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July 18, 2013

Lowest performing schools to get helping hands from AmeriCorps

Turnaround Yesterday, the US Department of Education announced the winners in the first round of an inaugural program aimed at improving persistently low-achieving schools. Yes, I know this sounds familiar.

Competitive grant programs have become a staple at ED, much to the consternation of many on the Hill. But the wisdom and the efficacy of making financially strapped-states and school districts scrap for funds to address the poorest-performing schools in the nation is a discussion best left for another time and another blog— although, in truth, adequate funding and performance are hard to separate.

Regardless, the announcement caught my attention for another reason.

ED had initially announced the launch of the School Turnaround AmeriCorps program— a $15 million joint effort with the Corporation for National and Community Service that would place 650 AmeriCorps members in about 70 of the worst-performing schools— back in February on the heels of yet another report showing how America’s high school dropout problem was costing this country:  $1.8 billion in tax revenue each year, to be exact.

We were in the midst of pulling together a report of our own, an analysis of the so-called school turnaround strategies being rolled into many federal and state education programs with frightening speed.

What we discovered in Which Way Up was even more frightening. To begin with, very little data exists regarding the effectiveness of the four basic intervention models (school closure, restart, transformation and turnaround) embedded in competitions like Race to the Top and the School Improvement Grant program. And the research that has been conducted on these strategies shows mixed outcomes, at best.

Yes, first-year data from ED on the progress of School Improvement Grant recipients is mostly positive, particularly at the elementary level. But as we all know, one year’s worth of data does not a trend make.

And stories from the field and just plain common-sense, suggests that drastic measures like shuttering schools and wholesale replacement of staff, are disruptive and not necessarily in the good and moving forward kind of way.

Which is why I’m more than curious about how this latest initiative will serve the students, staff and communities in these chronically underperforming schools. These schools deserve our attention and I don’t need to run down the laundry list of why, when really the question has always been “how.”

How do we raise the achievement at these schools? And how do we make sure those changes are sustainable and not just a one-off?

I hope flooding these schools with dedicated, cause-driven individuals, the type that usually are drawn to AmeriCorps work, is the answer. But then again … aren’t those the same types who are usually drawn to schools and teaching?  Hmm, I guess we better go back and look at the strategy.






One Response to “Lowest performing schools to get helping hands from AmeriCorps”

  1. Allison Gulamhussein says:

    Naomi,

    I think your questions are pointed and insightful. It’s not that there aren’t ideas and proposals that could theoretically and tangentially improve schools, but we have to realize that funding for schooling is limited; therefore, we have to put these limited dollars where they have the most impact. I can’t help but think about this story in connection with a recent story about a school district spending millions on iPads for students, a tool which has no data connecting it to increased achievement, while simultaneously firing teachers.

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