The largest-ever federal investment in fixing low-achieving schools is now flowing to states, raising the pressure on district leaders to make tough—and quick—decisions about firing principals, replacing teachers, or shutting down schools entirely.
Since last month, the U.S. Department of Education has been sending states their shares of $3.5 billion in Title I School Improvement Grants, money provided mostly by last year’s economic-stimulus package, as well as from $546 million in regular fiscal 2009 appropriations.
Less than six months from now, selected schools that rank among the bottom 5 percent in their states—the priority under the grant program—will be required to launch one of four “turnaround” strategies outlined by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It’s a daunting timeline for some district leaders, who are eager for the windfall of support for struggling schools but may have qualms about the strict conditions for receiving the federal aid.
As of late last week, the Education Department had made grants to 23 states. All 50 states are expected to receive grants based on the Title I formula for aid to disadvantaged students, which state officials will parcel out among districts on a competitive basis.
“We are moving on this,” said Lisa Y. Gross, the spokeswoman for the Kentucky education department, which will oversee a grant of about $50 million. “This is a fairly massive influx of support for these schools that should be a jolt in our [school improvement] process.”
Across the states, state and local education officials are moving rapidly to identify which of their schools will be eligible for the infusion of federal aid and to decide how, exactly, those campuses will be overhauled.
Texas officials, for example, have identified more than 1,600 low-performing schools out of roughly 8,500 that are potentially eligible to receive a grant, though the actual number of grantees will be far smaller, probably closer to 100 schools, said Cory Green, the senior director of No Child Left Behind Act programs in the Texas Education Agency. The state will receive roughly $338 million to spend on turning around its most troubled schools over three years.
In Kentucky, education leaders have zeroed in on a set of 10 schools that will undertake a “turnaround” strategy by the fall.
Still, the massive influx of federal funds is likely to have a direct impact only on those districts and low-performing schools carefully targeted by their states. Low-performing schools that don’t receive grant money will remain subject to existing sanctions under the NCLB law.
In most cases, school districts competing for a share of this $3.5 billion in school improvement money must choose one of four options for intervention codified in the 2009 stimulus law: replacing at least 50 percent of a school’s existing staff, called “turnaround” by the Education Department; turning a school over to a charter operator or another outside manager, known as “restart”; closing the school and transferring students; or providing professional development and coaching to teachers and making changes to curriculum and instruction, as well as teacher evaluation, a method dubbed “transformation” by the federal department.
The three nonclosure methods also require that the school’s principal be replaced, unless he or she has been in the assignment for less than two years.
By tightly prescribing what districts must do to intervene in those schools, the Education Department hopes to avoid what federal officials see as the shortcomings of restructuring for the NCLB law. Under the 8-year-old law, most districts have opted for lighter-touch interventions that have produced few gains. But many state and district officials say the new, more stringent requirements are too rigid or even impossible to live up to.
“Rigidity never works when you are going to do a turnaround,” said Sheldon Berman, the superintendent of the 98,000-student Jefferson County school system in Kentucky, which includes Louisville. “There are individual circumstances that impact individual schools.”
Even policy experts who believe the Education Department’s prescriptive approach to school interventions is superior to the NCLB’s less restrictive approach have concerns. They worry about the capacity of districts to find new principals and teachers, especially when most districts will have less than six months to plan and execute a turnaround strategy.
“For the districts that have to make staffing changes, it’s going to be very difficult to pull this off and to pull it off well by the start of next school year,” said Rob Manwaring, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a Washington think tank. “By pushing this first group of schools to have everything in place by September 1, [the department] is already dramatically impacting the probability of success.”
In Kentucky, Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday created special audit teams that have been spending hours in the 10 schools that are targeted for intervention. Through interviews with every staff member and observations of teachers, the teams are to diagnose each school’s particular problems and make recommendations on which of the four turnaround models would best solve them, Ms. Gross said. In particular, the teams will assess whether the schools’ current principals can lead the turnaround efforts.
Six of the 10 targeted campuses are in the Jefferson County school system. Four are high schools;two are middle schools. Most have principals who have been in their assignments for less than three years, said Mr. Berman, who has been the district’s superintendent since 2007.
All six Jefferson County schools have been undergoing dramatic restructuring efforts for two to three years, Mr. Berman said.
“The case we have to make to the audit teams is that these are efforts that are beginning to have an impact, and we want to be able to continue with what we are doing,” he said.
At the four high schools, district officials have set up freshman academies to ease the transition from middle school. The schools also adopted a trimester schedule that lightens the course load students carry at any one time, allowing them to focus more deeply on the subject matter, Mr. Berman said.
The principals at the high schools are new, the superintendent said. Two have been in place for three years, the other two for two years.
“These are my turnaround principals,” said Mr. Berman, who hopes the state will agree that none of them needs to be replaced. One middle school principal is leaving, while the other has been in place for four years.
For the six schools tapped for intervention, Mr. Berman will request the “turnaround” model, or, as it’s called in Kentucky, the “restaffing” option. Because most of the principals are new and some staff members have been replaced over the past two to three years, Mr. Berman said many of the requirements of that model have already been met.
Still, the audit teams could make a different recommendation to Mr. Holliday, the state chief, who will make a final decision for each school, said Ms. Gross, the state education department spokeswoman. Districts that disagree with Mr. Holliday can appeal to the state board of education, she said.
The federal officials overseeing the school improvement grants expect that most districts pick the “transformation” option, widely viewed as the most viable, especially in rural areas where it is difficult to recruit and retain new principals and teachers.
But in districts where there are more than nine low-performing schools tapped for intervention, only half the schools can use the transformation approach, which requires that teacher and principal evaluations be linked, in part, to student achievement.
So far, no districts have requested an exception to that rule, said Ann Whalen, a special assistant to Secretary Duncan.
Federal rules provide an enticement to adopt the “turnaround” or “restart” options, Ms. Whalen said. If districts choose one of those two, states may seek a federal waiver to allow them to restart the NCLB school improvement clock and no longer be required to provide public school choice or supplemental education services.
But Mr. Manwaring said districts that don’t want to undertake any of the turnaround approaches have a simple way of avoiding it.
“Effectively, a district that doesn’t want to participate in this can tank the application,” he said. “In most states, districts will be required to apply, but it doesn’t mean they have to apply well.”
Ms. Whalen said the federal department is willing to provide flexibility to states and districts so that they can deliver successful results in the neediest schools. One key to that, she said, is allowing states that can’t undertake turnaround strategies in all targeted schools by next fall to roll over 25 percent of the aid they receive this fiscal year to use in the next one.
“We are focused on quality, not quantity,” she said. “We’re trying to meet local needs based on what they are saying they have the capacity to do.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as Turnaround Funds Flowing to State Coffers