Feature

School Transformation: Can It Work?

The most popular of the four federal options for low performers carries a series of aggressive practices, never packaged previously by ROBERT MANWARING

Hillcrest Elementary School, located in the Crenshaw neighborhood in Los Angeles, not far from the University of Southern California, has been struggling academically for more than a decade. The school serves a largely poor, half-black, half-Hispanic neighborhood with a high percentage of English language learners.

The school has been in trouble under both the state and federal accountability systems since the 1990s. As a result, numerous labels have been affixed to the 750-­student school: low performing, failing, high priority and, most recently, persistently lowest-achieving. The school has been subjected to a series of local, state and federal turnaround interventions, which to date have not led to significant changes in student performance.

Robert ManwaringRobert Manwaring is a former senior policy analyst with Education Sector in Washington, D.C.


Despite various reform efforts and accompanying extra funds, roughly a quarter of Hillcrest’s 5th graders were proficient in language arts and science, and only 20 percent were proficient in math during the 2009-10 school year.

Four Options
The federal government is making a $3.5 billion investment to turn around 800 to 900 schools similar to Hillcrest nationwide. In exchange for up to $6 million for each school over a three-year period, these schools have chosen to pursue one of four improvement models — school closure, restart as a charter school, turnaround through replacement of the principal and at least half of the teaching staff, or transformation, which requires the school to implement numerous reforms.

These School Improvement Grants are part of the federal stimulus package that provided around $77 billion to states to support K-12 education. And, while most of that funding was distributed to states and districts for general use by formula, President Obama was able to set aside roughly $8.5 billion to leverage state and district-level reforms, including the improvement grants, the Race to the Top Fund (state grants to drive specific reforms), the Teacher Incentive Fund (to encourage teacher compensation reforms) and the Investing in Innovation Fund (to support promising school innovations).

The most controversial of these programs, Race to the Top, rewarded states that agreed to implement the key policy initiatives proposed by the president, including measuring and improving teacher effectiveness, adopting college- and career-readiness standards, supporting the expansion of charter schools, improving student data systems and turning around low-performing schools.

The focus on school turnarounds also plays a central role in the president’s “Blueprint for Reform,” his policy proposals for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Under the current version, the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government required all states to measure performance in a similar way but allowed states and districts large flexibility in how they addressed their low-performing schools.

State Control
The Blueprint flips this around. States would be put in charge of determining how to measure performance, but the federal government would establish specific turnaround strategies for the lowest-performing schools.

Accountability systems drive improvement by focusing schools on outcomes and by identifying the lowest-performing schools. While state and local accountability systems have identified these schools over and over again, too little has happened to attempt to improve them. For example, under NCLB, districts were required to “restructure” schools that failed to achieve at expected levels for five consecutive years. The federal law required one of several actions be taken at these schools. Already more than 4,500 schools have been through the restructuring process with too few schools successfully exiting the “needs improvement” status. And not surprisingly, districts took advantage of a flexible “other major restructuring” option three-quarters of the time. What came after restructuring under NCLB — nothing. Once a school has “restructured,” no further interventions were required.

Hillcrest in Los Angeles is one of those restructured schools. In fact, it was one of the first schools to face restructuring in 2004-05 along with hundreds of other California schools. These schools have all restructured in theory, but most are still low performing.

Because so many schools in Los Angeles were facing these requirements, the district took standardized actions for most schools, including Hillcrest, and that was to assign the regional superintendent to have a direct managerial role in running the school. This hardly counts as a major reform.

Despite reasonable criticism about the accountability measures used in NCLB, the law has been largely successful at identifying low-performing schools but has done little to change them. It also demonstrated that allowing districts to determine the sanction for low-performing schools is problematic. Given this history, it is not surprising that school reformers wanted to ensure more deliberate action was taken at the country’s lowest-performing schools.

Choosing a Model
School districts applying for funds on behalf of their schools are required to choose from one of four models. Three of the models are fairly easy to understand, even if they are complex to implement. A school district could opt for:

•  School closure. Close the school site and transfer students to another school or school district.

