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Which Way Up: At a Glance

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has placed a much-needed spotlight on student achievement gaps and persistently poor school performance. But a wide divergence of opinions exists on how to effectively and consistently close the disparities and raise student achievement. Although the debate still rages on, a confluence of factors has pushed fixing the nation’s worst performing schools to the forefront with the federal government leading the charge. 

Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the U.S. Department of Education funneled $3 billion in stimulus funds into the NCLB-era School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, recasting it into an aggressive reform strategy that targeted public schools in the bottom five percent on state student achievement measures.  

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.

Who’s choosing which model?

While data from SIG-funded schools are just beginning to be released for public consumption, it is possible to look at what options schools and districts are choosing for their reform efforts. Significantly, early research shows that the less invasive, more flexible “transformation” model is by far the most popular choice of school districts.  However, urban districts were somewhat more likely to choose “turnaround” strategies than their suburban and rural counterparts. 

Do any of these reform models actually turn schools around?

Overall impact: According to first-year data collected by the U.S. Department of Education (2012), nearly two-thirds of SIG-funded schools achieved progress in reading and two-thirds--- not necessarily the same schools--- made progress in math. The department also reported that elementary schools were more likely than secondary schools to show gains. Overall, 70 percent of elementary schools reported increases in reading from 2009-2010, compared with 63 percent of high schools. However, with just one year of data and recognizing that many factors can affect student proficiency, the department itself acknowledged it is too early to draw a causal link between SIG funding and school performance. However, previous research has examined, to different degrees, each of the individual models. 

School closure: Only a few studies have looked at the impact of school closure on student achievement, but those that exist have found student achievement to be highly dependent upon the new school the child attends. One such study looked at 18 Chicago elementary schools shuttered between 2001 and 2006 (de la Torre & Gwynne, 2009). Based on testing one year after closure, displaced students at weaker schools (those in the bottom quartile of all system schools) had lost more than a month in reading and 1.5 months in math. By comparison, the smaller number of displaced students who ended up in stronger schools (those in the top quartile) had gained a month in reading and two months in math.  Another study showed similar results and also found “no evidence” of a negative impact on the receiving schools due to the influx of new/displaced students (Engberg, et. al., 2011)

Restart: In this model, districts are required to close and reopen schools under a charter management organization (CMO) or an education management organization (EMO) “selected through a rigorous review process” as distinguished from home-grown or other charter schools (see CPE for more on charter schools). 

Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has conducted a number of studies on charter schools and found that “CMOs taken as a whole have about the same performance as the [traditional public schools] with whom they co-exist” (Peltason & Reynolds, 2013).  

In addition, a RAND Corporation study of Philadelphia’s experience with “restarts” examined student data from 45 of the city’s lowest performing schools that were turned over to a group of seven private “managers.” The study found that the privately managed schools in Philadelphia showed no positive or negative effects in reading or math in the four years following takeover (Gill,et. al, 2007).  

Transformation: The transformation model is by far the most popular among SIG grantees, as it provides more flexibility than the other three options.  The model allows a number of permissible activities such as, providing additional compensation to attract and retain staff and increasing rigor by offering students opportunities for more advanced coursework. Such flexibility in implementation, however, adds to the complexity of evaluating the transformation model.  

RAND Corporation’s 2007 study of Philadelphia again provides some insight. Of the 86 low-performing schools that the city’s reform commission identified for major improvements, 21 schools underwent “restructuring,” a series of strategies that included intensive professional development and close district oversight, strategies that most resemble the SIG transformation model.  RAND found students in restructured schools performed better in math for three years and in reading for the first year, while the other SIG models the district adopted had no impact (Gill, Zimmer, Christman & Blanc, 2007).  

Turnaround: Similar to the transformation model, there is little research that can assess the turnaround model in its specific SIG incarnation. But research on reconstitution--- the strategy of replacing a school’s entire staff--- may shed some light (Calkins et. al, 2007). Overall, these findings are not positive:
  • In the eight schools reconstituted after 1994 in San Francisco, there was little, if any, improvement in standardized test scores 10 years later.

  • Three years after several Chicago schools were reconstituted, researchers found lower-than-average gains in reading achievement compared with the rest of Chicago schools.
In addition, the turnaround model seems to pose particular challenges for rural schools, where finding enough teachers to fill existing vacancies can be difficult.  Partial replacement of staff also raises concerns about the loss of experienced teachers.  

The role money plays: One final but very important question to consider regarding the efficacy of any of these models: If early evidence suggests SIG reforms are working what role does money play in this trend? The Obama Administration has provided up to $2 million per school at more than 1,300 of the country's lowest-performing schools. Sustainability is an issue of importance to state leaders, many of whom have raised concerns about sustaining their reform efforts beyond the three-year ARRA SIG grants.  This is an issue that requires additional research.

The common thread: Replacing principals

While each model available to SIG grantees has its own requirements, there is one common requirement across the four models – replacing the principal. While there is a research base showing that among school factors, principals have a big impact--- second only to teachers--- on student achievement, the strategy of replacing the principal to improve low-performing schools is largely new (see CPE for more on principal effectiveness).

A long-term analysis of New York City public school principals found that the impact of effective principals, as measured by the value-added scores on student assessments, was nearly twice as large in high-poverty schools as in low-poverty schools (Branch, Hanushek & Rivkin, 2012).  

Other studies show that it typically takes time -- as much as three to five years -- for principals to become highly effective in their new school (Clark,et. al, 2009). Even so, a 2010 evaluation of the New Leaders for New Schools program found “a positive association  between academic achievement and having a New Leader in his or her second (or higher) year of tenure” (Martorell et. al, 2010). 

What school boards can do?

Overall, there is limited research on the impact of any of the four SIG models. Given the wide variation in circumstances facing struggling schools, NSBA’s advocacy of locally developed innovations and plans is an idea worthy of consideration. Homegrown innovations would provide flexibility to schools and could serve as an additional “overlay” to the required school improvement models. But there are some specifics that school boards should keep in mind:

  • Examine the district’s capacity to undertake a particular reform option, including finding enough qualified candidates to fill open positions.  Replacing a majority of teachers -- as required in the turnaround model -- presents significant challenges for small and rural districts. Even finding highly qualified principals--a tenet of SIG-funded interventions--can be difficult. 

    According to the Center for Education Policy (Scott, McMurrer, McIntosh & Dibner, 2012), replacing staff works best when: 
    • Districts have the capacity to help the school fill open positions
    • The school’s region has the supply of qualified candidates to fill open positions 
    • The district, possibly with state assistance, can negotiate to remove potential teacher union obstacles to re-staffing
  • Partner with local universities, non-profits and/or educational service agencies to recruit qualified candidates, increase professional capacity of current staff, and develop a leadership pipeline for principals. For example, New Leaders has experienced success attracting, preparing, and supporting leaders for urban public schools in 12 locations. The University of Virginia’s Turnaround Specialist program is another model program.   
  • Inform and engage the community in your design plans. Any of these models, but especially school closure, can create anxiety among teachers, parents and community members. It’s important to keep communication channels open while you negotiate the change.
  • Monitor progress and make adjustments as needed. None of these models comes with a guarantee.  Your flexibility at the local level to gauge progress and make mid-course corrections are a vital piece of eventual success. 

This report was prepared for the Center for Public Education by Eileen M. O’Brien and Chuck Dervarics. O’Brien is an independent education researcher and consultant in Alexandria, Virginia. Chuck Dervarics is an education writer and former editor of Report on Preschool Programs, a national independent newsletter on pre-k, Head Start, and child care policy. 

Published May 2013.  Copyright Center for Public Education.

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