Tuesday, December 29, 2009

To get federal funds, schools must apply stronger measures to struggling schools

By Nick Anderson | Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 28, 2009

If a public school struggles year after year, is the solution to shut it down? Fire everyone and start over? Hand the reins to a contractor? Or help teachers and principals raise their game?

As the federal government offers school systems an unprecedented $3.5 billion to revive schools, a huge increase for a reform program launched with $125 million in 2007, policymakers increasingly are prescribing stronger medicine for the lowest performers.

In years past, educators generally opted for the least invasive remedies. Most shied from state takeovers, shutdowns, conversion to a charter school and the like.

Instead, they favored measures such as teaming a principal with a "turnaround specialist," who would offer coaching and encouragement. The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law, enacted under President George W. Bush, allowed the less-aggressive approaches.

Now the Obama administration is pushing a harder line for the weakest schools. School systems that want a share of the federal aid have four options:

-- Turnaround: replacing a school principal and at least half the staff;

-- Restart: converting a school to an autonomous charter school or hiring an education management organization to run it;

-- Shutdown: closing a school and dispersing its students; or,

-- Transformation: replacing a principal, improving teacher effectiveness and taking other steps for comprehensive reform.

Systems with nine or more of the weakest schools may use the transformation option in no more than half of them. That proviso significantly tightens the Bush-era accountability policy.

"After years of school improvement efforts," Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote this month in a document intended to justify the new approach, "there are far too few examples of persistently low-achieving schools that have significantly and rapidly improved performance. We believe that, in part, this is because turning around such schools generally requires fundamental changes in leadership and often in governance and staff, changes that many [local education agencies] are reluctant to make."

Will it work?

"In general, we don't have much evidence on what it takes to create an alternative to a failed school," said Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution analyst who oversaw education research in the Bush administration. "There's not a lot of case studies that you can point to. It's not that [Obama officials] are ignoring evidence. It's just that there isn't much evidence to go on."

Whitehurst contends that improving school curricula , the material taught and its sequence, is a proven way to lift performance. Generations of education leaders, he notes, have tried myriad school governance changes, with mixed results.

Reviving failed schools, especially in cities with deep poverty and a host of other academic obstacles, is probably the hardest job in public education. Duncan, schools chief in Chicago before joining the Obama administration, tried numerous shakeups in that city's schools and achieved some gains. But many schools in the nation's third-largest system still struggle, despite decades of reforms.

In the Washington area, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is known for closing schools, firing principals and sometimes seeking contractors to run schools that fall short. Charter schools also are proliferating in the District. Virginia, with relatively few schools in jeopardy, tends to avoid the most severe interventions.

Maryland, with more experience in turnaround efforts, is gravitating toward the get-tough approach. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said she has become convinced that replacing leadership in a failing school is essential.

"It begins with effective principals," she said. "I've never been in a great school that didn't have a great principal."

The challenge is formidable. Maryland lists 39 schools that have needed improvement for a decade or more. Most are in Baltimore, and five are in Prince George's County.

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