Markham Middle School

Science teacher Jennifer Burman instructs her class at Edwin Markham Middle School, where test scores have markedly improved. (Christina House / For The Times / December 13, 2010)

Sitting in the library during a break, two veteran teachers at Edwin Markham Middle School rattled off the names of principals who had been sent to fix the chronically low-performing school in Watts.

There was Kimbell, Miller, Norris and Borges. Then came Mir-Rivera, Miyahara, Stroud, Sullivan. This year, Hernandez arrived — the ninth in 20 years.

Each came with a long list of remedies, they said, and most left after a few years with little to show for it.

For those two decades, Markham has been considered one of the worst middle schools in California,  despite the best efforts of those principals and an army of well-intentioned reformers, including big-hearted volunteers, private foundations, corporate sponsors, the city attorney's office and — most recently — the mayor of Los Angeles.

In the last seven years alone, they tried changing the curriculum, reducing class size, improving school safety, requiring school uniforms, opening after-school programs and spending a lot more money per pupil.

The one thing they didn't do was improve the teaching — at least, not until last year, when layoffs swept out many of the school's worst performers and test scores jumped, a Times analysis found.

Since 2003, Markham has had dozens of the district's least effective instructors, as measured by the analysis of their students' progress on standardized tests. Seventy percent of the school's English and math teachers have ranked well below the Los Angeles Unified School District's average in effectiveness. Fewer than 10 Markham teachers have been in the district's top 20%, and most left the school within three years.

There are thousands of Markhams across the country, schools whose low test scores have triggered wave after wave of reform efforts over decades, mostly in vain.

"It's not a lack of new initiatives, it's too many initiatives, and no sense of what's working," said Robert Manwaring, a senior policy analyst at the Washington, D.C., think tank Education Sector who has studied turnaround efforts at Markham and other schools. "They don't use data to inform those decisions — they use a gut feeling or get marching orders from higher up."

The Obama administration is now making its own bid to fix failing schools, steering $3.5 billion to those that adopt one of four radical turnaround approaches. The options include shutting down, bringing in new management, dismissing most staff and administrators, or adopting specific reforms aimed at boosting teacher quality.

So far, more than 730 schools in 44 states have signed on, with most choosing to overhaul the staff or retool instruction. The bet is that similar efforts in the past did not go far enough and often ignored those key elements of success.

Markham, with $5.5 million in federal money over the next three years and the guidance of the mayor's management team, is among nine schools in Los Angeles to take part.

For some teachers, like science teacher Tizoc Carrasco, it's hard to get excited. The school, he said, has had a "restart every other year."

His advice to President Obama: "Look into how you can create consistency at the schools. That's the one thing I've never heard anybody talk about."

Markham, a maze of brick bungalows in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of south Los Angeles, was not always considered a failing school.

Tucked away in a dusty storage area above a sixth-grade science classroom are several boxes of trophies from the 1980s that honored the school for its academic prowess.

By 1991, however, the school's test scores had fallen far enough to inspire a turnaround effort. With the benefit of a state grant, staff members spent a year developing a plan for the school. But the second year of funding to make the changes never came through, recalled John Miller, who was principal from 1991 to 1997.

On his own, Miller tried a range of popular strategies: He broke the school into more manageable groups of teachers and students. He created time for teachers to plan lessons together. He opened a parents' center and partnered with corporations and foundations that sent money and dozens of mentors to take the students on field trips and college visits.

"Let's try whatever, and if two of the 10 programs worked, fine," Miller recalled thinking.