Turnaround Tactics

Betsy DeVos called Obama’s school turnaround program a failure, but new research shows it worked — in a few places

PHOTO: Grace Tatter/Chalkbeat

In the waning days of the Obama administration, a federal study showed that its signature effort to improve struggling schools had failed to produce any clear benefits. It was a parting blow to the old administration but a welcome gift for the incoming one — and the new education secretary quickly seized on the results.

“The previous administration spent seven billion of your dollars on ‘School Improvement Grants,’ thinking they could demonstrate that money alone would solve the problem,” she said triumphantly at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “They tested their model, and it failed miserably.”

But two new studies paint a more encouraging picture of the program, commonly known as SIG, showing it produced notable gains for students in San Francisco and across Ohio.

The findings don’t contradict the national analysis, but they do highlight variations in how, and how well, the program was implemented in different places. As districts and states continue to wrestle with how to improve low-performing schools, the new studies provide some evidence that improvements can happen — and relatively quickly.

“With interventions like SIG, the answer to whether it was a success or failure is almost always ‘It’s complicated,’” said Deven Carlson, as assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma and a co-author of the Ohio report. “I see our study, considered alongside other evaluations of SIG, to fully support an ‘It’s complicated’ narrative.”

A spokesperson for the education department did not respond to a request for comment.

Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the ambitious initiative to turn around hundreds of struggling schools in 2009. “We want transformation, not tinkering,” he said.

Starting in 2010, hundreds of schools received grant money — which in Ohio amounted to more than $2,000 per student — and were required to change in one of four ways: fire the principal and make an array of changes, including a longer school day and more rigorous teacher evaluations; make those changes and also fire half of the staff; turn the school over to a charter operator; or close the school altogether. The vast majority of schools chose the first, least disruptive option.

The San Francisco study — appearing in March in the American Educational Research Journal — compared nine schools in the city that received SIG money to similar schools that didn’t participate in the program.

A 2013 San Francisco Chronicle article reported that the grants led to an influx of staff and services: “The money bought summer school classes, computers, books, social workers, nurses, literacy and math coaches, and more. All told, 70 people were hired with the grant funding this year at nine city schools.”

“Basically, anything I need I can ask for,” Monica Giudici, a teacher at one of the nine schools, told the Chronicle.

After three years, the SIG schools had higher test scores and attendance rates, and more parents wanted to send their kids to those schools. The schools did a better job of retaining effective teachers, and offered more professional development, according to surveys of teachers. The gains were largest in the schools that dismissed half their staff.

The Ohio report, recently published through the Ohio Education Research Center, showed that students in 74 schools receiving SIG funds saw large test score gains and higher graduation rates after two or three years. The results, however, dissipated when the grant ran out, suggesting that the program led to meaningful short-term improvements but didn’t spur longer-term shifts in school quality.

However, Ohio’s “priority schools” initiative — another program pushed by the feds that required schools to make specific changes but didn’t include an infusion of money — did not produce any benefits, according to the study. That suggests that the resources were an important factor in the state’s successful turnarounds.

“Context and capacity likely played a significant role in the success of SIG across states, but we lose sight of this fact because we think of SIG as this singular program where context is irrelevant,” said Carlson.

Past research on federal turnaround programs have shown positive effects in California and Massachusetts, mixed or no effects in North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan, and negative results in Texas.

Andy Smarick, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime SIG critic, said he didn’t question the latest results but said it’s important to also look at where the program was less successful. “The worry with these recent studies, of course, is that people will ‘reason from the dependent variable’ — that is, find these instances of purported success and try to draw conclusions about the entirety of SIG or the entirety of turnarounds from them,” he said.

Carlson agrees that his research doesn’t answer the key question of why SIG seems to have been effective in Ohio, but less so elsewhere.

“Our work shows that SIG increased reading and math scores in Ohio, at least for schools near the eligibility threshold,” he said. “It says much less about why.”


Lawmakers pledge to ‘put some legs’ to new Colorado education plan

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes stressed that a new education blueprint respects local control, as state Rep. Bob Ranking, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, and Gov. John Hickenlooper look on.

With just a few weeks left in office, Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled an educational blueprint for Colorado that he hopes his successor, governor-elect Jared Polis, will take to heart.

The proposals range from increasing teacher pay and making training opportunities more relevant to the classroom to forging partnerships between business and education. They urge policy makers to build on ideas that have already worked at the school or district level. They also suggest revamping the school finance formula, a challenging task that has eluded lawmakers so far.

The legislators who served on the Education Leadership Council that wrote “The State of Education” praised the final product and promised it wouldn’t languish on a shelf. State Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and former teacher who will chair the Senate Education Committee, said she was committed to “put some legs on it.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale who served as co-chair of the Education Leadership Council with Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, said that a common refrain during his years in the legislature has been that the state lacks a broad vision for education. That’s made it difficult to move forward on thorny questions.

“The State of Education” provides that vision, Rankin said, and can serve as an “anchor” for lawmakers drafting bills and district leaders looking for new ideas. It’s also a way to show the public how Colorado could be a national leader in education, starting in preschool and continuing all the way through retraining for workers changing careers, he said.

Anthes stressed that the report is not a new set of mandates for school districts and that the plan respects Colorado’s principle of local control.

