Friday, May 3, 2013

New Report Examines School Improvement and Turnaround Strategies

National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education finds a lot of money, but limited data on school turnaround strategies

As states and the federal government push for more turnaround strategies for low-performing schools—and put billions of dollars into their efforts—a new report by the National School Boards Association's (NSBA) Center for Public Education (CPE) finds that while there have been some successes there's not much evidence yet that many of these strategies will work overall.

The report, "Which Way Up? What research says about school turnaround strategies," reviews numerous methods of school improvement to determine which, if any, hold the most promise.

"With the significant federal investment and mandated models to 'turnaround' low-performing schools, we have limited research to date on the effectiveness of these strategies and little guidance on what actually works," said NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel. "We know that school improvement funding is extremely important, but it should encourage innovation, instead of mandating unnecessary federal restrictions."

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has placed a larger focus on turnaround strategies by identifying schools with low performance and sizable achievement gaps. The main federal turnaround program, the School Improvement Grant (SIG), targets schools in the bottom 5 percent nationwide with four models of reform ranging from replacing staff to shutting down a school. These strategies are echoed in the federal Race to the Top grants and so-called Parent Trigger laws being introduced in a handful of states.

One federal study showed that two-thirds of SIG grant recipients posted gains with the infusion of federal funds, but because the report was based on only one year's data, it was too early to draw conclusions.

"The focus on the nation's lowest performing schools is vitally important so we can make sure all students have the benefit of a solid public education," said Patte Barth, CPE's Director. "In these efforts, education policymakers need to balance the need for evidence-based strategies while tapping the potential for local innovation, especially in cases like turnaround strategies where the data is limited."

The SIG program currently requires low-achieving schools to select one of four intervention models. These models are mimicked in the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top grants, as well as so-called Parent Trigger laws in several states. They are:

- 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.

Given the scale, interest, and resources devoted to reforming the country’s chronically underperforming schools, it is only natural to wonder if any of these efforts are working. In this paper, the Center for Public Education examines the research base behind these various strategies and the data on early implementation of these options by SIG-funded schools.

In examining research on the impact of school closure, restart, transformation, and turnaround models, the report concludes

- Research is limited. There is some evidence of success, primarily for schools undertaking more dramatic turnaround reforms, but data collected over a longer period of time is needed.

- The vast majority of SIG schools—about three-quarters are choosing the "transformation model" which provides the most flexibility for local planners.

- Replacing a majority of teachers—required in the turnaround model—presents challenges for some schools. Rural schools are particularly challenged to find enough teachers to meet the replacement requirements.

- Rural schools also face difficulties with the restart model since they have limited access to private management organizations. The closure model also may not be feasible if they have no other schools in which to send students. Even in urban areas, a closure model seems to be promising only when students can transfer to schools with higher achievement rates.

- Replacing a principal may show promise, as some studies indicate principals are second only to teachers in their impact on student learning. But the strategy is new and again, the data is limited.

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