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Federally aided 'turnarounds' show mixed results; test scores decline in a third

duncan and obama
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
A third of schools receiving the Department of Education's School Improvement Grants (SIG) actually saw test scores decline.

In the words of Walt Kelly’s immortal Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” His boss’ Nov. 6 sweep notwithstanding, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan likely has felt he’s doing business from Pogo’s Okefenokee Swamp of late.

First there was that delicate, pre-election tap dance over the schools mess he left partisan homie Rahm Emanuel in Chicago — followed by the quiet concession that his second term is likely to be spent much like the first, waiting for Congress to tackle the replacement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And let’s not even take up the Twitter-patter conjured by dueling suggestions from New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and The Onion that he either assume the secretary of state’s post or become a male stripper.

Lost in the pre-Thanksgiving news cycle doldrums was one more item of gloom: A U.S. Department of Education analysis found that despite an infusion of $3 billion, a third of schools receiving its School Improvement Grants (SIG) actually saw test scores decline.

The largest federal school turnaround effort ever, SIG is the least well-known of the Obama Administration’s effort to direct federal stimulus dollars to education reform. At the time of its creation, NCLB’s painful, arguably punitive sanctions were beginning to kick in for the first schools to fail to show “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests.

Under the widely reviled NCLB, schools defined as persistent failures eventually are required to undertake drastic reorganizations and face fiscal penalties. The SIG money was meant to smooth the pain for schools that chose one of four federally prescribed restructuring plans ranging from a new principal with a new plan to closure.

After deadlock, waivers

Two years after SIG’s creation, with Congress deadlocked on NCLB’s overhaul and the number of schools slated to face the turnaround issue and other sanctions rising, Duncan began handing out waivers to states that were willing to show they were determined to step up efforts to close the achievement gap.  

Duncan talked about the SIG analysis earlier in the month in remarks made to the Council of Chief State School Officers and in an interview with Education Week. "I think it's way, way too early to draw any conclusions," he told the publication. "We're in this for the long haul. One year of gains isn't success. One year of declines isn't failure."

It is, however, at least symbolic confirmation of the view shared by many education policymakers that school turnarounds are much slower and harder than innovating from scratch.

Results were mixed in the rest of the 731 schools that received funding in SIG’s first year, the 2010-2011 school year. A majority of the schools that posted gains saw single-digit growth in math and reading, while 25 percent posted double-digit gains in math and 15 percent in reading. Some had begun posting better scores before the money arrived.

Distribution of SIG-Awarded Tier I/II Schools by Gains and Losses in Math and Re
Source: US Department of Education
Distribution of SIG-Awarded Tier I/II schools by gains and losses in math and reading, by school grade level, 2009-10 to 2010-11

An informal review of some of Minnesota’s 19 SIG schools suggests they’re faring essentially the same as their national cohorts: small ticks up and down despite the receipt of $32 million [PDF] to be spent between September 2010 and September 2013. (A second set of nine schools received SIG funds totaling around $3.5 million for just this school year and may apply for funding for two more years.)

Turnaround school profiles

School NameDistrict NameSelected ModelTotal Award
Bethune ElementaryMinneapolis Public School DistrictTransformation$1,200,000
Braham Area SecondaryBraham Public School DistrictTransformation$1,316,084
Broadway Arts & TechnologyMinneapolis Public School DistrictTransformation$950,000
Brooklyn Center SecondaryBrooklyn Center Public School DistrictTransformation$1,400,000
Cass Lake-Bena SecondaryCass Lake Public School DistrictTransformation$1,059,036
East Central Senior SecondaryEast Central Public School DistrictTransformation$1,000,473
Edison Senior HighMinneapolis Public School DistrictTurnaround$1,900,000
Hmong International AcademyMinneapolis Public School DistrictTransformation$1,200,000
Humboldt Senior HighSt. Paul Public School DistrictTurnaround$1,700,000
Isle SecondaryIsle Public School DistrictTransformation$1,000,000
Lucy Laney @ Cleveland Park Elem.Minneapolis Public School DistrictTurnaround$1,600,000
Maxfield Magnet ElementarySt. Paul Public School DistrictTransformation$1,200,000
New Visions Charter SchoolNew Visions Charter SchoolTransformation$1,113,272.25
North View IB World SchoolOsseo Public School DistrictTransformation$1,700,000
Ogilvie SecondaryOgilvie Public School DistrictTransformation$1,122,222
Ponemah ElementaryRed Lake Public School DistrictTransformation$1,070,635
Red Lake Senior HighRed Lake Public School DistrictTransformation$1,250,413
Waubun SecondaryWaubun Public School DistrictTransformation$1,400,000
Wellstone International HighMinneapolis Public School DistrictTransformation$1,200,000
Source: Minnesota Department of Education

8,000 students in MN recipient schools

Recipients here enroll 8,000 students in mainline public schools and charter schools located in the central cities, suburbs, exurbs and Greater Minnesota. All are desperately poor, and all were identified as some of the state’s most persistent underperformers.

In an effort to make sure good money wasn’t thrown after bad, the Minnesota Department of Education required SIG applicants to provide lots of data showing that the schools in question could be turned around. Following in-depth individual evaluations by Cambridge Consultants — the gold standard in school quality reviewing — a number were rejected for lacking this capacity.

The evaluations were also used to help MDE craft a plan for how districts would be asked to use the money. Cambridge found that most of the underperformers shared the same deficiencies: a lack of differentiated instruction between struggling students and gifted students; outdated instructional practices; no use of data to improve instruction; a lack of academic goals for students; poor professional development; a lack of proper teacher evaluation; poor leadership at the principal, superintendent and school board level; and a lack of parent and community engagement.

