Turnaround Organizations Under Congressional Scrutiny

Published October 21, 2010

School districts trying to fix failing schools can’t always count on states to provide full funding or effective guidance, so some school districts are contracting with private and nonprofit “turnaround” specialists to turn low-performing schools into high performers.

But with the federal government pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into school turnarounds, the private groups are facing scrutiny from Congress.

Turnarounds involve a near total overhaul of a school, from personnel to curriculum.

“It’s a reset of just about all components of the school: from a physical standpoint, a human capital standpoint, and an academic standpoint,” explains Tim Cawley, managing director of finance and administration for the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a nonprofit organization specializing in turnarounds.

‘We Set New Expectations’
AUSL has reformed eight Chicago schools since 2006 and is working on another four schools in the city this year. Among its successes: Increasing the student passing rate on state standardized tests by 26 percentage points in four years, compared with a citywide average increase of just three points.

AUSL lays off most of a failing school’s staff and teachers. It then hires new teachers, usually graduates of AUSL’s one-year teacher-training program. AUSL often institutes school uniforms and morning assemblies to help improve discipline.

“We set new expectations. That means shirts tucked in, kids lined up and entering class ready to learn,” said Cawley.

AUSL’s program can also involve renovating school buildings and grounds. Schools with dilapidated rooms or sparse outside play areas get new lighting, ventilation, plumbing, and sports fields.

“The kids come back in the fall, and it’s clean, well-lit, the toilets work, and it’s all ADA-compliant. The kids say, ‘Wow, it is going to be a new day here,” said Cawley.

Unions Resist Turnarounds
Such quick and comprehensive change can be controversial, however. Frederick Hess, an education policy scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, says school district superintendents who enlist turnaround organizations often face heavy opposition.

“The teachers union will push back hard,” Hess said. “Also, parents and community groups can be skeptical or hostile.”

Hess notes not every turnaround organization is qualified. He advises schools to develop mandatory benchmarks of progress for turnaround organizations to meet. 

“We need to make sure they’re not just coming in to have a good time,” said Hess. “We need to make sure that they’re bonded to deliver what they’ve promised.”

Hess says he is especially worried about school district leaders settling for weak turnaround efforts. Many hire the organization simply to replace the failing school’s principal and a very small number of teachers or install a “coach” to advise the school.

“There are a number of firms that help to do these non-invasive turnarounds, and the results have been fairly dismal,” he said.

Billions for Turnarounds
The U.S. Department of Education in 2002 began distributing about $200 million in School Improvement Grants to states under No Child Left Behind. The grants, which have steadily grown in size, are earmarked solely for school turnarounds. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $3.5 billion for the school-improvement grant fund.

The stimulus law also specified schools eligible for the improvement grants must fall in the bottom 5 percent of student performance on state tests. Under federal law, districts must use one of four designated models of school improvement. “Turnaround” involves replacing the failing school’s principal, up to 50 percent of the staff, and a general revamp of the school.

In addition to the turnaround model, other models include “restart,” in which the school reopens as a charter school; “school closure,” or shutting the school down permanently and enrolling students in other schools; and “transformation,” which consists of replacing the principal and undertaking a government-led wholesale restructuring of the school.

Rep. John Kline (R-MN), ranking Republican on the House Education and Workforce Committee, said different schools would benefit from different approaches. He says he prefers school districts not to be limited to only four models, all of which carry stipulations.

“No two states or schools are identical. To solve different challenges, we need flexibility to provide different solutions,” Kline said.

Congress Demands an Inquiry

Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the Education Committee and a longtime skeptic of the turnaround model, announced plans in August to conduct hearings on turnaround organizations this fall. No date has been set for the hearings.

“It seems some companies with little or no expertise in education are purporting to be experts in school turnaround to try and take advantage of available federal money,” said Miller in a statement. Miller’s office did not respond to requests for additional comment, but the chairman has said previously he prefers as much community and teacher “buy-in” to reform as possible.

Miller’s statement mentioned no companies specifically. Edison Learning, which has been in the charter school and turnaround business for more than 20 years, said it welcomed Miller’s questions. ?

“We put in place structures that help ensure high performance on an ongoing basis,” said Edison spokesman Michael Serpe.

‘Very Few Wins’
Although school turnaround initiatives are not new, only a small number of organizations are willing to undertake them. Hess cautions it is still too early to judge their overall success or failure.

“There are very few wins on the ground at all, and most of the wins there are small and scattered at this point,” said Hess.

Rick Docksai ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.