We can take a joke, so we had a good chuckle at Andy Smarick’s response over at Flypaper to our Try, Try Again post here on Eduwonk. But the thing is, we think he may be serious, so we better respond! In Try, Try Again, we argue that even if turnarounds (or new schools, for that matter) succeed only 10-30% of the time, if we rapidly retry when they don’t work, we can achieve 40-80% cumulative success rates over time.
The essence of Smarick’s response is that the chances of success for turnarounds are much much lower than 10-30%— more along the lines of lottery odds (one in millions) or the chance that a monkey hitting random keys would type the full text of Hamlet (one in some incredibly large number). But this is silly. In sectors other than education, where real turnaround attempts are much more common, the odds of success aren’t, as Smarick suggests, “infinitesimal.” Some change gurus say major change efforts in companies succeed 30% of the time. But even if we could hit 10-20% in K–12, if we also retried rapidly, we could turn around half of all failing schools in several years, helping millions of kids.
Andy doesn’t say so in this post, but from prior debates we know that instead of turnarounds, Andy advocates new school creation. We’re strong backers of that strategy as well, both to replace failing schools and to create wholly new options. But what Andy doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge is that failure rates are very high for new start-ups as well. According to a Harvard study, even proven entrepreneurs who launch new businesses only succeed 34% of the time. Since the scale-up pace of proven new school operators isn’t nearly fast enough to meet the urgent need we have here, with millions of kids trapped in thousands of failing schools, we’ll need new entrants too, who in the Harvard study succeed 22% of the time. So let’s stop monkeying around and place serious bets on both turnarounds and new school creation—both of which will require rapid retries a la “try, try again” to help a lot of kids fast.
—Guestbloggers Bryan and Emily Hassel