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Duncan Open to Additional School Improvement Models

By Alyson Klein — December 09, 2010 3 min read
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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview today that he is open to the idea of developing more models for turning around low-performing schools, other than those spelled out in the regulations for the School Improvement Grant program, which was financed at $3.5 billion in fiscal year 2010.

“I’m not set one way or the other,” Mr. Duncan told Education Week. The department is monitoring the models as they are implemented around the country, he said.

[UPDATE (Dec. 10): Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, added: “We are extremely encouraged by the work being done with these four models and are not currently looking to expand options. However, as always, we continue to welcome feedback and ideas from people doing the tough work.”]

Some folks consider the models to be too stringent and unworkable for rural schools. They call for schools to a) close and send students elsewhere, b) turn over control to a charter management or similar organization, c) use the “turnaround” option, which calls on schools to implement a range of strategies, including getting rid of at least half the staff, or d) take the “transformational” option, which calls on schools to try out a new instructional approach, offer extended learning time, and governing flexibility. That model is considered least likely to require removal of staff.

In nearly all cases, under all four options, the principal is also removed.

The models were included in the department’s blueprint released last March for revising the No Child Left Behind Act. When they were developed in regulations, some groups asked for a more flexible, fifth option that would allow schools to use any research-based intervention, but the department said it worried states and districts wouldn’t be able to make the necessary progress.

Lawmakers in Congress have picked up the argument that the models aren’t rural-friendly. But data released today by the Department dispels the myth that the program is mostly for urban schools. In fact, only 53 percent of the schools receiving SIG money are urban, while 23 percent are rural, and 24 percent are suburban.

The majority of schools, including most rural schools, chose the transformational option (71 percent). More than a fifth of the schools—21 percent—are using the so-called “turnaround” model, but very few rural schools—only three total—are using it. By contrast, 100 schools urban schools and 32 suburban schools picked the turnaround option.

Less popular were the options to close a school down entirely and send the students elsewhere, and the so-called the “restart” model, which calls for closing a school, and reopening it under the management of a charter school operator, a charter management organization or an educational management organization.

Just 31 schools—or 5 percent—are using the “restart” model, and nearly all of them are in urban areas. Only three rural schools, one in Alaska and two in rural Virginia, have taken the “restart” option.

School closure was even less prevalent. Only 18 schools picked that option, including just four suburban schools. No rural schools chose to close.

Secretary Duncan said he’s not dismayed that most schools are choosing the transformational model, which many consider to be the least stringent.

“Those choices have to be made community by community,” Mr. Duncan said. The department put forth a variety of models, which sparked “thoughtful conversations” at the local level and “provided permission” for education-redesign oriented officials to do “courageous work,” he said. “People are taking this work very seriously ... There’s been no drama, which is bad for the media, but great for kids.”

The data cover nearly all states—44—but do not include information from the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, or New Hampshire.

Students from a variety of racial and ethnic groups are benefiting from the program. Forty-four percent of the students served are African American, 34% Hispanics, 16.5% White, 2.5% Asian, and 2.2% Native American.

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