Date: 
Thursday, March 29, 2012

Millions in turnaround dollars fail to spark bold reform for lowest-performing Washington state schools

Seattle, WA - Just over two years ago, the federal government committed over $3 billion nationwide to help states and districts turn around their worst-performing schools. The U.S. Department of Education intended for the School Improvement Grants (SIGs) to spur dramatic change.

In a report released today, Tinkering Toward Transformation: A Look at Federal School Improvement Grant Implementation, researchers from the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) show that, for the most part, the districts they studied, including urban, suburban, and rural, failed to make aggressive reforms in the SIG program's first year. CRPE researchers conducted a field study of the first-year implementation of those grants in Washington State, which will receive $50 million in SIG funding over three years.

Sarah Yatsko, lead author of the study, said, "Teachers are working very hard in these schools, but their efforts are largely being wasted because districts didnÍt have a good plan."

When it came to choosing from among four prescribed turnaround options for schools, officials nearly always defaulted to the path of least resistance: in most cases, district administrators did not take advantage of the opportunity to overhaul staffing and put the best possible leaders and teachers in turnaround schools.

The schools themselves tended to adopt a hodgepodge of intervention strategies, rather than the type of whole-school, laser-focused approaches to instruction, data analysis, and climate that are behind most successful turnaround efforts. Only two of the nine schools studied, those led by principals with solid track records of school turnaround, took that comprehensive, no-excuses approach.

The research team, Sarah Yatsko, Robin Lake, Elizabeth Cooley Nelson, and Melissa Bowen, conducted interviews with state and district officials, union leaders, principals, and teachers, and visited all of the schools that received SIG funds in the districts studied. Among the reasons they found for the lack of aggressive action:

  • A rushed timeline limited district leaders' ability to create comprehensive, research-based turnaround plans; get unions to sign off on aggressive approaches; and hire sought-after principals and teachers.
  • District leaders failed to communicate a coherent plan: why SIG schools were chosen, what their educational goals were, and what would constitute successful turnaround. "The district doesn't have the vision of what school improvement is supposed to be about," one principal said.
  • Most principals and district officials overseeing the SIG funds lacked turnaround expertise.
  • Even when principals were given flexibility to remove teachers, some chose not to.
  • Where states and districts could have been active partners in reform, coaching and prodding, they instead mainly served to make sure rules were being followed.
  • Officials at all levels failed to tap available outside resources and partners that could have helped them shape turnaround efforts.

"SIG funds are likely to make more of a difference in states such as Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Delaware, Louisiana, and Indiana that are helping districts take the bolder, comprehensive actions required for school turnarounds, including negotiated carve-outs in collective bargaining agreements," reported William Guenther, president of Mass Insight Education and co-author of the 2007 Turnaround Challenge report. "It's time more states embraced that kind of support for students who need it the most."

"Tinkering Toward Transformation" contains several recommendations that, if adopted, would go a long way toward ensuring that billions of dollars in SIG funds fuel true turnaround for the nation's worst-performing schools. The authors suggest that the U.S. Department of Education tighten the rules so that only proposals for rigorous reform can win funding, and give states and districts more time for planning and hiring. States should become active partners in turnaround, marshalling leadership, expertise, and communications rather than mainly monitoring compliance. And districts need to research exemplars of school turnaround, give principals true autonomy, and create an office that closely manages turnaround work and is empowered to provide schools with the flexibility and resources they need.

CRPE director and co-author of the report, Robin Lake, observed: "There is a lot of evidence out there about what it takes to transform a school from a culture of excuses and failure to a culture of determination and success. Unfortunately, Washington State seems to have ignored much of that evidence."