Published Online: July 1, 2010
Includes correction(s): March 23, 2012

States, Districts Scramble on Turnaround Deadline

The fast-track effort to overhaul low-performing schools, a centerpiece of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s school improvement agenda, has state and local education leaders scrambling to prepare and launch aggressive interventions at their most troubled campuses.

Within two months, hundreds of low-performing schools targeted for turnaround must make drastic changes—in many cases, replacing the principal and at least some teachers—under new rules for the federal Title I School Improvement Grant program. Taking those steps hinges largely on states’ receiving their shares of the $3.5 billion available for the grants, an unprecedented federal investment in the nation’s chronically underperforming schools.

But at least 16 states, including Illinois, Massachusetts, and Tennessee, were still waiting as of June 30 for officials at the U.S. Department of Education to give final approval to their plans for overseeing scores of school turnarounds over the next three years. Other states have had since March and April to plan their interventions.

The timeline will be difficult to meet, some state officials believe, especially in those schools that must replace principals and some teachers.

“It’s been challenging and, quite frankly, frustrating for our districts,” said Deborah Sigman, a deputy state superintendent in California. “But we made it clear to them that whether or not their plans are approved in June, July, or August, you have to move forward. It’s been a leap of faith.”

All 50 states are expected to receive grants based on the Title I formula for aid to disadvantaged students, which state officials will parcel out among districts on a competitive basis. A single school can receive up to $2 million annually over the next three years.

California, with 188 schools eligible for the money, was approved for a $416 million grant late last week after making a series of revisions to its original application submitted in March. Now, district leaders are under the gun to revise and polish their specific plans for schools by the state’s July 2 deadline. Before districts know how much they will receive, if anything, the state education department will review their plans and make recommendations to the state board of education, which will have the final say in late July.

One of the major changes, said one official in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is that the targeted schools must hold public meetings and collect signatures of support from parent and community groups. Thirteen schools in the 617,000-student district are applying for funds. “I’m not sure how we’ll pull that off,” said Sharon V. Robinson, a special assistant to Ramon C. Cortines, the superintendent in Los Angeles. “We’ve got only one week to find people who’ll say that they support our grant. Everyone’s gone for the summer.”

Stringent Review

Officials at the federal Department of Education repeatedly declined to discuss in any detail their process for reviewing and approving states’ applications. In an e-mail message, Sandra Abrevaya, a department spokeswoman, wrote that “these applications are getting very careful review, which in some instances has meant several revisions to ensure applications comply with the federal requirements.”

The requirements, in fact, are stringent, especially when compared with previous iterations of federal Title I School Improvement Grants. In fiscal 2007, for example, Congress appropriated $125 million for the grants and bumped the amount up to just under $500 million in fiscal 2008. Those grants flowed to states and districts with few strings.

But in this go-round, with a supercharged financial commitment to school improvement thanks largely to the 2009 federal economic-stimulus law, Secretary Duncan and his team insisted that low-performing schools would have to undergo one of four methods of intervention that they deemed to be the best shot at reversing years of weak academic performance.

One is replacing at least 50 percent of a school’s existing staff, called “turnaround” by the Education Department; turning a school over to a charter operator or another outside manager, known as “restart”; closing the school and transferring students; or providing professional development and coaching to teachers and making changes to curriculum and instruction, as well as teacher evaluation, a method dubbed “transformation” by the federal department.

The three nonclosure methods also require that the school’s principal be replaced, unless he or she has been in the assignment for less than two years.

The major features of every method—including replacement of principals and teachers—must be in place by opening day of the 2010-11 school year, a deadline that some experts on school turnaround say is too tight. Secretary Duncan has pushed the rapid schedule to avoid what many have said has happened under restructuring rules in the No Child Left Behind Act: low-performing schools that languish for years in improvement status, with few achievement gains.

“Ideally, the timelines would be longer because, from my perspective, any good systematic change requires a heavy amount of thought and planning, particularly when you are talking about personnel changes,” said Justin Cohen, the president of the School Turnaround Group, an arm of the Boston-based nonprofit Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, which is working in six states.

“At the same time,” he said, “the timeline could help weed out [schools] that weren’t terribly serious about doing this in the first place.”

Proceeding Cautiously

In San Diego, where three district schools were identified as being eligible for the school improvement money, only one school opted to apply, said Aly Evans, a program-development specialist in the 132,000-student district.

“This is a school that was already working on its blueprint for reform and was ready to go,” she said.

In Los Angeles, district officials considered the time frame before deciding to tap just 13 of 33 eligible schools on the list to apply.

“We invited those schools that we felt would pull together a strong proposal, and these were all schools that were already working on their reform efforts,” Ms. Robinson said. “The timeline was too short for the others.”

Several of the states still awaiting final approval as of June 30 for their share of the $3.5 billion—Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—were among the finalists for round one of the $4 billion federal Race to the Top competition. Tennessee, one of the two winners of the first round, was also waiting for approval.

Delaware, the other first-round Race to the Top winner, was approved June 24.

Vol. 29, Issue 36

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story included an incorrect spelling for the deputy state superintendent in California. Her name is Deborah Sigman.

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