Published Online: February 5, 2010
Published in Print: February 10, 2010, as Schools Stuck at Bottom Target of $3 Billion Push

Schools Stuck at Bottom Target of $3 Billion Push

It's an unprecedented gamble by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: $3 billion in federal economic-stimulus money aimed at one of the most vexing issues in public education, turning around large numbers of chronically underperforming schools.

The infusion of federal money is intended to supercharge state and district efforts to overhaul their worst-performing schools under a new set of Title I School Improvement Grants. An additional $546 million for the grants has been appropriated for fiscal years 2009 and 2010, and some states will also secure varying amounts of aid for school turnaround efforts under the $4 billion Race to the Top grant competition.

Some observers, however, warn that states and local districts that avoid aggressive interventions such as replacing at least half of a school’s teachers or converting schools to charters—may squander their money and the opportunity to truly fix their ailing schools.

“We now have both a spotlight and funding for this issue, neither of which existed before Secretary Duncan took office,” said William E. Guenther, the president of the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a Boston group that designed a turnaround framework in 2007 and is helping states use its strategies. “The big risk is that too many states and districts will continue to take the safety-valve option that was available under [the federal No Child Left Behind Act] and use a more limited intervention.”

Four Turnaround Models

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, most districts opted for lighter-touch interventions that avoid measures such as principal and teacher firings or conversion to charter status for schools that were identified as failing. Instead, they have focused on making changes to curriculum and instruction and providing professional development to teachers. Few of those efforts resulted in dramatic improvement.

Under the U.S. Department of Education’s final rules for the stimulus-related Title I School Improvement Grants and the Race to the Top grants, states and districts will have to abide by fairly strict conditions in how they approach school turnaround. They must select from four turnaround strategies that have sparked widespread debate in the field.

The transformation model is one that many educators prefer and that critics decry as preserving the status quo: providing professional development and coaching for a school’s staff members and making changes to curriculum and instruction.

Secretary Duncan originally sought to make that sort of “transformation” approach a last resort to be used only if the three other, models—replacing the school’s principal and at least half its teachers, reopening the school under a charter operator or other outside manager, or shutting down the school—were not feasible. Still, the department will require that a school targeted for a transformation-style turnaround must replace the principal. And in districts with more than nine “persistently low-achieving schools,” the strategy could not be used in more than half of the schools, a limit that would apply to most urban districts.

But removing the school leader, some say, isn’t always necessary and may be impossible for small, rural districts that struggle to recruit new talent.

“It’s the system, not the people,” said John Simmons, the president of Strategic Learning Initiatives, a nonprofit organization in Chicago that has partnered with that city’s school system since 2006 to turn around 10 K-8 schools. “When you look deeply at why these schools aren’t improving, you find that people have been willing to improve, and that when you give them the proper support and model, they get excited about change.”

Quality Over Quantity

States had until Feb. 8 to apply for the school improvement grant money and will begin awarding their share to districts by May. The bulk of the money will be headed for schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent for achievement. States can direct the grants not only at elementary campuses, but also at middle schools and at what are often called high school “dropout factories”—those that routinely graduate 60 percent or fewer of their students.

But the grants—which could total as much as $2 million per year per school—will also be available to struggling schools that aren’t ranked so near the bottom.

When Mr. Duncan began his push last year to turn around the nation’s worst-performing schools, he set a bullish goal that called for targeting 1,000 schools a year. At that rate, he said, the 5,000 lowest achievers could be dramatically improved within five years.

But in a wide-ranging interview with Education Week reporters late last year, the secretary acknowledged the challenges of reaching that many schools in such a short time, especially as questions arose about the capacity and will of charter school operators and others to shoulder such turnaround work.

“I would tell you that 1,000 [schools] for fall 2010 would prove absolutely impossible to do well,” Mr. Duncan said. “So, whatever the number ends up being, ... that’s irrelevant to me, frankly. Let’s do the best we can. ... I'm much more interested in quality than quantity.”

Vol. 29, Issue 21, Page s11

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