SIG schools could choose one of four strategies. They could close, close and re-open as charters or as schools managed by outside groups or companies, or replace the principal and at least half the staff and adopt a new way of doing business. Lastly, under the “transformation” model adopted by the vast majority, they could replace the principal and try different instructional strategies.

Many reasons offered

Speculation about why turnarounds haven’t worked very well is mixed. Some policy-watchers feel that too many schools are trying the transformation model, which is the least disruptive and the most watered down. Others point to the chaos caused by the multiple “fresh-starts” most of the persistent underperformers have already endured.

And there are plenty of bureaucratic problems the money just can’t seem to resolve, such as how to lengthen school days in districts where teachers’ unions won’t agree to the change, how to recruit fresh staff to schools in isolated rural districts, and how to deal with staffing systems that in some places shuffle teachers and administrators from one failing school to another.

A final irony: On paper, anyway, Minnesota’s SIG schools have less flexibility to map their own turnarounds than the schools MDE has targeted for intensive intervention as a part of its NCLB waiver plan. Department brass hope the same body of research can be tapped for nimbler individual reorganizations.

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Comments (4)

Money won't turn around schools

Please help people understand and solve the reality that throwing money at schools will not solve the systems problems! Urban public schools are different from suburban ones. Teaching quality is inconsistent, but not a universal problem. The administrative costs are excessive and processes are byzantine. Finally, there is a gap between what employers want and what schools provide. These are just some of the issues. There is a platform, www.at10us.com, that allows communities to pick the issues I have mentioned, submit solutions to them, vote for the aspects they like most across solutions, and hold politicians accountable for implementing the best ideas. For the kids, help solve this.

This is ridiculous

The only options are to privatize or muddle on with inadequate resources as if there are no successful public school models or resources. This pretends the private sector which has NOT demonstrated any superiority in education models is possible pool of solutions and pretends that no one in American knows how to run a school or educate people. All kinds of small business assistance is available from the state and we have big damn University with all kinds of education experts. Why don't we use those resources to create advisory and assistance programs for struggling schools? Why do assume that outsourcing education is the only viable option?

There is NO One-Size-Fits All Model for School Success

And that's the problem with NCLB and with Arnie Duncan, as well.

Schools that are failing are doing so because kids are not learning, but those kids who are not learning are failing to do so for the widest imaginable collection of reasons:

kids who don't have a dependable place to sleep or dependable meals or safe lives away from school,...

parents who aren't paying any attention to whether or not their kids are doing their schoolwork or spending endless hours interacting with video entertainments (games, facebook, texting, etc.),...

kids whose intelligence is so far above the routine work they're asked to do that they underperform out of sheer boredom (often the most highly intelligent and creative kids who aren't generally compliant enough to turn in neat looking homework when the work is far too easy for them) - we really don't have a clue what to do with kids who are smarter than their teachers and not inclined to function well with day-to-day routine,...

teachers who haven't been observed to see if they're doing a decent job for many years,...

administrators who don't have a clue as to how to motivate underperforming teachers to work harder, let alone how to help them learn the techniques they need to do a better job of teaching,...

school buildings that are falling apart and inadequately climate controlled,...

communities where poverty and social problems are so rampant as to interfere with MOST kids' ability to learn (when they even make it to school consistently),...

are but a few.

The reality is that money isn't nearly enough. If you look for schools that are adequately funded, have motivated administrators who are good at motivating and evaluating teachers, in stable communities with very few social problems, and who are populated by engaged parents,...

you'll find well-performing schools.

But even there, if you take away the funding, constantly attack the teachers and administrators, effectively wiping out their motivation, and motivating parents to be suspicious and hyper critical, often for no good reason, the schools will start to fail (which has been the Republican strategy in Minnesota since the days of Gov. Al Quie back in the late 70's).

Again, there is NO one size fits all model that will fix a failing school. It will take the population of the entire state to start looking for ways to HELP their local schools become better, first by listening to the concerns of the students, the teachers, the administrators and each other (the parents), then working together to discover what can be fixed by everyone working together,...

(and far too often, a certain class of dysfunctional "self-made" business executive type, ALL those with delusional "tea party" attitudes, and academic experts seeking to sell a sure-fire system to fix everything will probably have to be excluded from such efforts,...

since they're so convinced that they already have all the answers that they'll never even bother to discover what the questions are, and so internally insecure that the only way they'll stop feeling and acting angry and belligerent is if everyone else does things their way).

Finally, in the end, it's highly unlikely that we'll find ways to "fix" the schools in any particular community or neighborhood unless and until we go to the work of fixing the communities which surround those schools.

Straw dogs on the prowl.

I don't think anyone anywhere is actually championing "one size" to fits all schools. Even the Republican plans ostensibly allow for local variation. This does not mean however that everyone in every location has to reinvent the wheel as if no one anywhere has ever educated children before. We KNOW how to teach, and we KNOW what the characteristics of a good learning environment look like. We also KNOW how to apply those principles in variable circumstances. It costs whatever it costs in any given circumstance.

The problem here is an agenda that wants to put public education in private hands for purely ideological reasons. We also have Ideologues who will not let us construct sound and appropriate curriculum, we're arguing about evolution and Thomas Jefferson. The combined effect of this perverse education discourse is that it pretends we don't know what good schools look like because they haven't been invented yet and can't possibly be invented by anyone other than private sector CEOs. So long as we ignore the expertise we posses this circular argument will just keep churning and burning up budgets and misdirecting resources.