"Turnaround" by any other name would be just as...sour

Here’s what we know about previous attempts to fix America’s most
persistently failing schools. Turnarounds in other fields seldom work.
Turnarounds in education have even lower success rates. Despite decades
of effort, we still don’t have a reliable playbook for turning a very
low-performing school into a good school, much less a great school. Even
if we did have a playbook, no one believes we have sufficient human
capital currently available to drastically improve a large number of
schools.

Given this, it’s hard to conceive of an area less suited for an
unprecedented amount of funding that must be spent quickly with grand
expectations for swift results.

Nevertheless, we have the federal government’s behemoth School Improvement Fund.

Early in his tenure, Secretary Duncan’s rhetoric got ahead of the
evidence, and he charged the nation with turning around 5,000 failing
schools within five years. Falling into the same trap that had ensnarled
countless previous reformers, the administration contended that
generations of failed turnaround efforts were the consequence of
insufficient funding and the wrong strategies.

They moved to solve the first problem by allocating an astonishing
amount of federal money to the cause. Combined, the stimulus and the
2009 budget appropriated more than $3.5 billion to turnarounds
through the SIF, which had once been a relatively modest Title I
carve-out. That figure deserves lingering attention; it’s in the same
atmospheric level as the ubiquitous and more closely scrutinized Race to
the Top (RTTT).

The second problem can be cured, the administration believes, by finally applying the right interventions. Countless studies and reports, including one by the Department’s own Institute for Education Sciences
(IES), have concluded that we still haven’t figured out what works. But
just as states once thought “takeovers” were the answer, districts
thought “reconstitutions” were the answer, and NCLB thought
“restructuring” was the answer, today’s Department believes its four
“turnaround” options will do the trick.

Under the program, states get money by formula (not on a competitive
basis) and then distribute it to their districts with the most troubled
schools. Districts then must apply one of four models to the identified
schools: “Turnaround,” “Transformation,” “Restart,” or “Closure” (find
more details here).

But while the verbiage is new, many of the details are remarkably
similar to tactics tried in the past--replacing staff, improving
professional development, providing more site-based control, changing
curriculum, etc. In many ways the total package is eerily reminiscent of
the interventions under NCLB’s corrective action and restructuring.

For example, under the “Restart” option, districts can either convert
the school to charter status or farm its operation out to another
entity. But those were options (i) and (iii) under NCLB’s restructuring.
Under “Turnaround,” changes in staff are key. But that’s virtually
identical to restructuring’s option (ii), which reads “Replacing all or
most of the school staff (which may include the principal) who are
relevant to the failure to make adequate yearly progress.”

Moreover, there’s no guarantee that a school’s new staff in a
turnaround school would be able to extricate itself from the most
inhibiting district rules or constraining union contracts. The “Restart”
model relies on CMOs and EMOs to take over failing schools, and the
best of these would only consider doing so if provided a wide array of
freedoms and powers by the district, which this federal program can’t
guarantee.

The administration’s “Closure” option is certainly the most
promising. But districts had this opportunity under NCLB’s “other”
option (v) and almost never took advantage of it. We would be unwise to
assume it would be widely embraced now.

NCLB provides a final critically important lesson. Districts, finding
the four other options too troublesome or challenging, did take
advantage of the “other” option--to implement meek interventions, like
professional development or turnaround specialists. With the
“Transformation” option, this administration has provided an equivalent
short cut. Apart from requiring the principal’s removal, this
alternative will allow lukewarm reforms to pass for meaningful change.

It’s worth noting that in draft documents of the turnaround strategies, this option was a last resort.
It could only be used when other stiffer interventions failed. But in
the final regulations, it can be the first choice. The only limitation
is a minor one: In districts with nine or more failing schools, it can
only be applied to half of them.

So, if experience is any guide, how will this all play out? Expect
districts to max out their use of the “Transformation” model. Most
remaining schools will opt for a weak version of the “Turnaround”
option. The closure and restart options will scarcely be used. And
results will parallel those from previous decades: The vast majority of
low-performing schools will remain low performing.

We should all pause to consider that, if the administration gets its
way with the 2011 budget--meaning another $900 million for
turnarounds--the federal government, in just a few years, will have
invested approximately $5 billion in an area with consistently poor
results via previously ineffectual strategies. If we include the
significant portion of RTTT funding that will be used for the same
purposes (such efforts make up one of four program priorities) the
figure swells to over $6 billion.

Congress may not have yet passed the 2011 budget, but the turnaround
train has already left the station. And it may have a new name, more
cargo aboard, and a fresh coat of paint, but the tracks are leading to
the same, sad destination.

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