Special Report

School Turnaround Push Still a Work in Progress

By Alyson Klein — April 15, 2012 16 min read
Seventh grader Jasmine Dukes, center, waits in line with classmates at Friendship Preparatory Academy in Baltimore. The school used federal School Improvement Grant money for improvements such as installing white boards, painting the hallways, replacing flooring, and paying for classroom libraries.
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The federal program providing billions of dollars to help states and districts close or remake some of their worst-performing schools remains a work in progress after two years, with more than 1,200 turnaround efforts under way but still no definitive verdict on its effectiveness.

The School Improvement Grant program, supercharged by a windfall of $3 billion under the federal economic-stimulus package in 2009, has jump-started aggressive moves by states and districts. To get their share of the SIG money, they had to quickly identify some of their most academically troubled schools, craft new teacher-evaluation systems, and carve out more time for instruction, among other steps.

Some schools and districts spent millions of dollars on outside experts and consultants. Others went through the politically ticklish process of replacing teachers and principals, while combating community skepticism and meeting the demands of district and state overseers.

It’s not at all clear if the federal prescription can cure the most ailing schools and lead to long-term improvements, but preliminary student-achievement data for the program offer some promise. The U.S. Department of Education looked at about 700 of the schools in their second year of the program and found that a quarter of them posted double-digit gains in math during the 2010-11 school year. Another 20 percent showed similar progress in reading.

But a report last week by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, found that a number of states renewed grants for schools that didn’t meet annual goals and said states need more Education Department guidance in making those decisions.

A collaborative reporting project drawing on the efforts of more than 20 news organizations and affiliated journalists paints a mixed picture of how the SIG program is playing out on the ground. The major findings show:

• States have pulled SIG money from at least a dozen schools that showed anemic progress on early indicators of success, such as teacher and student attendance, the Education Department says.

• Five schools in Pueblo City, Colo., have seen student performance sink even lower after awarding a $7.4 million grant to an outside provider.

• A plan for a new teacher-evaluation system in New York City led to a temporary loss in turnaround funding after city officials clashed with the local teachers’ union.

• Schools nationwide, especially those in rural areas, are wrestling with personnel and leadership changes driven by the program’s requirements, along with a mandate to add extra time to the instructional day.

Still, the SIG program’s supporters can point to encouraging—though early—developments.

About This Project

Education Week, the Education Writers Association, and The Hechinger Report partnered with 18 news outlets in 16 states to examine how $3 billion in federal School improvement Grants is being used in efforts to revitalize some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools. In interviews with scores of teachers, students, researchers, and education officials at all levels of government, reporters set out to determine how the money is being spent and whether the changes the SIG program sparks are likely to last. For the complete series, visit the Turnaround Watch page.

In Louisville, Ky., a handful of long-troubled schools posted double-digit gains in state math scores after just one year in the program. An elementary school in an isolated corner of Colorado saw a 9-point spike in its state math scores and smaller gains in other subjects.

Other schools haven’t seen big jumps in achievement but are beginning to glimpse a new school culture, including improved discipline and attendance. Some of the best early reviews come from students, who say their schools are calmer and more academically rigorous.

“I feel more safe, and I feel like I’m learning more. They are starting to have challenges for us,” said Jasmine Dukes, a 7th grader at Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton, formerly Calverton Middle School, in Baltimore.

‘Significant Movement’

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also sees signs of recovery in schools across the country, even as he cautions that it’s still too early to draw conclusions about the program’s effectiveness.

“Big picture, there’s really significant movement in a very short amount of time, which I think a lot of folks felt wasn’t possible,” Mr. Duncan said. But he doesn’t expect overnight success: “This is really, really hard work; there’s a reason the country took a pass on this for a couple of decades.”

All of which argues for caution in assessing the program’s effectiveness so far.

“There’s evidence on both sides of the coin,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, and a leading researcher on school improvement. “This is not the Oldsmobile of comprehensive school reform. ... [This is] a souped-up model coming hard and fast and getting big changes quick. ... The big question is whether those changes are going to lead to improvement.”

