Executive Perspective

Unproven Federal Models

by DANIEL A. DOMENECH

At a gathering of superintendents of the year from 29 states, those in attendance were engaged in a lively discussion with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He had just arrived on an early-morning flight from New York City and was taking time out of his busy schedule to meet with these exemplary school system leaders.

The topic of the conversation was what works and what does not work in school turnaround implementation. AASA will publish a paper on the highlights of the discussions later this spring.

Dan Domenech Official PhotoDaniel A. Domenech


The education secretary has set a national goal to turn around 5,000 schools in five years. Congress has appropriated more than $4 billion to support that effort, an unprecedented sum of money. To date, 44 states are supporting turnaround projects in 730 schools, of which 48 percent are high schools.

Much concern has been aired over the four intervention models promulgated by the Department of Education. The first, the turnaround model, calls for the replacement of the principal and rehiring no more than 50 percent of the staff. This has created a great deal of angst in rural and small suburban school systems. Superintendents in those communities say they have a difficult time attracting administrators and teaching staff to their schools and that dismissal of the principal and half of the staff suggests they have a ready pool of applicants — that in reality is not there.

The School Improvement Grant guidance from the department does provide some flexibility in implementing a turnaround plan, but that’s only if the principal has been in the school for two years or less.

Familiar Drawbacks
The second option, the restart model, would convert a school or close and reopen it under a charter school operator, a charter management organization or an education management organization. This is also seen as problematic by rural and small suburban districts because most of them do not have more than two or three schools in the district. Turning one of them into a charter or turning it over to an outside organization to run does not seem like a viable option.

The third model, school closure, has a similar drawback. Our rural and small-district superintendents see these three options as being relevant to urban, inner-city school systems, but not to them.

The last option, the transformation model, seems to be the most popular of the four except that it also calls for the replacement of the principal. Beyond that, the school must institute comprehensive instructional reforms, increase learning time, create community-oriented schools and provide operational flexibility and sustained support. All schools that have received federal funding to assist in their transformation efforts have had to adopt one of these four models.

Early in the process, the Department of Education was asked to provide evidence of research that would support all or any of the four models. In Cutting Through the Hype: The Essential Guide to School Reform, by Jane David and Larry Cuban, the two veteran education researchers say, “[T]here’s little evidence that (the current) turnaround strategies will fare much better than previous efforts to improve low-performing schools. In fact, there’s little evidence on turnaround strategies at all. The U.S. Department of Education says as much in their purportedly evidence-based guide for turning schools around, which is, at best, underwhelming in available studies.”

The authors are referring to the What Works Clearinghouse’s “Turning Around Chronically Low-Performing Schools,” produced by the U.S. Department of Education in 2008.

Distant Dictates
In essence, superintendents would prefer the transformation model without the stipulation that the principal be replaced. This is not an indication that superintendents are against the removal of principals or staff who are not doing the work. It is more of a pushback against a distant federal agency determining what is best to do at the local school level without the supportive research.

Those of us who have faced the challenge of turning around failing schools are well aware of the key ingredients for success. Having the financial resources to do the job is essential and, to that extent, the dollars being made available through the School Improvement Grants and other sources are very much welcome.

Leadership is the next key ingredient, and that is recognized in the four intervention models, which, in all cases, call for the removal of the principal. Unfortunately, that requirement removes the superintendent’s ability to determine whether the current principal is failing because of a lack of resources or a lack of ability.

AASA advocates for the education of the total child in recognition of the fact that the school alone cannot overcome all of the societal and environmental factors that have an impact on a child’s ability to learn. We know poverty has a major impact on student achievement, as do health and nutrition issues, housing and child care. A successful intervention must take all of those factors into consideration, and community agencies, in partnership with the schools, must work together toward the common goal of providing children with the quality education they deserve and are rightfully entitled to.

After the December gathering of state superintendents of the year where Arne Duncan spoke, we were left with the clear impression that he wants to fix our failing schools and has more resources at his disposal than any previous education secretary. We hope he will continue his dialogue with us so, together, we find solutions to the problems facing public education in America.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org