The Center for Public Education is excited to announce the release of a new report, “Which Way Up: What research says about school turnaround strategies.” The title is a play on the plethora of strategies aimed at improving the lowest performing schools in the country.
This is a worthy goal, perhaps the important mission of public schools: to ensure all students receive a world-class education. But challenges abound and some schools, for a variety of reasons, fail to deliver on the promise, giving rise to a wave of reform models known simply as the turnaround. The problem is that many of these efforts have relied on strategies that have produced mixed results, if any at all. We called upon education researcher and writer team Eileen M. O’Brien and Charles J. Dervarics to take a closer look at the research and here’s what they found.
Although individual states and cities have attempted to address chronically low-achieving schools over the years, the US Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) program is the largest undertaking in the school turnaround arena. A relic of the No Child Left Behind Act, it received a significant funding boost (some $3.5 billion) in 2009, thanks to the federal stimulus bill known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Like Race to the Top, the department made SIG into a competitive grant program and required grant seekers to choose among four different intervention models to secure the funds:
- The school closure model, in which the low-performing school is closed and students move to a higher achieving school.
- The restart model, in which the school becomes a charter or is taken over by an education management organization.
- The transformation model, in which the school replaces the principal, provides enhanced professional development to staff, launches a teacher evaluation system, increases learning time, and creates new support services for students.
- The turnaround model, which includes many of the same elements as the transformation model with the additional requirement that teachers must reapply for their jobs. A turnaround school must replace at least 50 percent of the staff and grant the new principal greater autonomy to pursue reforms.
First-year data on SIG award recipients show some positive gains, particularly at the elementary level and in reading. But one year’s worth of data is hardly a trend and the achievement data was not broken down by reform model, which would’ve provided greater insight into what strategies seem to be the most effective.
Previous research on some of these strategies has been a little more enlightening. For instance, research is pretty clear about the impact of school closures on student achievement: better performing schools produce gains, lower-performing ones don’t. The research on charter schools, a hallmark of the restart model, is also fairly definitive: charter schools, on average, perform no better or worse than their traditional school counterpart.
Evidence on the transformation model, which is far and away the most popular model among SIG recipients, is mixed and confounded by the great latitude schools are given in implementation—good for schools but hard for researchers who are, of course, interested in identifying and evaluating effectiveness.
Even more worrisome than the large-scale federal push toward strategies that are either untested or have shown mixed results on reversing chronically low achieving schools is the adoption of some of these strategies— school closure, conversion to charter, replacement of majority of staff— into parent trigger laws.
While we can’t and shouldn’t lessen our focus on helping the country’s lowest-achieving schools deliver on public education’s promise to all students, we should be mindful and methodical about what it is we’re investing in to get them there.