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Your editor doesn’t exactly share the same pessimistic view offered by Beltway policy types such as Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education of the latest results on the School Improvement Grant program released by the U.S. Department of Education. For one, the data only covers one year of the federal school reform initiative (2009-2010-to 2010-2011), not nearly enough data to come to a whole lot of strong conclusions. The fact that 70 percent of the elementary grade failure mills being turned around under the effort have shown single- and double-digit improvements in reading and math performance should be heartening to anyone who wants to see our children in those schools get teaching and curricula worthy of their lives. If anything, one can certainly make the case that the Obama administration should gear future rounds of SIG toward overhauling elementary schools and toward providing children in the early grades with the reading and math interventions they need before they head into fourth grade, middle school, and high school grades.

All that said, there is nothing shocking about the fact that SIG’s overall performance so far has been anything but a great overall success. As seen in the evidence that just three out of every five middle- and high schools being turned around under the $3.6 billion program have made some sort of progress in improving student achievement in reading, it is extremely difficult to help children turn around their performance after being subjected to years of educational neglect and malpractice. Unless the schools engage in intensive reading and math remediation with students, simply engaging in some curricula changes  (and offering some additional training to laggard teachers) will do nothing to help these kids onto the path to college and career success.

The bigger issue lies with the nature of SIG itself — and its entire approach to systemic reform. As I noted two years ago in an The American Spectator column, only one of the four models offered under SIG — shutting down dropout factories and failure mills, and then replacing them with traditional public and charter schools — likely works. While the other three models — including the so-called Transformative approach of revamping curricula and providing teachers with more so-called professional development — may be more-appealing to traditional districts, those other approaches were unlikely to yield strong results.

This has been proven ad nauseam over the past three decades. In Indianapolis, for example, Emmerich Manual High School remained one of the worst-performing schools in the nation even after Indianapolis Public Schools attempted several turnarounds since the 1980s; the school may have a chance now thanks to the move by Indiana Supt. Tony Bennett last year to remove the school out of the district’s control. The infamous Eastside High School in Patterson, N.J. remains a mess even after famed school leader Joe Clark temporarily improved the school, and gained notoriety for his bat-wielding ways.

The reality is that school turnarounds, like those in Corporate America, are unlikely to yield real results. Just eight percent of laggard traditional district schools and nine percent of failing charter counterparts identified in 2003-2004 were successfully turned around six years later, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in its seminal tome on transforming failing schools. A mere 11 percent of California elementary schools forced by state officials to undergo turnarounds made “exemplary progress” three years later, according to Smarick in his famed text on school turnarounds.

The reasons why failing schools such as those in SIG are unlikely to be turned around over time has been made clear by Dropout Nation over the past couple of years. It starts with the fact that the turnarounds are overseen by the very districts that managed the schools into academic failure in the first place. Expecting a failing district to somehow revamp failing schools — especially when it isn’t overhauling its own operations — is simply insane. The fact that the same incompetence at the school is usually mirrored by central office bureaucrats who fail to embrace private-sector techniques for managing teaching staffs (and everything else) is also a factor. A district that isn’t willing to overhaul how it uses data in evaluating and structuring the work of teachers is unlikely to engage successfully in school turnarounds. One can imagine that New York City (which has been aggressively and successfully turning around its school operations) is more-likely to do reap more success in turning around schools than the ever-woeful IPS.

Even when reform-minded school leaders are put in place at the district level, the very dysfunction that has been endemic in the bureaucracy is difficult to remove and overcome. This is a culture problem. Culture, especially that which is toxic, will overcome any one individual’s effort to go against the grain and can even overcome the efforts of a rival culture to put it asunder; this is especially true in situations in which the methods by which one can easily remove the elements of culture cannot be used easily (if at all). This is especially true when the reform-minded school superintendent at the helm cannot count on the support of school boards beholden to traditionalist interests such as affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Once again, I must echo the words of my former editor at Forbes, Seth Lubove , that the proverbial inmates remain in charge even as the wardens change.

Let’s also not forget the role of state governments in fostering conditions for overhauling schools and districts. This starts with being robust environments for systemic reform. If a state isn’t willing to push to overhaul the policies it has put in place that often structure how districts operate, then school (and even district) turnarounds will be tough going. Then there is the role of state education agencies in overseeing school turnarounds. Given that most state education departments lack the capacity to oversee how a district is overhauling its schools, it is unlikely that districts will be kept on task. Even if a state education agency goes so far and takes over a district’s operations, offers little hope that school turnarounds will happen. New Jersey’s oversight of district overhauls in Jersey City and Newark, for example, remain examples of what not to do.

Again, as I’ve noted, the SIG results are still rather preliminary. It takes about five years for any program to show any real success. But given that President Barack Obama touted SIG as a success on the campaign trail — and considering that the Obama administration’s other signature reform effort, Race to the Top, has actually been a success in its third year — the mixed results of the federal school turnaround program forces the president and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan into an uncomfortable position. Especially amid the growing discontent among centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented reformers over the bust that is the gambit to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions, and the likelihood of House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline renewing his effort to end funding for SIG altogether, a stance shared by some on the Senate Democrat side.

Obama and Duncan would be better off following your editor’s advice and overhauling SIG to embrace a focus on elementary schools, or even merge SIG into the Promise Families initiative which has more support from both reformers and traditionalists (and puts money into efforts that may actually do more to help poor and minority kids, in particular, get high-quality education). Another idea may be to revamp SIG into a Parent Power initiative, providing dollars to families who initiate school turnarounds on their own; this could be helped by requiring states who want future Race to the Top dollars to enact Parent Trigger laws. Even making SIG into an effort to encourage the expansion of online and blended learning options (along with DIY education efforts) would make sense. After all, it is high time to move away from the failure of scale and dysfunction that is the traditional district model, and embrace the Hollywood Model of Education instead.

At this point, staying the course on SIG is probably not advisable. Or given the political and fiscal environment, even possible.

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