Special Report
School & District Management

School Turnaround Models Draw Bipartisan Concern

By Alyson Klein — May 21, 2010 5 min read

The Obama administration’s prescription for turning around low-performing schools—particularly the models districts must follow in making those improvements—is raising eyebrows on Capitol Hill, as Congress gears up for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the four models for intervening in perennially foundering schools spelled out in the U.S. Department of Education’s regulations for the $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program are inflexible, particularly for schools in isolated, rural areas, and don’t put enough emphasis on factors such as the need for community and parental involvement.

“These four choices are interesting, but they’ve got to be fleshed out here,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee at a hearing on the topic May 19. “There’s a portfolio of things you need to bring to this problem.”

“You can choose to say you’re going to turn around a school, you can reconstitute a school, you can close a school,” said Rep. Miller, one of the lawmakers the administration is trying to court in its push to reauthorize the ESEA. “It won’t matter if you don’t have [certain] ingredients in place … [including] collaboration, buy-in from the community, the empowering and the professional development of teachers. If you don’t do these things, and you have to more or less do them together, you’re not going to turn around much of anything.”

Last year, the Education Department unveiled the list of four options states must employ to turn around schools that are perennially struggling to meet the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 version of the ESEA.

Under the regulations, officials can close a school and send students to higher-achieving schools; turn it around by replacing the principal and most of the staff; or “restart” the school by turning it over to a charter- or education-management organization. Under the fourth option, a school could implement a mandatory basket of strategies labeled “transformation,” including extending learning time and revamping instructional programs.

But Rep. Miller cautioned that closing a school and removing its staff should be done as a last resort.

“A fresh start doesn’t mean firing all the teachers and only hiring back an arbitrary number,” he said. “You can find some of the best teachers in the worst-performing schools, but they are stuck in a system that isn’t supporting them.”

And he said “wraparound” services, which typically include health care, prekindergarten, and counseling, need to be part of the mix.

Key Player

Rep. Miller’s critique of the administration’s turnaround strategy is especially significant because it is difficult for critics to accuse him of pandering to the teachers’ unions, who also have concerns about the models, particularly the emphasis on removing staff. The education committee chairman has bucked the unions on a range of issues, including merit pay and the need to link student data with teacher effectiveness.

And he was a champion of many of the education overhaul provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic-stimulus program. They include a major boost for pay-for-performance programs and a new fund to scale up promising practices at the district level, which eventually became the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund. He’s also one of the key lawmakers the administration has been counting on to help shepherd its reform agenda through Congress.

The discontent with the models appears to be bipartisan.

“There are a number of concerns, shared by members in both political parties, with the administration’s approach, which represents a more intrusive federal role in education policy that is better left to parents and state and local leaders,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa. during the May 19 hearing. “Of equal concern, these changes to the existing School Improvement Grant program have been imposed on state and school leaders outside of the reauthorization process and without proper congressional oversight.”

In a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee earlier this spring, Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the panel, questioned whether the models would work for rural schools—and asked whether there was sufficient research to back them up.

“I am very concerned that requiring school districts to use one of the four school turnaround models for schools identified for school improvement will adversely impact rural and frontier schools,” Sen. Enzi said. “Some flexibility needs to be given to rural and frontier schools that simply cannot meet these strict federal requirements.”

He said schools in isolated areas have a tough time recruiting principals and teachers, much less finding turnaround partners or charter operators to help with school improvement efforts.

And Sen. Enzi said the “scientific evidence or research for the four interventions proposed for school improvement grants is, at best, sketchy. …. If we are going to mandate interventions from the federal level we need to be clear about why we are mandating such reforms and what evidence we have for our actions. Otherwise I worry that we are not learning from NCLB and are just repeating our mistakes.”

New ‘Framework’ Offered

On the other side of the Capitol, some rank-and-file Democrats echoed such critiques.

Rep. Yvette Clark, D-N.Y. said during the May 19 hearing that her support for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is “wavering,” in part because the models don’t put enough emphasis on parental engagement.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., went even further.

Flanked by leaders from both national teachers’ unions on May 20, she introduced a “framework” that would largely scrap the models and replace them with what she termed a more flexible and holistic range of options.

Rep. Chu wants to use the reauthorization of ESEA to prod schools to promote flexibility and collaboration (such as beefing up mentoring and induction programs), remove barriers to student success (such as increasing community involvement and support), and “foster” teachers and school leaders (such as increasing the use of support staff like speech therapists and school psychologists).

Lily Eskelsen, the vice president of the 3.2 million National Education Association, held up Ms. Chu’s framework, saying, “I love this paper!”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million American Federation of Teachers, brushed off the notion that Ms. Chu’s approach would offer too much latitude to schools, saying the approaches outlined in the framework have worked in schools throughout the country.

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week

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