The current SIG program is a bolder version of a once-sleepy program created under the No Child Left Behind Act a decade ago to help states turn around their lowest-performing schools. In its original form, the program never topped $500 million in federal funding—less than 1 percent of current federal education spending overall.

But in 2009, federal lawmakers—in passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and with little debate—poured an additional $3 billion into SIG. That sent districts scrambling for a share of the three-year competitive grants, worth up to $2 million annually to perennially struggling schools.

The cash came with new, tighter strings. Eligible schools—identified through a complex, multi-tiered process—are among what the Education Department often describes as a state’s bottom 5 percent academically. Schools taking the money have to adopt one of four controversial improvement models.

In some cases, at least half of a school’s teaching staff must be replaced. A school might be turned into a charter school—or shut down. And no matter which option is chosen, a school’s principal must be removed, unless that person has been on the job for less than three years.

Federal officials defend that prescriptive approach. They say that, in the past, states had failed to pick rigorous turnaround options—such as taking over a school or turning it into a charter—when given a broader menu of choices.

“Schools literally got worse,” said Secretary Duncan. “The children that need the most help, the majority of them, got less help than before. That was absolutely crazy to me; that’s what I was fighting against” in overhauling the SIG program.

So far, the Education Department has examined results for about 700 of the 850 schools that joined the program in 2010-11. During the first year of the program, the proportion of students who were proficient in math or reading went up in roughly 60 percent of SIG schools, Mr. Duncan said.

But some state and local leaders still chafe at what they see as a heavy-handed federal approach.

“It’s too restrictive. They mandated these models before they even researched them,” said Keith Rheault, who served more than a decade as Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction before retiring this month. “We’re testing it out.”

From the get-go, the program has been denounced on Capitol Hill as Exhibit A for those arguing against federal overreach in K-12 education. Congressional critics—Democrats and Republicans alike—assail what they see as arbitrary staffing requirements, a lack of options for rural schools, and a wobbly research base. The program is almost certain to get an extreme makeover, and its funding remains in jeopardy.

Still, most urban school district officials think the program has the potential to deliver lasting change to long-foundering schools, according to a survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, a group in Washington that represents the nation’s large urban school districts.

Some state leaders are upbeat as well. “Overall, I’m optimistic and positive about the grants,” said Mark Coscarella, the assistant director in the office of education improvement and innovation at the Michigan education department. “I think we’ve seen schools really take on the challenge of making some really important improvements.”

Time Crunch

Schools have made big changes against a tight clock due to the program’s genesis: the 2009 stimulus package, which sought to pump job-boosting federal money into the economy. The grants run for three years, but some school districts got their money just weeks before the start of the 2010-11 school year.

That left many districts with little time to find principals or teachers and sell the improvement measures to the community. A report last year by the GAO, criticized the federal Education Department for taking too long to process applications, giving districts and schools too little time to figure out the program’s tricky framework.

Jasmine Dukes, a 7th grader at Friendship Preparatory Academy in Baltimore, answers a discussion question in Shayla Shelton's language arts class. The school is among hundreds around the country participating in the federal School Improvement Grant program, aimed at helping to turn around some of the nation's lowest-performing schools.

Local school leaders say they are still recovering from the crunch.

“There’s a lot to do in a short period of time,” said Philip Yaccick, the principal of Weston Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Detroit, which received a $1.8 million SIG grant. “In an ordinary situation, there’s a little more time to create the change, but then also [to] implement and solidify the change.”

But federal officials defend the fast pace from both a job-creation and school turnaround standpoint.

“Our children had waited too long. We realized we should not—we could not—wait any longer,” said Jason Snyder, a deputy assistant secretary in the Education Department’s office of elementary and secondary education.

States have also grappled with whether to renew grants for schools that aren’t progressing, according to a separate GAO report released April 11. The report called on the department to do a better job of spelling out how states should make “evidence-based” decisions about whether to remove schools’ grants. And it found that among 23 of the 44 states responding to a GAO question about such decisions, most or all the schools that had their funding renewed failed to meet annual goals.

