the sole purpose of raising test scores.”

Carpenter said when schools are labeled as failing, more affluent families with more mobility tend to move their children to different schools. He said about the only thing that standardized tests are good for is identifying the school’s average family income.

“It looks like the school is doing poorer, but is that because of a shift in the population?” he said.

Pedroni said that global evidence over the past 20 years shows that children in poverty, especially children of color, don’t do well on standardized tests.

“The crime here is childhood poverty. In countries that have taken childhood poverty seriously, their test scores soar and are among the highest in the world,” he said. “What I would term as a turn-around specialist is not a person, but a social movement.”

He said Finland is an example of a country that radically changed how it educates children decades ago to make sure all children are given opportunities to learn.

“Finland has a childhood poverty rate of 4 percent and thinks that that’s too high,” he said. “In the U.S., we have a childhood poverty rate of 26 percent. In Detroit, for example, the childhood poverty rate is over 60 percent.”

He said Finland doesn’t give its students standardized tests and yet, Finland students rank as some of the best readers in the world. 

“When you control for childhood poverty and you make a hypothetical American school only have 4 percent of the children living in poverty ... and then measure what their scores would be and the how competitive they would be, the U.S. is right there along side Finland at the very top,” he said. “What is takes is dramatically addressing the basic life conditions in which students live. This is the real issue.”

He said some people say this thinking is pie and the sky.

“Maybe, but it’s also the reality,” he said. “If you don’t address childhood poverty, there will be no meaningful increases in test scores. You may be able to game it. You may be able to make small increases, but probably sacrificing a lot more than you’re really getting out of it.”

Some schools cheat

Pedroni said another way school officials try to increase test scores is by cheating. 

One of the biggest cheating scandals on state standardized tests was at Atlanta Public Schools in 2009, where 21 educators accepted plea agreements. Eleven of the 12 educators who chose to go to trial were found guilty of racketeering charges in 2015. School officials were accused of several unethical practices, including altering answer sheets.

“One of the things that it shows us is that teachers and administrators will do all kinds of things, including unethical things, to protect their schools,” he said. 

Pedroni said he hasn’t seen the tentative agreement between the state and Benton Harbor school board trustees, but if it includes something like students having to make a 3 percent increase on standardized test scores in a year, then he doubts it could happen without school administrators employing some kind of gimmick.

“The only change that would have meaning is sustained change over time,” he said. “Even the state itself looks at three-year averages when looking at school progress. It never looks at one year.”

“I think the whole idea of turn around is really snake oil. We have almost 20 years of proof in the United States of that. No Child Left Behind was all centered on that notion of pushing up test scores and was an abject failure. It simply didn’t work. “ 

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