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Restructuring Schools Under NCLB Found to Lag

By Catherine Gewertz — December 09, 2009 8 min read
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Includes updates and/or revisions.

A Washington research group is raising questions about the wisdom of the U.S. Department of Education’s favored strategies for turning around the lowest-performing schools with stimulus funding, saying that its research shows that similar federal school restructuring strategies have not been effective.

The questions raised by the new study were on the agenda Monday as the Center on Education Policy, which issued the report, hosted a forum on its findings that included a top Education Department official. The exchange highlighted tensions in the debate over “turning around” low-performing schools as federal officials prepare to hand out billions of dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for that purpose, and as they gear up to advocate school improvement strategies for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The center studied what 23 school districts and 48 schools in six states learned during the past five years about improving struggling schools. It found that the five strategies for restructuring spelled out in the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA, did not offer much help to schools that were trying to improve after five or more years of failing to make adequate yearly progress under the law.

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Using Stimulus Aid to Turn Around Low-Achieving Schools

Experts explored successful strategies for using billions of dollars in federal money set aside to help turn around the nation’s lowest-achieving schools. Read the transcript.

More than 5,000 schools were in restructuring in 2008-09, in fact, up from 2,300 two years earlier, according to the center and the Education Department.

At the forum, Jack Jennings, the center’s president and a former aide to Democrats on the education committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, said that in light of the center’s research, he wondered whether the department was acting “on a hunch rather than on evidence” in requiring states to use one of four specific turnaround models when spending stimulus dollars.

The models—closing the school and sending students elsewhere; handing it over to a charter-management group or other outside entity to run; replacing most of the staff; or “transforming” it through changes in personnel, curriculum, and other areas—build on, but are not identical to, strategies called for in No Child Left Behind. They apply to the Race to the Top competition for states, to the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, and to the Title I School Improvement Grants under the stimulus and are seen as a template for what the Education Department hopes to pursue under the next version of the ESEA.

“We don’t think the evidence base is there to say that any one strategy will succeed,” Mr. Jennings said.

‘Too Prescriptive’?

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Judy Wurtzel, the deputy assistant secretary in the Education Department’s office of planning, evaluation, and policy development—which helps shape the department’s school improvement strategy—said states and districts are encouraged to draw on multiple strategies in revamping their poorest-performing schools. The four models the department now advocates, she said, “go far beyond” the catchall “other” option allowed under NCLB, which was chosen by more than 80 percent of restructuring schools in the center’s study.

Even the “transformation” model permitted for stimulus spending is “not an ‘other’ model, but a comprehensive set of interventions,” Ms. Wurtzel said. Both the “transformation” model and No Child Left Behind’s “other” option have been criticized as escape hatches that schools can use to avoid deeper, tougher changes.

Mr. Jennings said he thought federal officials were being “too prescriptive” in making awards of school-improvement grants contingent on using the four turnaround models, since versions of those approaches had not yielded much success among the schools, districts, and states the center studied.

But Ms. Wurtzel said states have had a good deal of flexibility in trying to improve their lowest-performing schools, and have not delivered the results the Education Department would have liked to see. Her comments were similar to those made by department officials in issuing the final regulations for the school improvement grants on Dec. 3.

“After nearly a decade of broad state and local discretion in implementing, with little success, the school improvement provisions of the ESEA, the department believes, for the purpose of this program, it is appropriate and necessary to limit that discretion and require the use of a carefully developed set of school intervention models in the nation’s lowest-achieving schools,” the final regulations say. (“Final Rules Set for School Turnaround Grants,” Dec. 9, 2009.)

Federal Restructuring Options

In six states using various federal strategies in 2007-08, the majority of schools chose the “other” option in implementing restructuring.


SOURCE: Center on Education Policy

The Education Department’s view of school turnaround work aligns with the center’s findings in key ways, Ms. Wurtzel argued. For instance, she said, it agrees that states have sometimes identified too many schools as needing improvement without targeting supports to those most in need, making it hard to use state resources effectively in helping them improve. That is why the department advocates identifying the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and proposing intervention strategies when states vie for federal stimulus dollars, she said.

States that lack the capacity to help all their lowest-performing schools right away, she said, can reserve some of the money to spread the work into the following year or two.

“We’re concerned as much about quality and sustainability as we are about quantity,” Ms. Wurtzel said.

Unintended Consequences

In drafting its ESEA reauthorization proposal, which it hopes to complete in the first quarter of 2010, Ms. Wurtzel said, the Education Department plans to incorporate language that better targets aid to schools most in need of improvement, and places more emphasis on progress in student achievement, among other things.

The department also will collect detailed information from its school improvement stimulus grantees to help inform its judgments about what works, and will make the data public, she said. Two other evaluations will contribute to its understanding of school turnaround work as well, she said: a case study of 50 schools that are doing such work this year, and a coordinated evaluation of the school improvement grants and other stimulus-funded programs.

In the center’s study, all the schools examined found that multiple, coordinated strategies were needed to improve achievement enough for them to “exit” restructuring, and that those strategies needed to be revised as the work proceeded.

Sobrante Park Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., for instance, got out of restructuring in 2006-07, but has had to reshape its work to preserve and advance its progress. The following year, the school sharpened its focus on classroom instruction in particular on students who were falling behind. It kept the early-morning tutoring and earlier start to the day that it had adopted during restructuring, but added an intervention teacher to work with small groups during the day. A second such teacher was added in 2008-09.

That year, after noticing that students’ reading fluency was improving, but their comprehension was not, Principal Marco Franco paid teachers extra to allow them to develop better strategies for teaching reading comprehension.

Case-study schools that successfully moved out of restructuring status also cited frequent analysis of student-achievement data as central to their efforts. Still, none of the schools reported that restructuring solved all their problems, and just 11 of the 48 schools in the study improved enough to leave restructuring.

Most of the schools that got out of restructuring said they had replaced staff members—a hotly debated element in the Education Department’s turnaround models—and that it helped improve things in some cases, but that firing educators could also have unintended negative consequences.

Replacing many staff members in an area where qualified replacement teachers or principals are hard to find, or in a school that lacks a widely publicized vision to help it overcome its reputation as a “failing school,” hampered school improvement efforts, according to the center’s study.

One district in Michigan helped its middle school plan for an entire year for the upcoming restaffing, the study found. A high school in Annapolis, Md., also got significant help in restaffing from its district the year before, including a job fair specifically for that school, and a temporary co-principal who took charge while the principal held job interviews.

Sometimes new hires were the first to go, however, when layoffs occurred because of declining enrollment. The younger, less senior teachers who had restaffed two secondary schools in Detroit fit that pattern.

At the state level, all six states in the study devised ways to aim tailored supports at the schools most in need. Four of the states—Georgia, Maryland, New York, and Ohio—are piloting “differentiated accountability” systems to do that. Under those systems, the states give more help to schools that failed to make enough progress schoolwide than they give to schools that failed to do so only for a few student subgroups.

Of the other two states examined, California focuses on districts with the most severe problems, and Michigan conducts audits and dispatches special teams to schools to help them make changes.

States in the study used assessments of schools’ needs and on-site monitoring more often in figuring out the restructuring puzzle. They also leveraged support by teaming up with other agencies or organizations.

California approved outside providers to size up what districts need to do to turn around their worst schools. In partnership with Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a Boston-based group that has developed a school turnaround framework, Maryland is developing a “breakthrough center” that will act as the central brain trust and services coordinator for schools in need of improvement.

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Restructuring Schools Under NCLB Found to Lag


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