Special Report
School & District Management

Turnaround Aid Raising Hopes, Also Concerns

By Alyson Klein — September 22, 2009 7 min read
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As the U.S. Department of Education prepares to throw $3 billion in one-time money on the table to improve perennially foundering schools, a gulf is emerging between what federal officials would like to see done with the funds and what many districts say is their capacity—and inclination—to deliver.

While some districts say the federal largess and direction will help advance improvement strategies already under way, others warn that the department’s vision, as outlined in regulations proposed last month, leaves little room for local prerogative.

And some district officials—particularly in small, rural areas—worry that the regulations now being finalized may be tough to implement given the dearth of organizations and individuals with expertise in turning around low-performing schools nationwide.

Local capacity and the proper balance of federal oversight will be crucial tests for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s pledge to turn around what he has termed the nation’s 5,000 “chronically underperforming” schools. (“Obama Team’s Advocacy Boosts Charter Momentum,” June 17, 2009.)

Baltimore CEO Andres A. Alonso could use new money to continue efforts now underway.

His vehicle is the existing Title I School Improvement fund, which is receiving $3 billion for fiscal 2010 in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus program, on top of $546 million the program already is getting this fiscal year.

The cash represents the heftiest infusion ever to finance interventions at schools that have continually failed to meet the achievement targets of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Increased federal direction is necessary because few districts have made significant headway in improving their lowest-performing schools, said William H. Guenther, the president and founder of Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a research organization in Boston.

The regulations are “a terrific step forward,” said Mr. Guenther, because states and districts will need cover from the federal government to take “politically difficult” steps necessary to transform low-performing schools. “We know that sending in school improvement teams by themselves is not a turnaround strategy,” he said.

Still, Steve Barr, the founder of the Los Angeles-based Green Dot Public Schools, which was singled out by the department as a success story in overhauling low-performing schools, contends that there aren’t enough groups and individuals with the necessary expertise.

“I don’t see a huge surge in turnaround people yet,” Mr. Barr said. Right now, there is “a small, hearty group of turnaround specialists. … It’s got to be a lot bigger.”


The Title I School Improvement fund was first authorized with passage of the NCLB law in 2001, but it didn’t receive any funding until fiscal 2007, when it got just $125 million. In addition to the stimulus aid, the Obama administration would like to shift $1 billion into the program from Title I grants to districts in fiscal 2010, although lawmakers appear unlikely to go along.

In proposed regulations that would govern the use of stimulus and increase budget funds to accelerate turnaround efforts, the department is outlining four options for school districts, all of which would require drastic changes at the schoolhouse level. (“Tight Leash Likely On Turnaround Aid,” Sept. 2, 2009.)

Turnaround Models

Proposed regulations would offer school districts four options to use in turning around low-performing schools with Title I stimulus money:

Turnaround Model: Changes would include replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the school’s staff.

School Closure: The district would shut down a failing school and enroll its students in high-achieving schools in the district.

Restart Model: The district would close failing schools and reopen them under the management of a charter school operator, a charter-management organization, or an educational management organization.

Transformational Model: Efforts would include a focus on teacher effectiveness and instruction, as well as extended learning time.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Those choices don’t leave school leaders much room to scale up programs that seem to be working at the local level, said Carlos A. García, the superintendent of the 55,300-student San Francisco district.

“There can’t be a cookie-cutter approach to this,” Mr. García said, particularly since any interventions will need buy-in from school staff members, parents, and the community to be successful and sustainable. “Do they think we’re incapable of creating models for transformation?”

San Francisco has had success in offering principals and teachers in low-performing schools intensive professional development, he noted.

The Education Department, Mr. García said, should allow districts to try out “models that aren’t perfectly preproscribed.” Otherwise, “we’re killing off the concept of innovation.”

Mr. García is also wary of the focus on charter schools, since, in his view, the research on their effectiveness is “rather mixed.”

And he’s worried about provisions that would require the removal of teachers and instructional leaders at the lowest-performing schools.

