Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Extreme Makeover: School Edition

What would a reality show about school turnaround look like? Teachers would be fired, replacements pounding Doubleshot would be hired, and data would be gathered like mad. The charismatic new principal would turn some tired educational cliche into a national catchphrase. The host? Jeff Probst, meet Justin Cohen.

Nah, sorry, too boring. Here’s an idea instead: A rotting excuse for a school building gets renovated in just ten days by a cheery, predictable reality show team. (Megaphone, check. Designer with hipster glasses, check.) Welcome “School Pride” to your Friday evenings this fall on NBC.

This model has two advantages over “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” First, the only thing more compelling than five needy people crying at their newly revealed glam surroundings is five hundred people doing the same. Second, rather than a kindergartner getting her bedroom decorated to a fare-thee-well based on a casually mentioned interest she will probably ditch next year, the whole kindergarten classroom will get that treatment, benefiting five-year-olds for decades to come. 

And guess what? Nice buildings boost academic achievement! Well, at least according to the show’s promotional material. And according to executive producer Cheryl Hines, who says in the trailer that the show positively impacts people’s lives ... “and the test scores shoot up.”

At Carver Elementary, the Compton, Calif., school featured in the trailer, scores did go up after the renovation. They had gone up the year before too (though less so). Was it because of the new paint, toilets, playing field, gym, flooring tiles and Ikea furniture? Or the enthusiasm built from the community joining in the work? We have no idea. Suggestions of a link between test scores and capital improvements will surely be repeated throughout the series, so it is worthwhile to look at what the research says. Some studies link specific building issues to outcomes that themselves may impact test scores: air quality, for example, affects absenteeism. There are doctoral dissertations and reports by architects that make a broader case for at least correlation, if not causation. But rigorous, peer-reviewed research that shows that capital improvements boost scores? Not so much

Frankly, children deserve non-disgusting school buildings no matter what happens to test scores. I will certainly watch the show, lying as it does in the heretofore untouched sweet spot of the Linda Perlstein brain where school reform meets interior design meets reality television. I will certainly cry. But I hope that Cheryl Hines and gang curb their enthusiasm about the test score stuff—and maybe even let us know what it takes beyond renovation to make sure that students learn.


  1. My school is celebrating 100 years this school year. The building is old and drab. It is in dire need of updates that our school system cannot afford. Phil Campbell High School would be a perfect location for an Extreme School Makeover. Any idea how to nominate?

  2. I would also like to know how to apply to have a school nominated. Our district is being on the verge of being closed down. Next year we will not have a middle school and our students will have to be split up between our two elementary schools and our high school. There are talks that they may shut them all down and sent our children to bigger schools that are much further away. We are in desperate need of help.

  3. Dear Ms. Perlstein

    I was looking on the internet this morning and came across this website. I am a former student and concerned parent of Palmer Elementary School. Our school is located in Palmer, TN, a small city in Grundy County. Our original building opened it doors in November 1927. There have been some renovations over the years, but it is basically the same building. Always in the past we have found a way to keep the doors of our school open.
    Now, the County is on the verge of closing the school, they say the cost will be too extensive to bring the building up to code. This school is a part of our County history. Our children will have to be bussed to other locations in the County and leave the school that they love so much. My children are the fourth generation of my family to have attended this school.

    It has been said that Palmer will be Palmer as long as the school bell rings in the red brick school on the hill. We have great teacher and our kids here at Palmer Elementary have some of the highest test scores in the County. It saddens my heart and it would be a shame for this school to close. If there is any way you could help us, it would be greatly appreciated. Please recommend us.

    Palmer Elementary School
    Palmer, TN