Blog: The Educated Reporter

Center on Education Policy Report Tackles School Turnaround

There is a valuable report out today from the Center on Education Policy, looking at school district perceptions of a new federal grant program intended to help the lowest-performing campuses. (Click here for the link.)

One of the often-repeated phrases in education reform circles is that it takes about three years for seeds to bear fruit. In the new CEP report, most of the educators surveyed said that’s not enough time to turn around the lowest-achieving high schools (look for Figure 7in the report). But think of that three-year assertion another way: Parents of freshmen might have to wait until their children are seniors to know if there are measurable gains in overall school achievement.

When Race To The Top was first announced, followed by the innovation initiative and then the turnaround grants, I wondered about equity. What would happen in districts that don’t have grant writers on staff, have a shortage of motivated campus leaders or can’t find the necessary community partners to support reforms? Would the shift to competitive funding mean less money reaching the neediest students?

According to the CEP report, school districts are willing to ask for outside help — and to hire it (check out Figure 6). Will this mean another gold rush for education management companies, similar to the trends we’ve seenin for-profit charter schools, online learning programs and NCLB-mandated tutoring services? Those industries have all been criticized to some degree for a lack of oversight and accountability. Will the improvement grant boom result in similar challenges?

The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program gives districts four options: to “restart” the campus with an outside operator, such as a charter school, in charge; to “turnaround” a school by replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff; to “transform” the campus with a new principal and new educational philosophy; or to close a school outright and use federal money to provide those students with educational alternatives.

Certainly the last scenario is the most dire. But in most communities, according to the CEP report, fears that there would be a rash of school closures haven’t materialized.

In fact, of the districts implementing SIG funding, only 12 percent had any schools that chose the closure option. The transformation model was by far the most popular,with 76 percent of districts using it in at least one school. Turnaround schools made up 42 percent, and 23 percent of schools opted to restart with an outside operator.

No one likes to talk about it, but we all know schools where it might actually be best if the doors simply shut and didn’t reopen. However, closing schools — and using the federal grant money to make room for more students at a district’s campuses that are thriving already– probably doesn’t make superintendents popular.

It’s too soon to tell whether any of these changes will make a difference. But in the meantime, I have questions: Why should this year’s freshmen have to wait until they are seniors to see their school achieve? Is it fair to make them the latest guinea pigs in the seemingly never-ending cycle of reform after reform after reform? If the clock continually restarts with every new initiative, how is progress ever truly measured?