•  Restarting as a charter school. Negotiate with a charter school to operate a new school on the site of the existing one.

•  School turnaround. Replace the principal and at least half of the teaching staff.

Alternatively, a school can choose to implement the newly designed transformation model by attending to a specific set of nine school reform requirements.

Application Process
Turning around schools is hard work. It takes strong leadership, a good plan and lots of communication with relevant stakeholders, including teachers and staff, families and community members. The federal application process for school improvement grants did not seem to recognize these issues in the way that the Department of Education and states implemented it.

Funding was authorized in the stimulus bill in early 2009, yet the money just started to reach schools in the final weeks of 2010. Awaiting clarifying law changes, federal design of applications, state proposal developments, states negotiating with the federal department of education and state identification of persistently low-performing schools led to districts having little time to develop school improvement plans. Three states had not even identified schools by the middle of January 2011.

Unfortunately, the timing of the grants likely had an impact on both the substance and the quality of the applications submitted. Staffing changes were an aspect of all models. Yet with school leaders competing for the best new hires, a school had to be recruiting by early spring for the coming year. During this hiring window in 2010, most states had not gotten their state plans approved, eligible schools had not been identified and the selection criteria for the program were not known. So, not surprisingly given local budget constraints, most districts waited until they knew more about the details of the program before making major changes. This also probably swayed many districts from the turnaround model because it required large staffing adjustments.

Then when these details were finally known, districts were required to rapidly develop their plans because the reforms were supposed to begin in fall 2010. Rushing a planning process that requires the buy-in of many stakeholders — teachers, families and the broader community — makes the possibility of success much more unlikely.

Los Angeles Unified School District faced perhaps the most daunting challenge in the country. The district had to develop plans for its 31 eligible schools in the eight days between the state getting approval and the deadline to submit plans. Not surprisingly, the district only submitted plans for nine of the 31 schools.
Ideally, states will be prepared to start the next round of school improvement grants earlier in 2011.

In most states, districts could opt out of the program. States identified more than 2,100 schools as persistently lowest performing, but funding was insufficient to support all of those schools, so districts had the option to not apply.

There are pluses and minuses to the program effectively being voluntary. On the one hand, it is good that districts were required to compete for the funding so states could choose the plans most likely to succeed. On the other hand, the volunteer nature meant even these lowest-performing schools in a state could continue to duck accountability. And many schools decided not to apply, raising the question of whether there is a point where change will be mandated for these schools.

Of course, gamesmanship exists in applying for funding to avoid or at least minimize the impact on the schools. Under all models, schools are required to replace the principal, unless a principal has been at a school for fewer than two years. Some districts applied on behalf of only those schools with relatively new principals. In an Iowa district with two low-performing schools, the district decided to apply by proposing that the principals switch places — the middle school principal would move to the high school, and the high school principal would take over the middle school.

A Popular Selection
As of mid-January, 47 of 50 states had selected roughly 830 schools to participate in the program, and almost three-fourths selected the school transformation model. Not surprisingly, these schools serve mostly poor families (the median school had 78 percent eligibility for free or reduced price lunch) and minority students (86 percent are black or Hispanic). Almost 60 percent of the schools are urban, and almost half are high schools.

Interventions at the high school level largely will be a new challenge. Districts have opted not to allocate Title I funding to three-quarters of high schools; thus most low-performing high schools have not been involved in federal accountability measures. Surprisingly, perhaps, 64 of the targeted schools are magnet schools.

The transformation model was the only one selected in 13 (mostly rural) states and was the preferred model in almost all states. Ninety-four percent of the rural schools chose the transformation route. Nationwide, only 19 schools closed, 15 of which were in urban areas. Because of the planning involved in closing a school, most of the school closures likely would have happened anyway.

Milwaukee is closing four schools, the most of any district in the country. The district started planning most of these closures in 2009. All but one were small charter schools, and the fourth was a school within a school.

