Chiefs Share Insights From School-Turnaround Efforts in New Mexico, Utah

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 15, 2015 3 min read
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Cross-posted from the Politics K-12 blog

By Alyson Klein

No matter what happens with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it’s almost a sure thing that states and districts are about to get way more running room when it comes to fixing their lowest-performing schools.

Both pieces of ESEA reauthorization legislation pending in the House and Senate would put states and districts, as opposed to the feds, in the driver’s seat when it comes to turnarounds.

And even if the rewrite doesn’t make it over the finish line in the coming months, federal regulations have already moved towards more state control, and are likely to go even further in that direction under a new administration. After all, strong federal control over turnarounds—through the Obama administration’s $5 billion, highly prescriptive School Improvement Grant (SIG) program—has yielded decidedly mixed results.

So are states and districts ready to take reins? Has any state cracked the code when it comes to turning around schools that have been foundering for decades? And how do you even know if a school is actually, well, really and truly fixed for good?

There are early lessons out there as states try to figure out the answers to those questions, a pair of state chiefs said at a panel Wednesday on the role of the state in fixing low-performing schools, sponsored by WestEd’s National Center on School Turnaround.

For one thing, state education agencies can’t handle turnarounds all by themselves, they say. The district role is key, said Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s secretary of education.

Her state has bet big on principals through a state-run program modeled on the University of Virginia’s school leadership program. The Land of Enchantment also has a mentoring program for its leaders, which Skandera described as “not a warm and fuzzy mentoring program. A get ‘er done mentoring program.”

Brad Smith, Utah’s superintendent public instruction, also sees the principal’s role as key. And not every good principal is necessarily going to be a great turnaround principal, he said. Some principals can be effective in certain settings, but not in a turnaround school.

“Turnaround leadership is just different from solid leadership,” Smith said.

Finding good school leaders, in fact, has been one of the toughest turnaround nuts to crack, said Carlas McCauley, the director of the National Center on School Turnaround at West Ed. (If McCauley’s name sounds familiar, that’s because until recently, he oversaw the SIG program at the U.S. Department of Education.)

Chronically low-performing schools need the best and most experienced teachers and principals, but they often get newbies. What’s more, it’s not uncommon for a turnaround school to have four different principals in four years. Even if they’re all rock stars, that lack of continuity problems.

Other key turnaround ingredients, according to McCauley? Use of data to “really impact instruction.” He also said schools need proven, research based instructional practices.

And how do you know if a school is “turned around”? One possible goal to shoot for, according to McCauley? Getting a school that starts out in the bottom ten percent of schools in a state to make it to the top 25 percent within four years, when it comes to student growth and, ideally, achievement). Plus, if the school is a high school, its graduation rate should jump up above 80 percent. (The national average is about 81 percent, an all time high.)

Sound ambitious? It is, and it’s unclear just how many schools in New Mexico, Utah, or the country have actually hit that target. But those goals “are meant to be ambitious and meant to drive change,” McCauley said.

What’s more, even if a school can get to that point, the work doesn’t end there, McCauley said.

“It’s not a one given endpoint, it’s a trajectory. Yes, some schools are exiting priority status [the wonky name under NCLB waivers for the lowest performing schools] or lists that they’ve been identified on, but there’s still so much work to do.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.