As my colleague Anne wrote in her earlier blog post on ESEA reauthorization, the Harkin-Enzi ESEA bill would require states to identify 5% of high schools and 5% of all other schools as Persistently Low-Achieving (PLA) Schools. This 5-year designation would target schools with low academic achievement or growth and low graduation rates. After conducting a needs analysis of each PLA school, the district would choose one of six school improvement strategies outlined in the Harkin-Enzi ESEA bill:
1. Transformation— Similar to the School Improvement Grant (SIG) model of the same name, the Transformation model requires the district to replace the principal if the principal has served in the role at the school for more than two years. However, the 2011 Transformation model has several new features. In theory, this model gives the principal complete hiring authority by requiring the current staff to reapply and by mandating mutual consent, which means that a teacher cannot be assigned to a school without the principal’s approval. Also, the model prevents “The Dance of the Lemons” by stating that other schools in the district cannot be forced to accept displaced teachers. Unfortunately, local collective bargaining agreements can override any of these important new provisions, limiting this model’s ability to change human capital policy in many schools and districts.
2. Turnaround— The Harkin-Enzi ESEA bill still requires schools implementing Turnaround to replace the principal, but it allows schools to retain 65% of their staff instead of 50% in the current School Improvement Grants. Although the change is relatively minor, it will likely make Turnaround a more popular choice. As we showed in a report earlier this year, only 21% of schools chose the Turnaround model in the first round of SIG. While this model does give schools the opportunity to “clean house”, replacing 35% of teachers does not automatically make a school better.
3. Strategic Staffing— Both the Transformation and Turnaround models require replacing the principal, but only the Strategic Staffing model requires the new principal to have a demonstrated record of success in increasing student achievement. Under this model, the principal forms a school turnaround team comprised of highly effective administrators and teachers. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which recently won the Broad Prize for Education, demonstrated significant progress turning around low-performing schools through a similar initiative.
4. Whole School Reform— A district would partner with a “strategy developer” to implement a whole school reform program. This model could easily become an escape hatch for districts— both “strategy developer” and “whole school reform” are such vague terms, they are almost useless. However, the program must meet an evidence standard: a moderate level of evidence that the program will have a statistically significant effect on student outcomes, including more than one well-designed experimental or quasi-experimental study. If the Department of Education rigorously upholds the evidence standards, schools would likely choose programs proven to increase student achievement like Success For All and America’s Choice.
5. Restart— For this model, the district would restart the school as a public charter school, convert the school to a magnet school, or create a new, innovative school, as defined by the State. While only 4% of schools implemented the restart model in the first round of SIG, reopening as a charter school can be effective given the right charter and school leadership. Both the Department of Education and the Center for American Progress highlighted the role of Green Dot Schools in turning around schools in Los Angeles. The Harkin-Enzi ESEA bill adds the option to create a new, innovative school—which could become another escape hatch and a blank check for states to use or abuse as they choose.
6. Closure— The district would close the school and enroll the school’s students into other district schools. While this option is an important one to include in the bill, it should be used rarely and only as a last resort. Sometimes it does make sense for a school to close in order to use resources most efficiently. With decreasing enrollment and a growing deficit, the Kansas City School Board decided to close nearly half of its schools last year.
The Harkin-Enzi ESEA bill improves on the current SIG models by providing more and better choices. The two new models hold significant promise. Strategic Staffing, by focusing on developing a strong leadership core, will likely be popular and, given the right leadership, effective at turning around schools. For districts with limited human capacity, the Whole School Reform model could provide more guidance at the school level through scripted curriculum and structured professional development. However, the success or failure of any of these models is in the implementation. Will principals in a Transformation school truly reevaluate each staff member who reapplies or will local labor markets or individual laziness prevent that from happening? Will states embrace the opportunity to develop a truly innovative school model under Restart, or will they create an easily implemented and easily ignored model?
When schools don’t improve after five years as Persistently Low-Achieving Schools and are re-identified, they have to choose the Restart or Closure option. Given the unpopularity of both these choices in SIG, I imagine most will choose Restart but not as a charter school. These schools will choose the “new, innovative model.” Whether this stifles improvements these schools have already made and restores the status quo or allows schools to continue with important reforms and changes they made in their first five years as a PLA school is a big question.
When it comes to school improvement, we don’t have all the answers. The best we can do is close the loopholes and provide districts with a menu of strong models that have a good chance at success. We can close one major loophole by requiring states to vet their innovative models with the Department of Education to ensure some quality control. This would help assure that all the Harkin-Enzi improvement models, including the “other innovative” choice, lead to meaningful and effective changes for low-performing schools.