Promise, Challenges Seen in Use of Federal Turnaround Aid

By Alyson Klein — October 21, 2014 4 min read
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Connecticut, like many other states, didn’t get nearly as much transformational change in schools as officials there had hoped from the Obama administration’s multibillion-dollar School Improvement Grant program.

Still, the state gleaned a lot from the stops and starts of its first two cohorts of SIG schools.

That was the message Morgan Barth, the division director of the Constitution State’s school turnaround office, delivered to the National Association of State Boards of Education at its annual conference here last week on states’ roles in school turnarounds.

Connecticut’s experience with the federal program appears to mirror that of other states across the country. Two-thirds of schools improved under the program nationally in its first two academic years, although in many cases the gains were small.

But another third of schools actually slid backward. The program’s mixed results have spurred a congressional overhaul aimed at giving states more flexibility with their turnaround dollars, as well as permitting the grants to extend over a longer period to allow more time for initial planning as well as greater sustainability.

“Nationally, almost every state has its lessons learned from the first two rounds of SIG,” Mr. Barth said.

Little Accountability

Connecticut is trying to apply those lessons to its latest turnaround initiative—a 3-year-old Commissioner’s Network that now includes 20 schools in 10 districts across the state.

“We found that within SIG, we didn’t really hold the schools accountable for doing what they said they would do,” Mr. Barth said. “We authorized a plan, and we made sure the federal dollars flowed into the district, but there wasn’t accountability for results, and there also wasn’t enough support in many cases.”

When SIG first came online in the state, schools opted for the least significant kind of intervention they could, he said.

National data show schools in other states followed suit. Roughly three quarters of schools that began the program in the 2010-11 school year initially chose transformation, the least disruptive of SIG’s four turnaround models. The other three options encompass more dramatic actions, such as closing down a school, turning it into a charter, or replacing half the staff.

What’s more, under the SIG program, the “fundamental conditions” of many of Connecticut’s schools did not change, even if the principal did, Mr. Barth said. The program calls for states to remove principals who have been on the job for more than two years with no sign of improvement in student outcomes.

Getting rid of principals “was a sort of big deal, like, ‘The heads are going to roll, they’re getting rid of the principal.’ … But there is only so much a [new] principal can do,” Mr. Barth said. “We’re all … trying to move past the idea of the ‘savior’ principal.”

Stabilizing Force

Connecticut’s current turnaround prescription: offer schools roughly $1 million in funding and additional autonomy when it comes to things like curriculum and the length of the school day and calendar; conduct a comprehensive audit of the school to pinpoint problems; task the school with developing a turnaround plan that addresses each of those concerns; and have school officials present that plan to the state board of education.

Then, the approach goes, hold the schools to those plans, through accountability measures such as biweekly, informal visits from state experts, quarterly progress check-ins, and a midyear audit. The state has kicked in about $15 million of its own money to the effort.

Early results look promising, Mr. Barth said. Schools in the network have improved on the only state assessment that’s remained consistent over the past few years: the science test. (The state has made changes to assessments in other subjects to align with the Common Core State Standards.) The overall percentage of students scoring at or above the proficient level on that exam increased in all tested grades in the turnaround network. What’s more, indicators such as attendance rates began to show improvement, he added.

Connecticut’s approach could help create a “stabilizing force” in school turnaround—an arena that’s become “too dependent on the superstar principal or the superstar superintendent,” Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told NASBE participants.

Strong school and district leaders who frequently drive turnarounds often don’t stay on for the long haul, and states can help provide consistency, Mr. Balfanz said.

What’s more, Connecticut’s efforts are largely funded out of its own coffers, which will help protect its schools from the big funding cliff some low-performing schools have seen as their SIG money begins to dissipate, Mr. Balfanz said in an interview after the panel.

“The key thing in Connecticut is they are building in funding streams that [can be] sustainable,” he said. Before getting SIG money, some schools were “truly starved. … They had kids sitting on the backs of counters because they didn’t have desks. Without extra SIG money, they’re not going to change, and then you take that away, and the kids are, like, back on the counter.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as Promise, Challenges Seen as States Apply SIG Cash


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