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Gary M. Ratner Headshot

Where's the Evidence? Serious Inadequacy of 'Race To The Top' School Turnaround Models

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Imagine if America could actually turn around its 5,000 lowest-achieving public schools and within five years -- as the Obama administration proposes to do through Race To The Top (RTTT) and similar grant programs. It would unquestionably be a huge victory -- both for millions of America's most disadvantaged students and as a guide to turning around thousands of other low-achieving schools.

But how likely is it that RTTT and the other programs (referred to collectively hereafter as "RTTT"), would, as currently framed, accomplish these goals? Not at all likely.

RTTT is based on requiring each grantee to implement one of four specified approaches ("models") for turning around a school: "Turnaround," "Transformation," "Restart" and "Closure." For RTTT to succeed, I believe that its models would have to satisfy four common-sense conditions: 1) Availability -- of enough skilled and knowledgeable staff to properly implement the models in all the 5,000 urban, rural and suburban schools nationwide; 2) Effectiveness -- in reliably and dramatically improving the targeted schools and student learning; 3) Fairness -- in discharging government workers; and 4) Democracy -- in preserving public control of public schools.

As Congress now drafts the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it must decide whether to continue to mandate that, to receive a grant, states and districts have to implement only the four RTTT models. To act responsibly, Congress should do so only if it finds that the administration has shown substantial evidence that the models satisfy the above four conditions. I believe the administration has not.

Indeed, on several key components, the evidence is to the contrary. Thus, Congress needs to include a fifth approach in the ESEA that addresses the current models' major deficiencies.

For starters, the administration deserves great credit for finally halting our wasteful practice of reinventing- the-wheel in school reform. The administration no longer leaves schools to try to figure out all the complexities of turnarounds on their own. Instead, it has wisely recognized that certain strategies do substantially help schools improve and required adoption of some of them in the "Transformation" and "Turnaround" models.

However, other key "model" components are seriously flawed.

Specifically:

  • Automatic Replacement of Principal -- Both the "Turnaround" and "Transformation" models demand automatic replacement of all principals, except those hired recently to implement an RTTT model. Yet, to have a fair and reliable process of removing only unpromising leaders, principals must get the chance to work long enough to have had a major impact and be objectively evaluated and found wanting before being shown the door. No such prerequisites exist, meaning RTTT can result in the automatic firing of principals even though they're making important gains to turn around their schools.
  • Moreover, it is currently impossible to find enough well-qualified turnaround replacement principals for thousands of low-achieving schools. While the U.S. has some, "the supply of principals capable of doing the [turnaround] work is tiny..." -- wholly insufficient to meet the need. Instead, as expert Vincent Tirozzi notes, "'What we're seeing is a principal shuffle -- Principal A moving to School B, B to C and other permutations[.]" This is especially problematic in rural areas which, as Senator Michael Enzi (Wyo.) observes, can find it difficult to recruit principals at all. To mandate turnaround without a skilled and knowledgeable turnaround leader (or, at least, offering skillful, intensive mentoring support -- rarely available) is to doom the turnaround to failure.
  • Automatic Removal 50 percent or plus of Staff -- The "Turnaround" model also requires "screen[ing] all existing staff and rehir[ing] no more than 50 percent." This requirement to automatically remove at least half the staff apparently rests on Secretary Duncan's "belief" that it "can be [a] key to creating the new climate and culture needed to break the cycle of educational failure [.]"
  • But even if such drastic action "can be" a key to turnaround, where is the Department's evidence showing how often it "will be" a key -- 10 percent, 25 percent, 75 percent of the time? The Department offers no evidence that this extremely disruptive and arbitrary 50 percent firing requirement would frequently make a critical difference. Nor has it shown it would be possible to minimize failed disruptions by accurately predicting in advance which ones would succeed. In some cases, replacing half the staff will cut deeply into the fiber of the school and actually leave things worse off than they were before.
  • On the other hand, research and experience show that, with proper leadership and support, it is possible to turn around schools without wholesale staff removal. For example, principal Anthony Smith utilized every one of his teachers in his landmark transformation of a failing Cincinnati high school. His initial instinct "'to get rid of all the teachers because ... they didn't know what they were doing [was] 100 percent wrong .... They knew what they were doing, they were working hard, just working hard in the wrong direction.'"
  • Finally, this requirement's implicit assumption is unfounded. It is widely recognized that there are not large numbers of highly skilled and knowledgeable replacement teachers available to serve the lowest-achieving schools, especially in impoverished urban and remote rural areas.
  • Conversion to Charters/Other Privatization -- The third model, "Restart," requires converting a traditional public school to a charter school or other private management. This is no way to dramatically improve traditional public schools - charter schools overall are no more effective than regular schools. Indeed, the comprehensive and in-depth 2009 study of "Charter School Performance" by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes shows charters collectively are worse: in 37 percent of charters, students learned significantly less than in regular public schools, in only 17 percent more, and in 46 percent, similarly. Further, charter providers ordinarily do not operate in rural areas.
  • Moreover, charter schools are inherently undemocratic. The citizens cannot control the operation of charter schools through their elected officials because, though publicly funded, charters are privately managed. Rather than preserving "local control" of public schools, charters undermine it.
  • Closure - The fourth model is to close a school, provided students can be transferred to another "higher achieving [school] within reasonable proximity [.]" Yet, in impoverished urban areas few, if any, significantly higher achieving schools are likely to exist. In rural areas, there may be no other proximate school, period. Thus, "closure" is rarely an available option.

Further, Chicago's experience under Renaissance 2010 - the apparent basis for the four models - reinforces that closure is not widely viable, and can even be dangerous. There, mandatory school closings triggered strong parental opposition and disruption.

"Violence escalated [and] for the most part [the transferred students ended up] at campuses that were just as bad and then progressed at the same predictably low levels." And, of course, closing a school does nothing to turn it around.

In short, the administration has not shown that certain essential components of its RTTT models are "available", "effective," "fair" and "democratic;" indeed, as to key components, there is strong evidence to the contrary. Thus, there is no likelihood that the four models, as currently written, will succeed in turning around the 5,000 lowest-achieving schools in the next five years, (nor any reasonably foreseeable period thereafter.) On these bases, Congress could entirely remove the deficient requirements on staff replacement, conversion and closure from RTTT grants.

At the same time, there may be a small number of schools nationwide with enough replacement resources available to implement the "Transformation," "Turnaround," and "Closure" models and in which their implementation would be effective. And the administration may be so invested in preserving the four models that it may not be worth it politically for Congress to try to remove the seriously flawed provisions from RTTT.

At a minimum, Congress needs to enact a fifth turnaround model that does not contain the current widely impracticable, inflexible, and otherwise seriously deficient RTTT requirements.

What's needed in the ESEA reauthorization is an approach that builds on the strategies that do substantially help schools improve -- one supported by evidence of success. To facilitate this approach, the federal government needs to accept responsibility for helping to greatly increase the number of skilled turnaround leaders. We'll look at these in the next column.