Six states are betting $75 million and three years of aggressive intervention can accomplish what No Child Left Behind and decades of reform efforts could not: Turn around their persistently failing schools.
Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and New York have agreed to adopt the recommendations of a study published in 2007 by the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute. The program is scheduled to begin this fall.
The Obama administration’s 2011 budget proposes $900 million for school turnaround grants. States plan to use a mix of their own money, federal stimulus funds, private grants, and federal Race to the Top dollars to fund the Partnership Zone Initiative in 30 to 50 low-performing schools.
Most Attempts Failed
The concept is largely untried, and most attempts at school turnarounds have failed, but states have never adopted the initiative’s strategy of aiming a blend of changes derived from the few successes at clusters of schools in the bottom 5 percent of standardized test scores.
“In some ways the turnaround idea is competition working,” said Collin Hitt, director of education policy at the Illinois Policy Institute. “It’s the public school system taking some of the lessons from charter schools and trying to implement it.”
“There are some important ways that school turnarounds are a positive departure from the status quo, but there are other ways, especially in tight budget times, it’s not immediately clear that the expense is justified when there are other options,” Hitt said.
Authority for Change
The initiative serves as a pilot program to implement Mass Insight’s 2007 findings. It would establish “partnership zones” of three to five failing schools inside one or two school districts from each state.
In exchange for the assistance and marked student gains in reading and math as measured by standardized tests, districts would grant “lead partner” organizations broad authority within the schools to change staff, schedules, curricula, and other processes. The lead partner works with all the schools within its zone and may be an independent organization or autonomous unit the school district creates.
“The primary focus is really on attracting the right people into the right jobs and giving them the support to do that well,” said William Guenther, Mass Insight’s president and founder.?
‘No Silver Bullets’
Previous attempts at turning around failing schools have been within one school or district, not statewide.
“In school districts there are complications and resistance to turning around districts. Some are real, and some are perceived,” said Larry Vaughn, Colorado’s interim deputy commissioner of education.
“The framework Mass Insight has proposed establishes the responsibility, the accountability, and the authority [for] a lead partner. Change generally comes about from personnel changes, program changes, and a tight focus on student achievement. Their framework gives the lead provider the autonomy to do it,” Vaughn said.
Mass Insight’s report suggests four responsibilities for a lead partner: Signing a performance contract with the struggling school; direction for staffing; controlling academic support; and embedding staff within the school to support principals.
“One of the key lessons of all of this is you have to pull four or five levers simultaneously,” Guenther said. “There are no silver bullets.
“History of Failure”
Skeptics question the viability of the multistate initiative. They point out school turnarounds have a dismal track record and Mass Insight’s methods are untested.
Andy Smarick of the Fordham Foundation, an education think tank, has long advocated shutting down failing schools rather than attempting costly turnarounds.
“The truth is there is a wide body of research out there that says we don’t have a playbook for fixing failing schools,” Smarick said. “Mass Insight and other organizations have this failed belief that turnarounds haven’t worked because we haven’t tried the right turnaround yet.”
Smarick points out other industries haven’t developed surefire turnaround models, either.
“This isn’t about our schools, our turnarounds; this is about our entire philosophy,” Smarick said. “We’ve have had data to show this since the 1960s, so it’s not that we haven’t been trying.”
Rejecting Stronger Reforms
Guenther agrees previous school turnaround strategies haven’t worked. But he says that is why Mass Insight’s plan stands a chance.
“It’s nuts to say the only option is choice and more charters, because the pool of charters is too small, and a certain number of charters aren’t very good,” he said. “Nor are we going to put in place a complete choice universe. You have to take a serious shot at turning schools around on scale and in the process remake some of the district’s organizations.”
Guenther says previous strategies have taken a “light touch” compared with the Mass Insight initiative, and most lacked the blend of strategies Mass Insight culled from isolated cases where turnarounds have worked. Combining what data exists on spotty successes in similar ventures provides the knowledge necessary to change decades of failure, Guenther said.
Hitt says the Mass Insight approach shows promise as a reform option as long as it doesn’t siphon money from stronger reforms. Hitt says $75 million could go farther if spent on proven reforms such as charters and vouchers, which cost less per student than even regular public-school funding.
Joy Pavelski ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.
Turnaround Challenge documents from Mass Insight: http://www.massinsight.org/turnaround/challenge.aspx