“We recognize that local context matters,” the report summary reads. ”While the subcommittees came to consensus on the principle and strategies for their components of this plan, we know that not every improvement strategy is right for every community.”

Even as the plan lays out ways to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, it also highlights the state’s acute need for many of those students to choose careers in education. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who was heavily involved in the project, noted that the “talent pipeline” for early childhood teachers in particular needs to be larger and that pay and opportunities for advancement will have to increase if more workers are to enter and stay in the profession.

The report calls for higher base compensation for teachers, for financial incentives like loan forgiveness and paid student teaching, and for evaluating and improving the working conditions in “hard-to-staff” schools.

It also calls for maintaining a high bar through teacher licensing and for alternative certification programs — used by many to enter teaching as a second career or after majoring in something other than education — to have equivalent standards.

At the same time, the report said the state should monitor licensure policies that may disproportionately discourage teachers of color as Colorado seeks to have a teacher workforce that looks more like the students it serves.

In contrast to earlier pushes for school improvement that focused on test-based accountability for schools and teachers, this report frequently mentions flexibility, collaboration, support, respect, and empowering educators.

The report calls for schools to provide a greater diversity of learning experiences for students, to be more flexible in where learning occurs, and to pay more attention to the challenges students face outside the classroom. It calls for deeper exploration of the community schools model, which involves greater collaboration between parents and teachers and a wide range of services not just for students but also for parents and younger siblings.  

“The State of Education” was developed by the Educational Leadership Council, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, educators, business and community leaders, and heads of state agencies convened by Hickenlooper in 2017. Members used input from more than 6,000 people who took an online survey about their education priorities, some 500 people who attended more than 70 roundtable discussions, and 100 people who served on four subcommittees.

Lawmakers will be weighing these ideas without a major new revenue source after the failure of the Amendment 73 school tax increase. Polis campaigned on a platform that included funding full-day kindergarten and significantly expanding access to preschool, while some lawmakers have suggested special education needs more attention.

Rankin said the state budget has money for targeted programs — Hickenlooper’s proposed 2019-20 budget already includes $10 million to fund ideas developed by the Education Leadership Council — but he also stressed that districts and local communities don’t need to wait for the state to pursue the ideas in the report.

“There is significant money going into education even after the failure of Amendment 73,” said Rankin, who also serves on the Joint Budget Committee. “There’s always room for new initiatives, whether they happen out in rural Colorado or in Denver Public Schools. I think it’s going to be up the districts themselves within their budgets to take up some of these priorities.”

Members of the incoming Polis administration have been briefed on the plan, and Hickenlooper said he hopes the plan will prove useful. A spokesperson for Polis declined to comment on the report.

Hickenlooper said providing all students with a good education is essential to maintaining Colorado’s strong economy.

“We will not stay No. 1 if we do not invest in our kids,” he said.

Read the full report here.

growing enrollment

Denver Green School is the district’s pick for a new middle school in growing Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Workmen frame the walls in new affordable housing units in Stapleton in August 2018.

To serve a growing number of middle school students in the family-focused northeast Denver neighborhood of Stapleton, district administrators have recommended opening a middle school replicating the popular Denver Green School.

The seven-member Denver school board is set to vote on the recommendation Thursday night. Should the board approve it as expected, a second location of Denver Green School would open next fall on a shared campus north of I-70 in the area of the neighborhood known as Northfield. The campus is already home to Inspire Elementary School.

Enrollment in Stapleton schools is expected to increase as new home construction brings more families to the area. The new middle school would start with sixth grade next year and add a grade each year. The district has requested the school eventually be able to serve as many as 600 students.

A committee of parents, community members, and district employees reviewed applications from three schools interested in filling the district’s need for a new middle school. Committee members said they chose Denver Green School because of its stellar academic track record; its success with serving a diverse student population, including students with disabilities; and the fact that the person who would be its principal is an experienced leader.

Denver Green School is rated “blue,” the highest district rating. The original Denver Green School is a K-8 but the Stapleton school would be solely a middle school.

High Tech Elementary School in Stapleton also applied to fill the need by adding middle school grades. The third applicant was Beacon Network Schools, which already has two middle schools in Denver.

All three applicants are district-run schools, not charter schools. Denver Green School is part of Denver Public Schools’ first “innovation zone.” Being in a zone gives Denver Green School more autonomy over its budget and operations than a regular district-run school has.

The new Denver Green School would be one of six middle schools that families who live in the Stapleton, Northfield, and Park Hill neighborhoods can choose from.

Thursday’s vote will bring to a close a process the district calls the “call for new quality schools.” Instead of simply building and operating new schools, Denver Public Schools puts out a request for proposals, inviting anyone with an idea for a new school to apply. The district then facilitates a competitive selection process. The school that’s chosen gets to open in a district building — a prize in a city where school real estate is at a premium.

In this case, some Stapleton parents were disappointed that the district’s most requested middle school, McAuliffe International, didn’t apply. McAuliffe already has one replication — McAuliffe Manual Middle School — and Principal Kurt Dennis said the timing was not right for another.

“We have several excellent leaders in our pipeline that would love to open a new school, but the timing didn’t work for them in terms of where they are both in their careers and with their families,” Dennis wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “If opportunities were to open up in the future, we would be interested, but not for the fall of 2019.”