School Turnaround Folly: $3.5 Billion Federal Grant Edition

As Leslie Maxwell reports at Education Week, the $3.5 billion in school improvement grants are overwelmingly going to schools who chose the easiest school improvement model: transformation. The rest of the schools chose school turnaround; the second weakest option. Despite the Obama Administration’s chatter about charter schools, almost none of the $3.5 billion will go to school closure or schools restarting as charters.

Schools receiving millions of dollars in federal money meant to reverse years of low achievement are overwhelmingly opting for “transformation,” the least disruptive of four intervention methods endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.

This model is very similar to the “other” category under No Child Left Behind which meant each school could decide their own plan for school improvement. Once again individual schools will millions in federal dollars for promising to get it right this time. In California, for example, out of 113 schools likely to get the funding, 72 chose transformation and 32 chose turnaround with only two schools identified for school closure.

The Brookings Institute recently reported on the failure of school turnarounds in California:

“Much of the rhetoric on turnarounds is pie in the sky—more wishful thinking than a realistic assessment of what school reform can actually accomplish,” writes Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution. “It can be done but the odds are daunting” and “examples of large-scale, system-wide turnarounds are nonexistent.”

Mr. Loveless looked at 1,100 schools in California and compared test scores from 1989 and 2009. “Of schools in the bottom quartile in 1989—the state’s lowest performers—nearly two-thirds (63.4 percent) scored in the bottom quartile again in 2009,” he writes. “The odds of a bottom quartile school’s rising to the top quartile were about one in seventy (1.4 percent).” Of schools in the bottom 10% in 1989, only 3.5% reached the state average after 20 years.