The federal school turnaround program is mostly failing in Washington according to research out today from the University of Washington's Center for Reinventing Public Education.

In their study of Washington schools receiving School Improvement Grants (SIG) from the federal government, the researchers found most are failing to make aggressive reforms.

First implemented in 2007, the SIG program was intended to increase student performance at the country's worst performing schools. The program identifies the bottom 5-percent of schools to receive federal funding. Fifty schools were eligible to apply; 17 schools were awarded grants.

The report says that most SIG schools are making only marginal changes, similar to ones made in the past, this despite what the CRPE describes as a tremendous financial investment in both dollars ($900,000 per year per school) and staff time. It goes on to say that, by and large, the schools were not creating targeted school-wide strategies to improve instruction and attack a culture of low expectations.

As part of the SIG program, schools identified as persistently low performing are given four options for making improvements:

  • Transformation model. Under this option the principal is replaced and the district is required to take steps to increase teacher and school leader effectiveness. It also calls for increased learning time and the creation of community-oriented schools.
  • Turnaround model. Like the transformation model, this option calls for replacing the principal, no more than 50-percent of the staff is rehired and the new principal is given sufficient flexibility (to include staffing, calendars/time and budgeting) to implement a plan to substantially improve student outcomes.
  • Restart model. This option closes the school and re-opens it under an outside operator, like a charter school. As previously discussed in this blog, this option is not feasible in Washington because of laws preventing charter schools.
  • Closure model. As it suggests, this option closes the school and allows students to transfer to higher performing schools within the same school district.

Most districts, the report says, elected the Transformation model, not because districts thought it was the best option, but because local teachers' unions would only sign off on that option. Other options would give principals and districts the ability to choose their entire staffs.

The study was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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