School & District Management

School Turnarounds Proving Heavy Lift for Waiver States

By Alyson Klein — July 08, 2014 6 min read
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When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave more than 40 states and the District of Columbia flexibility from many of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, he had an inherent trade-off in mind: States would identify fewer schools for interventions than previously under that law, but they would engage in much deeper and more sustained turnaround work.

That hasn’t proved easy. According to an Education Week analysis of U.S. Department of Education monitoring reports, which were informed by visits from federal officials, during the 2013-14 school year, states were cited for failing to follow through on their plans for turning around the bottom 5 percent of schools and intervening in schools with persistent achievement gaps more often than for any other aspect of waiver implementation.

Overall, 17 out of 35 states for which waiver-monitoring reports have been released by the Education Department were found to not be following through on their plans for fixing up “priority” schools—the bottom 5 percent of performers based on student outcomes.

And 17 states were hit for not doing enough to help “focus” schools, which are an additional 10 percent of troubled schools, including those with persistent achievement gaps.

The Education Department also cited nine states for failing to do enough to improve student achievement at other Title I schools, those that receive federal money for serving low-income students, but which haven’t been given the “priority” or “focus” labels.

Meanwhile, the Education Department on July 3 granted extensions for six waiver states last week: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, South Dakota, and Virginia. More extensions are expected to be announced on a rolling basis throughout the summer.

But before announcing the extensions, the department last week also reiterated a pledge—made in May—to let some states continue with their waivers even if they need additional flexibility when it comes to teacher evaluations, including in areas such as the timelines for putting in place systems that takes into account student growth on state assessments.

Improvement Heachaches

The difficulty with turnarounds doesn’t come as a surprise to those who have been taking a hard look at waiver implementation.

“It’s easy to set up accountability systems; it’s easy to identify low-performing schools,” said Diane Stark Renter, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a research organization in Washington that has studied waiver implementation and turnarounds. Helping those schools get better “is the hard part,” she said.

The department also found problems with state-level monitoring of district’s activities related to the waivers for 15 states out of the 35. States understand that they are responsible for holding districts’ feet to the fire on waiver implementation, but some of them say that’s easier said than done.

“We are a minimally funded state,” said Shannon Malone, the Title I director in South Dakota. She said the state education agency has just five staff members able to monitor program implementation in 155 districts. Overall, though, South Dakota saw the monitoring process as fair and supportive, Ms. Malone said.

Feeling Nitpicked

But some states feel nitpicked. A case in point is Virginia, which was chided for failing to provide appropriate supports to priority schools. The problem stemmed from the principalship at just one of the state’s priority schools, according to Kathleen Smith, the state’s director of the office of school improvement.

The Obama administration requires states to get rid of a school’s principal if there hasn’t been significant improvement in student achievement, unless that person has been on the job for less than three years. The leader at this particular school had been in place for seven years, Ms. Smith said.

But Virginia couldn’t remove the administrator, thanks to a state law that requires principals to be notified of their firings by June. And the school wasn’t hit with the “priority” label until August, meaning it was too late to get rid of the school leader.

“It seems unfair to label the entire category as ‘not meeting expectations,’ ” because of that one instance, said Veronica Tate, the director of the Virginia education department’s office of program administration and accountability. “It gives the impression that the state is not doing its due diligence in terms of working with priority schools.”

In fact, Virginia has paired each of its priority schools with a “lead partner,” or outside organization, to assist with turnaround efforts, going further than many other states to help the lowest-performing schools improve, in Ms. Tate’s view.

Virginia, like 15 other states, was also cited for troubles with its school report cards. In Virginia’s case, that was in part because the state did not break out data for migrant students, who aren’t considered as a separate subgroup under the state’s accountability system.

But Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, wonders how useful 30 pages of data points in a school report card really are to parents.

“I don’t think anyone is saying [certain facts] aren’t important,” he said. “Are they elements that belong on a school report card, so that parents can get a feel of whether this school is doing a good job? Is that who we are trying to reach [with these report cards], or are we trying to meet the needs of the individual who wants every conceivable data point about a school?”

By contrast, comparatively few states—just seven out of the 34—were hit for not doing enough to put college- and career-ready standards in place, including Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Nevada, and Washington.

Only six states—Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin—failed to meet the department’s expectations when it comes to putting in place assessments linked to college- and career-ready standards. And one state’s assessment system is under review—Utah—which had its federal report released late last month. (Notably, most of the monitoring reports are based in part on site visits conducted in the fall, before states, including Indiana and Oklahoma, ditched the Common Core State Standards.)

Only two states—Indiana and Louisiana—were cited for not meeting expectations on parent outreach.

English-Language Proficiency

Meanwhile, every single state that has been monitored so far was deemed to be meeting federal expectations for moving forward on developing standards and assessments for English-language proficiency. But the bar that states had to jump over to get the federal seal of approval in those areas was likely a lot lower than for turnarounds, said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

“I think the way that states were being judged on meeting those standards was easier,” she said. For instance, states were likely able to be considered as being on track when it comes to English-language-proficiency tests if they are members of the World-Class and Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) organization, which is developing those tests.

“There’s a distinct possibility that if you really looked under the hood there and asked more probing questions, maybe more problems would be revealed,” Ms. Hyslop said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as School Turnarounds Proving Heavy Lift for Waiver States


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