Data released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education on the $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program show that the federal turnaround grants haven’t just gone to schools in urban areas, or for less-drastic school improvement efforts.
The school improvement program was developed under the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, to help schools that were perennially failing to meet the goals of the law, but the Obama administration has given it a complete makeover, pushing for an infusion of $3 billion for the program, and giving schools a very specific menu of four turnaround options from which to choose.
Advocates for rural schools have said that the four models, which, in some cases, require drastic actions, such as closing down a school or firing its principal, don’t offer enough leeway. They view the program as urban-centered.
But just over half of the 730 schools implementing the program since earlier this year—53 percent—are in urban areas, while 23 percent are in rural areas, and 24 percent are suburban schools.
By far, the most popular model was the so-called “transformational” model, which is considered by many to be the most flexible, and generally least likely to require removal of staff. Seventy-one percent of schools are using that model, including the vast majority of rural schools in the program.
More than one-fifth of schools—21 percent—are using the so-called “turnaround” model, which is widely viewed as more stringent than the transformational model. It calls for, among other strategies, replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the school’s staff, adopting a new governance structure and implementing a new or revised instructional program.
Very few rural schools—a total of only three—opted for the turnaround model. By contrast, 100 urban schools and 32 suburban schools picked that option.
The data covers nearly all states—44—but does not include information from the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, or New Hampshire.
Less popular were the options to close a school down entirely and send the students elsewhere, and the so-called “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 of the total—are using the restart model, and 25 of them are in urban areas. Only three rural schools, one in Alaska and two in rural Virginia, have taken the restart option, according to an Education Week analysis of data provided by the department. Three suburban schools picked that option, and the other 25 restart schools are in cities.
The school closure option was even less prevalent. Only 18 schools picked that improvement strategy, including just four suburban schools. No rural schools chose to shut down.
Secretary Duncan said he’s not dismayed that most schools chose the transformational model, which many consider to be the least stringent.
“Those choices have to be made community by community,” Secretary Duncan said in an interview. He 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 ... People are taking this work very seriously ... . There’s been no drama, which is bad for the media, but great for kids.”
And he said the geographic diversity puts to rest the notion that the School Improvement Grants aren’t feasible for rural schools.
“This more than alleviates” such concerns, said Secretary Duncan. The department pointed out that while nearly 20 percent of the schools that were deemed eligible for the grants were in rural areas, 23 percent of the schools that actually got a grant were rural.
Choosing to Transform
Rural schools were far more likely to opt for the transformation model—106 of the rural schools in the program chose that option. An additional 108 suburban schools using the transformational option are in suburbs, and 240 are in central city areas.
The schools that chose this approach must address four specific areas, including developing teacher and school leader effectiveness. That requires replacing the principal in most cases, and using student achievement growth to reward and dismiss teachers. Schools must also revamp their instruction, extend learning and teacher planning time, and be given operating flexibility and continual support.
Rural schools say that in isolated areas it’s hard to find effective teachers to replace the 50 percent who would be let go under the turnaround model, and that it’s difficult to attract charter-management organizations to rural areas. And the closure option, they argue, is even tougher, since in many cases, there are no better-performing schools nearby where students can be sent.
The data released Thursday also show that students from a variety of racial and ethnic groups are benefitting from the program. Forty-four percent of the students served are African American, 34 percent Hispanics, 16.5 percent White, 2.5 percent Asian, and 2.2 percent Native American, according to the department.
The aim of the school improvement program when it was initially authorized in 2002 was to help schools that had perennially struggled—and failed—to meet the NCLB law’s benchmarks. But Congress did not provide funding for the program until fiscal year 2007 and, at that point, it was only given $125 million.
Funding climbed steadily, but the program got a huge boost—$3 billion—under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which passed in the winter of 2009 and included some $100 billion for education. That amount, combined with the $546 million provided for the program under the regular fiscal year 2010 spending bill, amounted to $3.5 billion for the program last fiscal year. Schools have about three years to spend those funds.
Open to New Models
The four models were developed through the regulatory process, and finalized last fall.
Mr. Duncan said he might be open to a conversation about including other prescriptions down the line, as department officials learn more from the implementation of the four models already on the books. “I’m not set one way or the other,” Mr. Duncan said.
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.”
The models were included in the department’s blueprint released last March for revising the NCLB law.
Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union, commended Secretary Duncan for visiting schools implementing the models to get feedback on how they are working. While the teachers’ union supports the transformational model, it intends to work with schools using all four options, he said.
“I’m not going to ignore a school because they choose a model that I didn’t advocate for,” Mr. Van Roekel said.
But he said that the union will continue to push for more options in reauthorization.
“We think there ought to be more models rather than less,” he said.
Initially, a number of education organizations, including the NEA, asked for a more flexible “fifth option” that would allow schools to implement school improvement strategies backed up by research, not necessarily those that are spelled out in the grant regulations.
But the department dismissed that idea, saying that states had demonstrated little success in turning around schools during the eight-year history of the NCLB law. Under NCLB, states were permitted to try a handful of turnaround options, including school closures. But most opted for the flexible category of “other.”
Still, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have expressed skepticism about the models. For instance, U.S. Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said the models don’t offer enough leeway for rural schools, and aren’t backed by research.
And, at a hearing earlier this year, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee who will likely soon be the ranking minority member, said the models “need to be fleshed out” to include more emphasis on community involvement and collaboration. And he said that removing an “arbitrary” number of teachers might not be the right move. (“School Turnaround Models Draw Bipartisan Concern,” May 21, 2010.)
Turnaround in Action
One rural superintendent trying the turnaround model—Ricardo Z. Medina, the superintendent of the 19,000-student Coachella Valley Unified School District in Riverside County, Calif.—said the money has enabled him to try new approaches at West Shores High School, a 415-student school in a rural area of the county.
Mr. Medina said the school has long been difficult to staff so the money was used to replace 50 percent of the teachers, increase the length of the school day by one period, and provide two weeks of professional development to teachers before the school year started. With the increased hours and professional development demands, the teachers at that school earn about $10,000 more than their counterparts in other district schools. The principal, who had been hired just a year ago, has remained.
“We can find teachers—the question is, how long will they stay there?” Mr. Medina said. The federal grant money lasts for three years.
Without the assistance, the district would not have been able to make the changes that it did. However, Mr. Medina said that his district was able to shift the teachers who left the high school to other positions in the county. That might be more difficult to do in a smaller district with only one secondary school.
Staff writer Christina A. Samuels contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Rural Schools Get One-Fifth of Turnaround Grants