States across the country are somewhere in the process of identifying the schools that will be eligible for a share of the $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants (SIG). Making this type of investment in turning around the lowest performing schools in the country is long over due. But, the current disregard for the planning and implementation time that some of these reforms take puts the entire investment at risk. The Department of Education should rethink this crazy timeline, and extend the time requirements by a year to give these reforms a chance to actually have the intended impact.
The stakes of these reforms is high, and much of the theory of action of the administration’s agenda hinges on these types of reforms being successful. I believe that any of these four turnaround approaches can be successful, but implement details are critically important to the success of any school turnaround effort. And, if these reform efforts fail, it will not only waste a lot of money, it will also damage the creditability of school turnaround models, and damage the credibility of the overall school accountability movement. So the stakes are high, and a rush job will do more damage than good. The federal government should create the space for schools and districts to take their time and get it right. This program should not be so focused on spending money quickly to create jobs and fuel the economy, the other $90 billion of the education stimulus funds was to meet that goal. For these funds, let’s take our time, do the planning, fix the collective bargaining agreements, and other preparatory changes to give these reforms every opportunity to succeed.
Here is the background. For the entire NCLB era, the federal government has provided funding (although a lot less) to states on a formula basis to support school improvement activities. The use of the funding has generally been left to the discretion of schools districts who invested in incremental reforms, and at best have seen incremental gains. Now the federal government is playing hardball, forcing dramatic changes at schools that are either dropout factories or the very lowest performing elementary and middle schools. Kudos to the federal government for going after high schools for the first time. (Generally high schools have not been impacted much by NCLB accountability because three-quarter of them don’t receive Title I funds and are therefore not held to AYP accountability requirements.) But, I fear that the timing of these new turnaround efforts and funding may fail to have the desired impact because of the rushed timing of the grant process. Here is my understanding of the deadlines of the four school turnaround options:
- Turnaround Model—Schools must replace the principal, let all of the teachers go, and rehire no more than 50% of them. They must find a new principal and at least half of the teachers and be ready to roll by the start of the 2010-11 school year.
- Transformation Model—Schools must replace the principal, increase instructional time, overhaul the teacher evaluation system and professional development and as well as other required activities, by the first day of the 2010-11 school year.
- Restart Model— Close school and reopen under a charter school operator, a charter management organization, or an education management organization. Open under the new management on day 1 of the 2010-11 school year.
- Closure Model—If a district closes a school it must enroll the students in other schools in the district that are higher achieving. The district may prepare for the school’s closure during the 2010-11 school year, but must close the school no later than the end of the 2010-11 school year.
So with the exception of school closure, the other three models must be implemented later this spring and summer. Now if the district had good plans ready to go, and started right now, maybe there is a chance that the district could pull off this tight timeline. But, that is not the case. Take the California timeline as an example. The state board took action earlier this month to identify 188 schools as eligible to apply for this funding. But schools must apply submit a detailed implementation plan of the reform option that they will implement. Each school is eligible for between $50,000 to $2 million a year for the next three years. Now California will receive a lot of funding for this program, around $415 million. But, if each school applies for the maximum grant, there would only be enough funding for less than 40 percent of schools to get a grant. Not everyone will apply for the max, but many will, so it may be around 50 or 60 percent that get a grant, but not likely will all of the 188 school get funding. Given the costs of implementing one of these reforms, a district may want to wait to see if they are going to receive a grant before implementing the reform. When will they know if they are going to get a grant? The state’s request for application is expected some time in April with a due date of June 1. This leaves around a month and a half for the districts to write this complex plan. Presumably, the California dept of ed will act quickly to review the applications and announce winners some time in June. So, schools would have July and August to implement the fundamental restructuring of a school. Forget for a minute some of the year round schools on the list of 188 schools that start school in July. None of these options are ones that you want to try to implement in just two months. There are timing problems with each model except perhaps the school closure model. The turnaround model would require hiring at least a principle and half a school’s staff in the last two months before the school year starts. Hiring quality staff takes time, and in the teacher hiring business the early bird gets the worm, and the late hires generally are chosen from a lower quality applicant pool. Finding a charter school management organization to take over a school would require a lot of contracting and logistical decisions to be negotiated. Even if those can be resolved, then the new charter school organization is looking for staff in July and August and faces the same hiring difficulties. For either of these models, the district would have already have had to notify all of the teachers that they would not be working at the school next year. That leaves the transformation model. At least it may be feasible to work out the details of this model, but working out the bargain issues of extended instructional time, and a new teacher evaluation system could be difficult. And the rushed nature of this will likely result in friction between the union and the administration. Not the best environment to start a really difficult process that will take a deep level of teacher involvement to be successful.
In conclusion, it is not too late. There is time to delay the implementation of these reforms to allow for sufficient planning time to enhance the probability of success. While it is true that some of these schools have been waiting decades for serious reforms of their schools, a rushed job is likely to get them more of the same, and lead to a greater resistant to the next reform that comes down the pike. This could potentially lead to the reformed school being even worse off than the existing one. Just take the example of Markham Middle school in Los Angeles and its botched attempt at school turnaround to get a sense of how poorly planned reform causes even greater problems.