In a formal response, Michael Yudin, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, called that GAO report “incomplete and somewhat misleading.” But he agreed that the Education Department needs to do a better job of helping districts and states decide when to pull the plug on a grant.

Personnel Hurdles

Districts and schools have had the toughest time with the SIG program’s human-resources requirements, which demand big changes in staffing under all four of the federal models.

Even the most flexible of those models—"transformation,” the one chosen by nearly three-quarters of participating schools—requires districts to devise teacher-evaluation systems that take student performance into account.

The task proved so tough that last August the Education Department gave states and districts until the start of the 2013-14 school year to have the systems fully in place for use in decisions on teacher compensation and retention.

But the process has been rocky: Earlier this year, New York state for a time withheld SIG money from New York City when the local teachers’ union and the district struggled to reach agreement on an evaluation system.

Under a number of models, districts and schools have struggled to replace long-serving teachers and principals. More than half the participating large urban districts said they didn’t have enough time to hire qualified staff members, according to the survey by the urban schools’ group.

Some schools using the second-most-popular option—"turnaround,” which calls for getting rid of at least half a school’s staff—scrambled to fill slots, or hired scores of novice teachers. For example, an analysis by the The Courier-Journal, of Louisville, Ky., found that 60 new hires across seven SIG schools, or more than 40 percent, were new to the profession.

To lure qualified educators, some districts, including Nevada’s Clark County, spent SIG funding on signing bonuses to attract experienced teachers. Indiana and other states turned to alternative training programs such as Teach For America, a New York City-based nonprofit group that places new college graduates in under-resourced schools.

Rural schools, which account for about a fifth of SIG schools overall, have opted mainly for the flexible “transformation” model, which doesn’t call for a big staffing shake-up but requires schools to replace the principal, create new teacher-evaluation systems, and add learning time to the school day.

“We’re not Denver,” said George Welsh, the superintendent of the 600-student Center Consolidated school district, which has a single elementary school. “We didn’t think that just firing half of our teachers and hiring whatever was available out there was necessarily going to be a higher-quality option than what we currently have.”

Management Demands

Finding principals with track records in turnarounds has also been tough. In some cases, districts shuffled principals from one SIG school to another: In New York City, the new leader for Grover Cleveland High School came from Queens Vocational High School, another school getting federal improvement funds.

Other places saw high turnover or had jobs sit vacant while districts searched for the right candidate. DePue High School, in the town of DePue, Ill., didn’t find a new principal until its second year in the program. Some local leaders remain skeptical of the principal-removal requirement.

“I question the research behind that particular element,” said Barbara VanSweden, the superintendent of the Fitzgerald district, in the Detroit metropolitan area. “I look at our situation and the fact that our principal has begun to make improvements in the area of student achievement.”

But others see the approach as promising. More than half of 46 state Title I directors—who oversee programs for disadvantaged students—said that replacing the principal was a key element to improving student achievement in “transformation” and “turnaround” schools, according to a survey by the Center on Education Policy.

Even interventions with broader political support—such as adding more learning time to the school day—have bumped up against realities such as teacher contracts and bus schedules. Some schools have simply juggled instructional time already in their schedules.

Other schools funneled their dollars into before- or after-school programs. Memorial Middle School, in Orlando, Fla., now has a “zero” period at the start of the day, a time when students can come an hour early and work on reading and math skills using computer programs, or finish homework.

Still other schools have added time to the regular day—though sometimes not much. West Seattle Elementary School in Washington state used its SIG grant to add four days to the school year and an extra 15 minutes every day.

“Some people might say, ‘Oh, 15 minutes, that’s nothing,’ ” said the Seattle school’s principal, Vicki Sacco. “But every moment counts.”

Paying Outsiders

Pressed to put $3 billion in SIG money to use on a tight deadline, states enlisted an array of consultants, including for-profit companies, nonprofit turnaround specialists, and postsecondary institutions.