“What incentive would there be for anyone to teach at these schools?” he asked.

Rural Challenges

The challenge of finding personnel to replace those who have been removed is particularly steep for rural schools, said Gail Taylor, the director of standards and assessments for the Vermont education department. The state has roughly 92,000 public school students.

For instance, a couple years ago, a remote district in the Green Mountain State launched a nationwide search for a school improvement specialist, Ms. Taylor said.

“It wasn’t like we had a lot of people jumping to come to the northeast corner of Vermont,” she said.

Ms. Taylor said that if districts must remove school principals—as they would in nearly all cases under the proposed options—there may not be anyone qualified to take their place.

“It’s going to be a challenge to find someone with a better set of skills,” Ms. Taylor said. “We need to grow these people on our own” by providing more intensive support to existing leaders, she said.

The state education agency would like the option of targeting resources to help bolster professional development for superintendents and principals across the state.

But other local officials feel that the regulations are a good fit. Laura Weeldreyer, the deputy chief of staff for the Baltimore schools, said the 82,300-student district has already begun to move in the direction the federal Education Department has suggested.

For instance, Chief Executive Officer Andrés A. Alonso last school year closed six low-performing schools. And the district has been welcoming to charter schools, she said.

“I feel this helps us to be poised to take all that work to the next level and, hopefully, help a lot more kids,” Ms. Weeldreyer said.

Money in the stimulus law meant to stabilize state budgets—about $39.5 billion nationally—simply helped Baltimore fill holes, she said. But the school improvement dollars will give the urban district a chance to make new investments in efforts already under way, in her view.

The options presented by the federal government may represent substantial change for many schools, Ms. Weeldreyer said, but other strategies don’t seem to produce significant results.

“Has anybody seen radical improvement [from an intervention] that doesn’t fall to one of these categories?” she asked. “If they have, I’d love to know what they were doing.”

Maintaining Control

Edmond T. Heatley, the superintendent of the 50,000-student Clayton County school district, outside Atlanta, also thinks there is enough flexibility in the four options offered under the proposed regulations. In 2008, Clayton County, under a previous superintendent, became the first district in almost 40 years to lose its accreditation because of governance issues involving the school board. (“Loss of Accreditation Rocks Georgia District,” Sept. 3, 2008.)

Mr. Heatley said his district is more likely to pursue what are known as the “turnaround” and “transformational” models.

Those options allow the district to try out innovations—such as refocusing schools around specific themes—without giving up managerial control or losing community support, Mr. Heatley said.

At least one school improvement expert said those two models aren’t as likely to result in lasting change.

“You could call something ‘turnaround’ and swap out 50 percent of the staff, but that doesn’t mean there’s going to be a massive sea change in the culture there,” said Andy Smarick, a distinguished visiting fellow with the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Mr. Smarick, who worked in the Education Department during President George W. Bush’s second term, has higher hopes for starting new schools from scratch.

But Mr. Heatley does not think the community would embrace closing schools and sending students elsewhere. And while he supports charters, he doesn’t like the message that closing a school and turning it over to a charter operator would send about the district’s view of its own management.

‘Band-Aid’ Solution

Even though the money for school improvement in the Recovery Act represents an unprecedented windfall for school improvement, some superintendents are nervously eyeing the so-called “funding cliff” in the stimulus law.

The ARRA covers just fiscal 2009 and 2010. Although the federal funding for school improvement can be spent over three years, it’s not clear that appropriations will remain as high after the one-time Recovery Act money is gone.

That puts constraints on districts’ planning, Mr. Heatley said. If the resources are only available for a limited time, “it will be like putting a Band-Aid on an open-heart wound,” he said.

Funding is also likely to be an issue in San Francisco, where the state has cut education significantly to close a daunting budget deficit.

“If this money had been available a couple of years ago,” we could have done quite a bit with it,” San Francisco Superintendent García said. “But right now, we’re in survivor mode.”

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Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Turnaround Aid Raising Hopes, Also Concerns


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