As hundreds of chronically underperforming schools near the end of three years of a supercharged federal effort meant to put them on a path toward significant improvement, a new report says local school leaders and state policymakers need more information to make decisions about how and whether to proceed with their chosen turnaround strategies.
The Center for Public Education, part of the National School Boards Association, issued the report Wednesday on the U.S. Department of Education’s $3 billion School Improvement Grant program, the largest federal investment to date in turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. It requires districts to take steps such as closing schools, changing management to a charter or other entity, removing staff members, and extending the school day. The program—in particular the four turnaround models prescribed by the Education Department as a condition for schools to receive the grant money—has been controversial from its outset. Schools that have tapped into the grants are receiving up to $2 million a year for three years to implement their improvement strategies.
The new report, written for local school board members, synthesizes what little research and data do exist on each of the four improvement strategies. While the Education Department put out an analysis late last fall that showed that two-thirds of schools receiving SIG money had made gains in math and reading, while another third saw student achievement slip in the first year of the program, it did not break down the data to show which schools used which of the four improvement models (closure, conversion to a charter, replacing half the staff, or strategies that involve longer school days, teacher professional development, and principal replacement.)
One key finding, according to the new report, is that the so-called transformation model—the most flexible and by far, the most popular method selected by SIG schools—looks so different from school to school that it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about its effectiveness. But similar “restructuring” efforts in Philadelphia, the report notes, did show improvement in both math and reading achievement and led to stronger gains than those of similar schools that were handed over to an outside manager.
The next most-used model involves replacing at least half the staff and is known as turnaround. It’s also light on data, said Patte Barth, the director of the Center for Public Education. While research is clear that effective teachers and strong principals have the most positive impact on student learning, she cautioned that answers to the question of how large-scale staffing changes affect students are much murkier.
Other shortcomings of turnaround strategies that involve drastic staffing changes, Barth said, include the lack of large pools of talent from which to draw new teachers and principals in rural communities. And while three of the four models require replacement of the school’s principal, the report notes that even experienced principals need from three to five years to become effective in their new schools.
“If you have a low-performing school that you want to turn around, the first thing to do is to examine the capacity in the district to undertake any of these models,” Barth said in a teleconference. The report also notes the need for district leaders to forge partnerships with higher education and community partners that can help schools sustain their improvement efforts after the federal funding comes to an end.
As for how SIG schools performed during the second year, we still don’t have answers to that key question. The Education Department has not yet released that data, even though we are nearing the end of the third, and final, year of the grants for the 700 or so schools that were in the first cohort.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.