But tracking that cash—and determining whether schools have gotten their money’s worth—remains daunting. The federal government does not tally how private educational consultants have benefited from the turnaround windfall, nor do most states, according to an analysis published in February by The Denver Post. In about 15 states that agreed to tally such spending, an average of roughly 25 percent of all SIG money went to private consultants.

In Colorado—one of the few states to calculate how private educational consultants have benefited from the SIG program—consultants took home $9.4 million, or 35 percent, of the state’s $26.6 million in SIG money in the past two years, the analysis found. The Education Department requires states to review contractors in the tiny fraction of schools using the “restart” model, but not for the two most popular of the four SIG models—transformation and turnaround—which are being used at more than 90 percent of SIG schools.

For its most recent report, GAO officials spoke with eight states, none of which assessed districts’ plans to review contractors as part of their SIG applications.

“Inconsistent review of contractors during contract performance reduces states’ and districts’ ability to ensure that they are receiving the services they have paid for,” the GAO wrote.

In his response to the report, Mr. Yudin said that states and districts are already required to monitor grant implementation, including the performance of outside contractors.

The SIG program has seen some well-publicized stumbles along the way. Several news organizations, for example, have looked at the experience of one consultant working in SIG schools in Colorado, the New York City-based Global Partnership Schools.

GPS was founded by Rudy Crew, a former head of the New York City and Miami school systems, and Manuel Rivera, a former superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., schools. (Mr. Crew left the company last fall.) The company operates SIG schools in Baltimore; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Pueblo, Colo.

In Pueblo, for example, where GPS has a $7.4 million contract, student performance slipped further at five of the six schools the company operates, The Denver Post reported.

At the GPS-operated school in Baltimore, Garrison Middle School, nearly every indicator of quality has dropped since GPS took over in 2010, The Baltimore Sun found.

But GPS seems to have had much more success at Harding High School in Bridgeport, where early indicators, such as attendance and school climate, have improved, according to staff and students, The Connecticut Mirror reported.

In an email to Education Week, Mr. Rivera said that turning around a school is a lengthy process and that states shouldn’t expect big changes in student achievement overnight.

“Some of the most-respected researchers in America concur that transforming or turning around a chronically low-performing school is a multiyear process,” he said.

States also have taken some steps to address provider quality. Fourteen states have offered districts an approved list of outside providers, according to the CEP survey of Title I directors.

Mr. Snyder, the federal Education Department’s SIG chief, said that districts have brought in outside providers to help with the “challenging work” of turning around schools.

The program “gives districts the flexibility, through a rigorous screening process, to seek outside help that will meet their localneeds,” Mr. Snyder said. “And on the rare occasion that an external provider doesn’t work out, we have seen districts end that relationship and find another solution.”

Future in Doubt

Meanwhile, the turnaround program is on thin ice on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are sympathetic to those clamoring for greater local flexibility on turnarounds, including teachers’ unions, principals’ organizations, and advocates for district and state officials.

“We’re concerned that locking into a specific set of models might hinder innovation in the school turnaround space,” said Peter Zamora, the director of federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The Obama administration has made its vision of the School Improvement Grant program—with its four signature models—a top priority in proposals to rewrite the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But the headwinds are strong. Some in the Senate lean toward more flexibility, while House Republicans have sought to defund the program entirely.

Even if the program survives, the nation’s lowest-performing schools may never see another turnaround bonanza like the stimulus law’s $3 billion in SIG money.

That has local officials already worrying about what may happen when the dollars disappear.

Lionel Jackson Jr., the principal of Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts High, in Baltimore, said, “The important question is: If this all goes away, can we keep up the momentum?”

This article was produced by Education Week, The Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association. Additional reporting was contributed by Liz Bowie and Erica Green of the Baltimore Sun, Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago, Antoinette Konz of The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Jennifer Brown of The Denver Post, Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press, Nancy Mitchell of Education News Colorado, Rachel Cromidas and Philissa Cramer of GothamSchools, Scott Elliott of The Indianapolis Star, Paul Takahashi of the Las Vegas Sun, Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinel, Jennifer Jordan of The Providence Journal, and Brian Rosenthal of The Seattle Times.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Turnaround Momentum Still Fragile


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