There’s plenty of chatter today about the possibility that House and Senate education committee leaders have reached a deal on a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Based on what your editor has learned, the proposal is likely to be a roll-back of the strong accountability measures that have spurred a decade of reforms that have helped more children succeed. But given that passage of the plan is still unlikely, your editor will offer more-comprehensive thoughts once an actual bill comes out.
Yet there is still a lot to discuss when it comes to the federal role in education policymaking, this time, courtesy of results released recently by the Obama Administration on the progress of the School Improvement Grant initiative. As with the results released three years ago, it is once again clear that the school turnaround effort is anything but a success.
The average percentage of students reading at proficient levels (as measured by state tests) in the first round of schools receiving SIG funding increased by just six percentage points between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013. Although this is steady progress, this still means that on average, one out of every two children in the first cohort of SIG-funded schools are either illiterate or barely able to read. That the average percentage of children in Cohort 1 schools performing at proficient levels in math increased by eight percentage points in that same period still doesn’t mean much. This is because three out of every five children in those schools are innumerate or barely able to do basic arithmetic.
The closer you look at the SIG data, the worse things look. Just 33 percent of schools participating in the first round of SIG made double-digit improvements in literacy between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, while another 36 percent made single-digit gains over that time. Meanwhile 28 percent — that is, more than a quarter of all the Cohort 1 schools — experienced single-to-double digit declines in reading achievement. Essentially, one out of every four schools who have received several years of SIG funding continued to fail children academically. Which, in turn, means that 133,000 of the 475,000 children served by those schools continued to be subjected to low-quality teaching, curricula, and cultures.
This isn’t to say it is all bad news. The 9.2 percentage point increase in average elementary students in Cohort 1 reading at or above grade level between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013 is certainly to be celebrated. This bears out my assertion three years ago that the Obama administration should have geared 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 move further along in their academic careers. That there was just a 3.5 percentage point increase in average middle-schoolers in Cohort 1 reading at or above grade level, along with an average 5.6 percentage point increase in reading proficiency for high-schoolers, further proves the point.
Yet the dismal results once raise this question: Should SIG continue to exist? Based on the data, there’s no way it should continue in its existing form. If it should even keep operating at all.
For one, the evidence is clear that only one of the three models chosen by districts as condition of SIG funding offers any demonstrable possibility of success. [There is a fourth model, which involves just shutting down the school altogether. Naturally, almost no district chose it.] That’s the Restart approach, under which a traditional district school is shut down and put under a charter school operator. On average, schools under Restart improved reading proficiency of children in their care by 8.1 percent between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013. The problem: Just 31 of the 635 schools in Cohort 1 of SIG chose that approach. Schools under the Transformation and Turnaround models, under which districts continue to operate them, did poorly in that same period; respectively, they improved achievement, on average, by just five percent and 6.2 percent. All but 49 of the schools in Cohort 1 were Transformation and Turnaround efforts.
None of this should be a surprise. As I noted five years ago in an The American Spectator column, neither the Transformation or Turnaround models would work because the schools would remain under the control of the very districts that ran them into the ground in the first place. Expecting a failure district to somehow revamp a failure mill — especially when it isn’t overhauling its own operations — is simply insane. After all, the same incompetence at the school (including an unwillingness to sophisticatedly use data to shape instruction) is usually mirrored by bureaucrats in the central office. This reality was borne out before SIG was launched; a mere 11 percent of California elementary schools forced by state officials to undergo turnarounds made “exemplary progress” three years later, according to Andy Smarick Bellwether Education Partners in his primer on school turnarounds. And as Caitlin Emma detailed in Politico, SIG hasn’t changed that reality.
Even when reform-minded school leaders are put in place at the school and district levels, the very dysfunction that has been endemic in the bureaucracy is difficult to remove and overcome. This is a culture problem. Toxic culture, be it within the school or across the district, will overcome efforts to put it asunder, especially when teachers and school leaders cannot be easily fired. As past and current reform-minded school leaders have learned the hard way — and current leaders such as Antwan Wilson in Oakland are finding out now — they often lack strong support for their efforts from boards often controlled by affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
What has become clear is that there are likely three best approaches to school turnarounds. The first, of course, is just to shut down the schools altogether. The second, as seen in New York City, lies in overhauling the district, which will then lead to better-performing schools. The third? As demonstrated by SIG, hand over control of the schools, either to charter school operators or to families of the children who attend them. Essentially this means moving away from the traditional district model to what Dropout Nation calls the Hollywood Model of Education. The Obama Administration could have advanced this approach, by revamping SIG to only allow districts to use the Restart model and hand over control of the schools, as well as requiring them to pass Parent Trigger measures that would allow families to take control of the schools. Narrowing SIG’s focus to elementary schools would have also made sense.
But with the Obama Administration nearing the end of its tenure, with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joining the exodus of officials heading for less-stressful work outside of federal government, and with the possibility that a reauthorized version of No Child will senselessly shut down competitive grant programs altogether, it may be too late to give SIG one more shot. Not that it ever deserved to exist in the first place.