Special Report
Education Funding

Schools Stuck at Bottom Target of $3 Billion Push

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 05, 2010 4 min read

It’s an unprecedented gamble by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: $3 billion in federal economic-stimulus money aimed at one of the most vexing issues in public education, turning around large numbers of chronically underperforming schools.

The infusion of federal money is intended to supercharge state and district efforts to overhaul their worst-performing schools under a new set of Title I School Improvement Grants. An additional $546 million for the grants has been appropriated for fiscal years 2009 and 2010, and some states will also secure varying amounts of aid for school turnaround efforts under the $4 billion Race to the Top grant competition.

Some observers, however, warn that states and local districts that avoid aggressive interventions such as replacing at least half of a school’s teachers or converting schools to charters—may squander their money and the opportunity to truly fix their ailing schools.

Schools and the Stimulus:
A Midterm Report
Overview
Dueling Objectives Mark Stimulus at Halfway Point
The Impact So Far
Multiple Stimulus Aid Streams Flow to Ed Tech
Private Sector Competes for Share of Stimulus Pie
Spec. Ed., Title I Aid Casts Long Stimulus Shadow
Stimulus Reflects Push for Teacher Effectiveness
Schools Stuck at Bottom Target of $3 Billion Push
Aid Lets Hard-Hit State Keep Programs Aloft
Fiscal Stability Allows for Long View on Stimulus
The Road Ahead
As Education’s Funding Cliff Nears, Anxieties Rise
Race to Top Sets Stage for ESEA Reauthorization
Web Extras
Live Webinar: Is the Stimulus Metting Its K-12 Goals?
Live Chat: Schools and the Stimulus: A Midterm Report
Interactive Map: Follow the Stimulus Money
Videos on the Stimulus

“We now have both a spotlight and funding for this issue, neither of which existed before Secretary Duncan took office,” said William E. Guenther, the president of the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a Boston group that designed a turnaround framework in 2007 and is helping states use its strategies. “The big risk is that too many states and districts will continue to take the safety-valve option that was available under [the federal No Child Left Behind Act] and use a more limited intervention.”

Four Turnaround Models

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, most districts opted for lighter-touch interventions that avoid measures such as principal and teacher firings or conversion to charter status for schools that were identified as failing. Instead, they have focused on making changes to curriculum and instruction and providing professional development to teachers. Few of those efforts resulted in dramatic improvement.

Under the U.S. Department of Education’s final rules for the stimulus-related Title I School Improvement Grants and the Race to the Top grants, states and districts will have to abide by fairly strict conditions in how they approach school turnaround. They must select from four turnaround strategies that have sparked widespread debate in the field.

The transformation model is one that many educators prefer and that critics decry as preserving the status quo: providing professional development and coaching for a school’s staff members and making changes to curriculum and instruction.

Secretary Duncan originally sought to make that sort of “transformation” approach a last resort to be used only if the three other, models—replacing the school’s principal and at least half its teachers, reopening the school under a charter operator or other outside manager, or shutting down the school—were not feasible. Still, the department will require that a school targeted for a transformation-style turnaround must replace the principal. And in districts with more than nine “persistently low-achieving schools,” the strategy could not be used in more than half of the schools, a limit that would apply to most urban districts.

But removing the school leader, some say, isn’t always necessary and may be impossible for small, rural districts that struggle to recruit new talent.

“It’s the system, not the people,” said John Simmons, the president of Strategic Learning Initiatives, a nonprofit organization in Chicago that has partnered with that city’s school system since 2006 to turn around 10 K-8 schools. “When you look deeply at why these schools aren’t improving, you find that people have been willing to improve, and that when you give them the proper support and model, they get excited about change.”

Quality Over Quantity

States had until Feb. 8 to apply for the school improvement grant money and will begin awarding their share to districts by May. The bulk of the money will be headed for schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent for achievement. States can direct the grants not only at elementary campuses, but also at middle schools and at what are often called high school “dropout factories”—those that routinely graduate 60 percent or fewer of their students.

But the grants—which could total as much as $2 million per year per school—will also be available to struggling schools that aren’t ranked so near the bottom.

When Mr. Duncan began his push last year to turn around the nation’s worst-performing schools, he set a bullish goal that called for targeting 1,000 schools a year. At that rate, he said, the 5,000 lowest achievers could be dramatically improved within five years.

But in a wide-ranging interview with Education Week reporters late last year, the secretary acknowledged the challenges of reaching that many schools in such a short time, especially as questions arose about the capacity and will of charter school operators and others to shoulder such turnaround work.

“I would tell you that 1,000 [schools] for fall 2010 would prove absolutely impossible to do well,” Mr. Duncan said. “So, whatever the number ends up being, ... that’s irrelevant to me, frankly. Let’s do the best we can. ... I’m much more interested in quality than quantity.”

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Schools Stuck at Bottom Target of $3 Billion Push

Events

Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Principals Can Support Student Well-Being During COVID
Join this webinar for tips on how to support and prioritize student health and well-being during COVID.
Content provided by Unruly Studios

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Interdisciplinary STEAM Specialist
Smyrna, Georgia
St. Benedict's Episcopal School
Interdisciplinary STEAM Specialist
Smyrna, Georgia
St. Benedict's Episcopal School
Arizona School Data Analyst - (AZVA)
Arizona, United States
K12 Inc.
Software Engineer
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association

Read Next

Education Funding Opinion What's It Take for Philanthropy to Help Rural Schools?
Place-based philanthropy has enormous potential to revitalize rural communities. The trick is, it’s tough to get this sort of approach right.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Education Funding Summer School, Extended Learning a Priority in $129 Billion COVID-19 Relief Bill
The reconciliation bill from House Democrats is an early attempt at what's shaping up to be a new federal aid package for education.
5 min read
A staff member holds the door open for kids on the first day of school at Goodwin Frazier Elementary School in New Braunfels, Texas on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.
A staff member holds the door open for kids on the first day of school at Goodwin Frazier Elementary School in New Braunfels, Texas on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.
Mikala Compton/Herald-Zeitung via AP
Education Funding Details of Biden's Education Relief Pitch Prioritize Smaller Classes, Avoiding Layoffs
The administration's breakdown of COVID-19 needs also includes $50 billion for social distancing and $29 billion for learning recovery.
5 min read
Image of the White House seal
Bet Noire/Getty
Education Funding Lawmakers Push $75 Billion for Learning Recovery Among Trio of COVID-19 Bills
The legislation, which also covers school infrastructure and education jobs, could become the vehicle for Biden's K-12 relief plan.
6 min read
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., speaks during a news conference in Washington on June 24, 2020.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., speaks during a news conference in Washington on June 24, 2020.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP