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.
- 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.
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.