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Tight Leash Likely On Turnaround Aid

By Michele McNeil — August 26, 2009 6 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last week that he plans to demand radical steps—such as firing most of a school’s staff or converting it to a charter school—as the price of admission in directing $3.5 billion in new school improvement aid to the nation’s 5,000 worst-performing schools.

In sharp contrast to the current free-flowing nature of Title I school improvement aid, the education secretary is proposing strict conditions on the new funds, which would not only be aimed at elementary schools, but also at what he termed high school “dropout factories” and the middle schools that feed into them.

In exchange, the federal Department of Education could waive key components of the Title I program, such as the requirement that schools needing improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act offer tutoring and public school choice, according to draft regulations released last week.

The school improvement grants are made possible by $3 billion from the economic-stimulus package and $546 million from fiscal 2009 appropriations—and are meant to be spent by school districts over the next three years. The money will flow to states based on the Title I formula for aid to disadvantaged students, but states will award the money competitively to local districts.

Historically, school improvement grant money has flowed to school districts with little to no strong direction from the federal government, so the proposed new regulations mark a sea change for these grants. And never before has the amount of money dedicated to school improvement been so large.

Four Restructuring Models

The regulations are aimed at turning around the worst schools, specifically those in each state that rank in the bottom 5 percent for achievement. However, school improvement grants—which will amount to a maximum of $500,000 a year per school—are also available for struggling Title I schools that do not rank so near the bottom.

Title I and School Improvement

Under proposed Education Department guidelines, school districts, with a few exceptions, would have to adopt one of four “rigorous interventions” to qualify for some of the $3.5 billion in Title I school improvement grants that would be spent over the next three years.

Turnaround Model: This would include among other actions, 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.

School Closure: The district would shut down a failing school and enroll its students in high-achieving schools in the district.

Restart Model: School districts would close failing schools and reopen them under the management of a charter school operator, a charter management organization or an educational management organization selected through a rigorous review process.

Transformational Model: Districts would address four specific areas: 1) developing teacher and school leader effectiveness, which includes replacing the principal and requiring student achievement growth to be used to reward and dismiss teachers, 2) implementing comprehensive instructional reform strategies, 3) extending learning and teacher planning time and creating community-oriented schools, and 4) providing operating flexibility and sustained support.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

The department is demanding the most radical change from the bottom 5 percent. Those schools would have to agree to adopt one of four restructuring models: close the school and send students to higher-achieving schools; turn it around by replacing the principal and most of the staff; “restart” the school by turning it over to a charter- or education-management organization; or implement a mandatory basket of strategies labeled “transformation.”

“We’re going to provide a range of concrete options,” said Mr. Duncan, who frequently says he does not want to dictate education reform from Washington.

He added that the department’s four proposed turnaround models are based on an analysis of what kind of programs are working at the local level. “The right solution is going to vary district by district. ... The answers might be very different in each school.”

But while many public school advocates cheer the targeting of federal dollars to the country’s lowest-performing schools, they also question how some of the components will work.

Mary Kusler, the assistant director for advocacy and policy for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, said collective bargaining agreements and laws in many states and school districts could complicate efforts to replace staff members.

And on a broader level, Ms. Kusler recalled how Secretary Duncan has repeatedly criticized the No Child Left Behind Act as too prescriptive.

“While we support the regulations, they seem to be much tighter on both the goals and how you get there, and that doesn’t seem to match what Secretary Duncan has been saying since he came into the position,” she said.

All four reform models being proposed by the department zero in on one key component of a school: the principal. Unless a massive restructuring is already under way, each reform model calls for the replacement of the principal.

On one hand, this is heartening to Diane Cargile, a 24-year veteran of the school principal’s job and the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, in Alexandria, Va.

“We have always realized that the principal is the primary catalyst for shaping the long-term impact of school improvement,” said Ms. Cargile, who is in her ninth year as principal of Rio Grande Elementary School in Terre Haute, Ind.

But removing a principal isn’t a magic bullet, either, she said, as good principals need the right talent and time to let reforms work. “If you put another principal in the same environment without changing the circumstances, they won’t be successful.”

‘Radical Change’

Each of the proposed reform models mirrors the steps schools are supposed to take under the NCLB law when they enter the restructuring phase, which is triggered after five consecutive years of failing to make adequate yearly progress.

This time, however, the restructuring isn’t a consequence, but a part of a $3.5 billion incentive program to get schools to change their ways.

“Under NCLB, very little sort of radical change happened across the country,” said Mr. Duncan. Although pockets of schools may have undertaken such change, he added, the results haven’t been systemic. “With these [failing] schools, just tinkering around the edges isn’t sufficient.”

The regulations, which will be open for public comment until Sept. 25, speak directly to his goal of turning around the nation’s 5,000 worst schools.

And Mr. Duncan, a former chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools who frequently cites his district’s experience at turning around failing schools, said he recognizes that the problem isn’t just an urban one. About half the worst schools are in urban areas, he said, but 20 percent are in suburban areas, while 30 percent are in rural communities.

“This is not an urban strategy,” Mr. Duncan said. “This is not an urban problem. This is a national problem.”

While prescriptive, the new regulations also contain some flexibility.

School districts would have a big incentive to choose the “turnaround” or “restart” model because states could apply for a waiver from the Education Department to have that school’s improvement clock restarted under the NCLB law. As a result, the school would no longer need to provide public school choice or supplemental educational services to students—often considered controversial consequences of not making AYP.

Also, a school that doesn’t have a large enough concentration of poverty to operate a schoolwide Title I program could be allowed to use the new Title I grant money for schoolwide initiatives if the state sought a waiver from federal officials.

Finally, some flexibility would be given to schools that have, within the last two years, started one of the four restructuring models. For example, if a school last year replaced its principal and most of its staff, it would not have to do so again to win a grant.

Targeted for Assistance

In identifying which schools would be eligible for the money, the department would require states to give preference to the lowest-achieving 5 percent of schools in the state, including middle and high schools. Although other low-performing schools could be eligible for money, too, they would not have to agree to adopt one of the four reform models.

“We’re offering districts the opportunity to reform their dropout factories,” Mr. Duncan said of the department’s emphasis on reforming the nation’s worst high schools.

To encourage school systems to use a variety of reform strategies, districts that have nine or more Title I schools in school improvement under the NCLB law would be barred from using the same turnaround model for all schools.

For accountability purposes, schools, districts, and states wouldbe required to monitor and track student-achievement data as it relates to the use of the school improvement funds. In addition, the Education Department would undertake a national evaluation of the grants.

Researchers who have studied how schools try to restructure themselves caution that there is no magic formula to success.

“I think it’s really important to point out that education research doesn’t really point to an easy fix,” said Caitlin Scott, a consultant who has studied school restructuring efforts for the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. “We shouldn’t expect these options would really create miracles.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week

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