Turnaround-Program Data Seen as Promising, Though Preliminary

By Alyson Klein — January 11, 2011 5 min read

Initial data from the U.S. Department of Education on the $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program show that the federal turnaround grants haven’t gone just to schools in urban areas, or for less-drastic school improvement efforts.

But advocates say that while the information—detailing turnaround strategies selected by different kinds of schools—is helpful, it is still too early to gauge the effectiveness of the program developed under the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 to help schools that were perennially failing to meet the goals of the law.

The Obama administration has given the School Improvement Grants a complete makeover, including a one-time, $3 billion infusion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic-stimulus package passed in 2009, and a specific menu of four turnaround options from which schools can choose.

But the data don’t reflect the extent to which schools have implemented the turnaround prescriptions, said Justin Cohen, the president of the School Turnaround Group, part of the Boston-based Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, which is working with six states on turnarounds.

He said it will be more important to consider where a school stands after two years or more of carrying out an improvement program, as opposed to which model it used.

“It’s easier for reporters to pay attention to the option that gets selected, but not pay attention to how the school has changed,” Mr. Cohen said.

Competing Models

The Education Department’s release of the turnaround information Dec. 9 covered 44 states and over 730 schools. It did not include data from the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, or New Hampshire.

It showed that the most popular school improvement approach by far is the “transformational” model, which is widely considered to be the most flexible and generally is the least likely to require removal of staff members. Instead, schools are required to take actions such as increasing learning time and revamping their governance structure. Seventy-one percent of the schools are using that model, including the vast majority of rural schools in the program.

More than one-fifth of the schools—21 percent—are using the “turnaround” model, which is 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.

Less popular were the options of closing a school down entirely and sending the students elsewhere, and the “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 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.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he’s not dismayed that most schools chose the transformational model.

“Those choices have to be made community by community,” Secretary Duncan said in an interview.

Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the Education 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.”

Rural Concerns

Among the most frequent critics of the program are advocates for rural schools, who view it as urban-centered. They say that the four models, which, in some cases, require such actions as firing a school’s principal or shutting its doors entirely, don’t offer enough leeway for isolated schools.

Just over half the schools implementing the program in the 44 states since earlier in 2010—53 percent—are in urban areas, while 23 percent are in rural areas, and 24 percent are suburban schools.

Secretary Duncan 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, he argued.

The Education 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 grants were rural.

But champions of rural schools say they still want to see additional options.

“These models are very urban-centric,” said Robert Mahaffey, a spokesman for the Rural School and Community Trust, a research and advocacy organization based in Arlington, Va.

Mr. Mahaffey called for additional study of solutions that he says are already working for some rural schools, such as creating comprehensive community centers that offer a range of programs and services within the school facility.

Only three rural schools opted for the turnaround model, while 100 urban schools and 32 suburban schools picked that option.

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 schools using the transformational option are in suburbs, and 240 are in central-city areas.

The schools that chose the transformation 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 continuing support.

Rural educators 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 last month also suggest that students from a variety of racial and ethnic groups are benefiting from the program. Forty-four percent of the students served are African-American; 34 percent are Hispanic; 16.5 percent, white; 2.5 percent, Asian; and 2.2 percent, Native American, according to the department.

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Turnaround-Program Data Seen as Promising, Though Preliminary


Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
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.
Mathematics Webinar
Engaging Young Students to Accelerate Math Learning
Join learning scientists and inspiring district leaders, for a timely panel discussion addressing a school district’s approach to doubling and tripling Math gains during Covid. What started as a goal to address learning gaps in
Content provided by Age of Learning & Digital Promise, Harlingen CISD
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.
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal LGBTQ Students Are Protected by Federal Anti-Discrimination Law, Education Dept. Says
Schools violate Title IX when they discriminate against students based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the agency said Wednesday.
4 min read
Demonstrators gather on the step of the Montana State Capitol on March 15, 2021 protesting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Helena, Mont. The Montana Senate Judiciary Committee voted March 18 to advance two bills targeting transgender youth despite overwhelming testimony opposing the measures. The measures would ban gender affirming surgeries for transgender minors and ban transgender athletes from participating in school and college sports. Both bills have already passed the Montana House. They head next to votes by the GOP-controlled Montana Senate.
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Montana State Capitol in March to protest bills on transgender students' ability to play on single-sex sports teams.
Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP
Federal What's at Stake in a Review of Federal Sex Discrimination Protections for Students
The Biden administration's review of Title IX may prompt new guidance on how schools deal with sexual harassment and protect LGBTQ students.
10 min read
Image of gender symbols drawn in chalk.
Federal Opinion Education Outlets Owe Readers More Than the Narratives They Want to Hear
It's vital that serious news organizations challenge runaway narratives and help readers avoid going down ideological rabbit holes.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Federal As GOP Leaves K-12 Out of Its Infrastructure Plan, Advocates Look For Alternatives
The GOP is proposing $1 trillion in federal dollars for the nation's infrastructure, but school buildings aren't part of their proposal.
6 min read
A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C..
A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C.
Alex Boerner for Education Week