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Education Opinion

Premature Praise for Turnaround Schools

By Robin J. Lake — April 17, 2012 4 min read
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Note: Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, is guest-posting this week.

A few weeks ago, CRPE released a study of Washington State’s first-year implementation of federal School Improvement Grants (SIG). Unfortunately, in our corner of the world we saw little evidence of the “bold, dramatic” turnarounds that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he wanted to achieve with the more than $3 billion that have gone into SIG schools. What we saw instead was mostly the same tinkering that public schools have been doing for decades.

Typically, schools receiving SIG funds in Washington did little to change the core business of schooling. Some layered on a bunch of extras: fifteen minutes to the school day, an additional administrator, an organic garden. Some tried to be ambitious, but ended up creating a bunch of incoherent, scattershot, and ultimately ineffective approaches that mainly served to make teachers crazed with additional effort to little avail. Few had any idea how they would sustain these changes when the grant runs out. Just two of the nine schools we studied took a laser-like approach that included schoolwide high expectations, intensive interventions for students, an orderly culture, intensive supports for teachers, and other elements we know to be the building blocks of successful school turnaround.

When it came to changing the way schools operated, district and state leaders were like deer in the headlights. With ridiculously little time to plan, they typically chose the path of least resistance (the transformation model, which requires only a new principal, not even new teachers); they gave schools little or no guidance about effective turnaround practices; and they were ambiguous about what results they expected. Just one school was closed, and because Washington State does not allow charter schools, there were no restarts.

After we published the report, folks suggested we were being too hard on the program. A Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman said that “incremental change is still change in the right direction.” The state presented us data showing that in some grade levels, scores for half the SIG schools increased much more than scores did for other schools in their districts. (A normal distribution curve, equivalent to random chance!)

But what really seemed strange was the enthusiasm with which Secretary Duncan touted the SIG program’s success last month. Duncan is the one who called for “bold” reforms in the first place. Yet his recent praise--and dismissal of skeptical “armchair analysts,” as he put it--was based only on one-year gains in a quarter of SIG schools. Department of Ed officials were pleased to report that more SIG schools gained than declined. Yes, it’s still early in implementation, but call me crazy: these are not compelling returns for such significant investment.

The Department of Education has not released any actual data, so we don’t know much about these numbers. It would only be prudent, for instance, to check whether the scores in SIG schools went up more than their state or district averages. I’d also like to know what happened to the scores in schools that received teachers and principals displaced from SIG schools. A real analysis, of course, would try to assess whether student-level gains could be attributed to the SIG program, as opposed to other factors.

I’m a fan of Duncan and his policies in general, and I am as eager as anyone for evidence that SIG is producing real turnarounds. But in this case, the spin went too far. Here’s the speech I’d like to have heard: “Our SIG program has produced schools that look very promising, but we clearly still have a lot of work to do. Too many states and districts have not established college-going expectations for all, intensive supports, and a ‘no excuses’ mentality. We have 5,000 failing schools in this country, and the students in those schools cannot wait another year for urgent intervention.”

That speech would have been more honest than the one he gave, and more likely to spur improvement. And what if it were followed by an even bolder set of federal Race to the Top incentives? The feds should consider rewarding states that commit to these actions:
• Investing in specialized training programs for turnaround leaders and teams
• Contracting with with proven turnaround providers
• Crafting creative, including technology-based, solutions in rural schools where major staffing changes are not possible
• Closing 1 percent of schools annually and starting fresh
• Holding districts accountable for turnaround results

There will probably never again be a $3 billion boon to spend on turnarounds, but the nation’s failing schools will also never transform on their own. Sure, we should celebrate the real successes that SIG produced. But while Secretary Duncan sees the glass as half full, our evidence shows that in some states it’s nearly empty. That means we need to double down on the work ahead. We can’t afford tinkering. We can’t ignore evidence of what works.

--Robin Lake

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.