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

“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “One year of gains isn’t success. One year of declines isn’t failure.”

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

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.

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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.

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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.