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

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