The Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton provides a pithy summary of an analysis published last week of the school turnarounds that have dominated the Obama administration’s public education policy under both the School Improvement Grant and Race to the Top programs: “The Obama administration handed out more than $3 billion to the states and the District of Columbia to help them turn around their worst-performing schools as part of the federal stimulus spending that took place after the 2008 recession. But most states lacked the capacity to improve those schools, according to a new analysis by federal researchers… Although turning around the worst schools was a priority for nearly every state, most did not have the staff, technology and expertise to pull those schools out of the bottom rankings….” Layton is describing an analysis that was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and the American Institutes for Research for the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance of the Institute of Education Sciences. This is a research arm of the federal government publishing a condemnation of the federal government’s own public school policy.
To review, the school turnaround policies the U.S. Department of Education permitted states receiving Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants to adopt were (1) reconstitute the school by firing the principal and at least half the staff, (2) close the school, (3) turn the school into a charter or turn it over to a Charter Management Organization or an Educational Management Organization, or (4) transform the school by firing the principal and instituting a new education plan with help from an outside group. These turnaround policies grow from a business strategy called “creative disruption.” It has been the theory for some years now that to improve schools where students struggle, we must disrupt the status quo. Disruption is a theory frequently promoted by U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The new analysis of states’ potential to implement school improvement through the turnaround process is clear about the limitations of the strategy of school turnaround: “One objective of the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) School Improvement Grants (SIG) and Race to the Top (RTT) program is to help states enhance their capacity to support the turnaround of low-performing schools… There is limited existing research on the extent to which states have the capacity to support school turnaround and are pursuing strategies to enhance that capacity.” The researchers continue: “Nearly half of the nation’s public schools (48 percent) did not make adequate yearly progress in 2011, and half of the nation’s high school dropouts come from about 15 percent of high schools. Unfortunately, there are few examples to date of such low-performing schools producing substantial and sustained achievement gains.”
According to the researchers, while 80 percent of the states said turning around low performing schools was a priority, half the states said it was very difficult to turn the schools around and significantly improve overall achievement. In 2012, 38 states said there were significant gaps in their capacity to produce change, a number that increased to 40 states in 2013. While more than 85 percent of the states used outside consultants to try to turn schools around, over time they used fewer consultants and developed their own administrative structures. But schools have not turned around.
While the report does not dissect the reasons states were unable to achieve the results they promised the federal government to accomplish when they wrote their grant proposals for the Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs, the researchers explain: “Several scenarios may explain why most states found turnaround so difficult. Because research on effective strategies for sustaining turnaround in low-performing schools is limited, states may be uncertain how to pursue this goal. Moreover, turning around a school with a history of low performance is complex and challenging. Studies have shown that low-performing schools are rarely able to produce substantial and sustained achievement gains, and case studies have documented numerous obstacles to turnaround efforts.”
In a timely coincidence, yesterday the National Education Policy Center published a critique of a recent policy brief from the Center on American Progress that touts disruptive federal school turnaround policies, Dramatic Action, Dramatic Improvement. The Center on American Progress (CAP) has reliably justified the policies prescribed by No Child Left Behind and the policies of Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education. It is important to remember that corporate school reform through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations has been endorsed in a bipartisan fashion. In that context CAP’s endorsement—as a Democrat-leaning think tank—of disruptive school turnarounds is unsurprising.
Tina Trujillo, of the University of California at Berkeley, who conducted the “think-tank review” for the National Education Policy Center of CAP’s new pro-turnaround brief, is scathing in her condemnation of the limited scope of CAP’s research base in the new policy brief: “The report is limited to twelve pieces of literature on school improvement, as well as anecdotal snapshots of four schools that implemented a series of changes in conjunction with their federal funding and are deemed to be successful ‘turnarounds.'”
Trujillo explains that a “major shortcoming of the report is its failure to avail itself of the lessons from large bodies of research on turnaround-style reforms and the emerging evidence on school turnarounds themselves. The report omits a significant body of research on high-stakes accountability, school improvement, charter schools, and the emerging evidence on school closures—all of which reveals that the federal SIG program’s turnaround policies are based on unwarranted claims and are contradicted by empirical evidence. As I have argued elsewhere, the claim that rapid, dramatic changes in staffing, management, and other conditions inside of schools can spur quick, sustainable improvement is paradoxical because it is contradicted by research evidence.”
Trujillo continues: “Drastic changes in staffing and management engender the exact conditions that long lines of research have linked with persistent low performance—high turnover, instability, poor climate, inexperienced teachers, and racial and socioeconomic segregation. For example, rigorous research on school reconstitution demonstrates that firing and replacing school staffs has usually failed to improve organizational or student performance. Instead, it has been consistently linked with reductions in the social stability and climate of schools, as well as increased faculty churn (but not of the weakest teachers.)… Finding enough qualified personnel to fill vacancies is common… In addition to the adverse effects of layoffs on student and teacher morale, localized knowledge about the students and the community declines. Collegiality, trust, professional relations, and community ties—necessary conditions for improving student performance—all wane.”