While the expansion of the number of charter schools became a central part of the policy debate around Race to the Top, charters will not play a major role in turning around low-performing schools, as only 4 percent chose the restart model.

While it likely took school districts considerable effort to determine the preferred model and to write their plans, that constituted the easy part. Now comes the arduous part. As Sir Michael Barber, education adviser to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, put it, “Implementation is 90 percent of everything.”

Far From Easy
Some critics have portrayed the transformation model as a light sanction similar to “other reform” under restructuring. But that is far from the case. In fact, if schools implement the model with integrity, it would be one of the furthest-reaching school reforms ever implemented.

The problem is no school ever has implemented all of these reforms. Schools have put in place specific components of the transformation model, which has nine essential elements, but have rarely done more than one or two of these at a time. And while some districts may have chosen the transformation model because it appeared to be the choice of least resistance, requiring only minimal staffing changes, the implementation of these nine requirements will demand a comprehensive overhaul of many sensitive policies and practices including teacher evaluation and professional development.

Implementing a new teacher evaluation system that effectively incorporates student achievement and growth as core components has been perhaps the most hotly debated education policy issue of the last year. In isolation, each of these nine requirements is a complex undertaking. But to do all nine elements simultaneously will take the unprecedented focus of the school and district and test their capacity.

The closest school reform model to transformation is TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement, supported by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. This model combines rigorous evaluation, career advancement opportunities, ongoing job-embedded professional development and professional compensation (four of the nine transformation elements).

Early evaluations of the TAP program have shown it to be effective, especially at the elementary level, with mixed outcomes at the high school level. The latter ought to be a concern given that more than 80 percent of high schools have chosen the transformation model. Furthermore, TAP’s evaluations were not conducted exclusively at chronically low-performing schools, which may change the program’s impact given the complexity of implementation.

The research supporting the other turnaround models is also lacking. For example, overall charter effectiveness has been mixed, and there are only a few examples of low-performing schools successfully converting to charter status. Green Dot Public Schools’ current attempt at Locke High School in Los Angeles is perhaps the highest-profile experiment, and while early indicators are positive (especially the reduced dropout rates), the school has a long way to go.

Similarly, the impact of dislocated students from school closures raises concerns.

The most rigorous study of closure, conducted in Chicago, found most students displaced by a school closure ended up in another low-performing school, where they did no better academically than would have been expected had they stayed at the shuttered school. The few students who transferred to higher-achieving schools indeed improved. So, not surprisingly, the success of school-closure programs appears to depend on having high-quality alternatives.

Search for Balance
Criticism of the administration’s turnaround efforts is coming from several sides, based largely on this lack of research. In fact, basically no research supports any specific school turnaround approach, including those proposed by critics. Educators and administrators cite the research in justifying the need for additional flexibility beyond the four models, proposing magnet schools or additional programs to address the impact of poverty. Yet 64 magnet schools are among the 830 lowest-performing schools, and the research support for magnet schools is inconclusive and complex.

On the other hand, conservative policy experts read the same inconclusive research findings, and they conclude the federal investment in the current turnaround effort is a waste of funding and that, instead, low-performing schools should be closed and replaced by new schools.

Andrew Smarick, a former fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, has been the strongest voice advocating this approach. He recommends these schools be required to commit to a five-year performance contract, and if a school is unable to meet the goals agreed to in its contract, the school be closed. States and districts would, at the same time, invest in the creation of new start-up schools that would serve the displaced students. Whether these policies could apply to rural schools, which make up a quarter of the low-performing schools, is doubtful.

Part of the reason a strong research base doesn’t exist for any school turnaround model is that these aggressive reforms have rarely been attempted. As Congress negotiates the reauthorization of ESEA, it will need to find the right balance between flexibility and structure to ensure that real change happens at these schools, while allowing the schools to adapt practices to local factors. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., put the issue into perspective during a congressional hearing on the program: “There is a difference between giving people the flexibility to do something and giving people the flexibility to do nothing.”

Robert Manwaring was senior policy analyst with Education Sector in Washington, D.C. E-mail: robert.manwaring@msn.com