Turnaround strategies for low-performing schools are getting a lot of attention from states and the federal government—which are spending billions of dollars on those efforts. But do these strategies work?
The National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) Center for Public Education (CPE) finds that while there have been some successes there’s not much evidence yet that many of these strategies will work on a larger scale.
The report, “Which Way Up? What research says about school turnaround strategies,” reviews numerous methods of school improvement to determine which, if any, hold the most promise, but finds that in most cases it’s too early to tell.
“With the significant federal investment and mandated models to ‘turnaround’ low-performing schools, we have limited research to date on the effectiveness of these strategies and little guidance on what actually works,” said NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel. “We know that school improvement funding is extremely important, but it should encourage innovation, instead of mandating unnecessary federal restrictions.”
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has placed a larger focus on turnaround strategies by identifying schools with low performance and sizable achievement gaps. The main federal turnaround program, the School Improvement Grant (SIG), targets schools in the bottom 5 percent nationwide with four models of reform ranging from replacing staff to shutting down a school. These strategies are echoed in the federal Race to the Top grants and so-called Parent Trigger laws being introduced in a handful of states.
One federal study showed that two-thirds of SIG grant recipients posted gains with the infusion of federal funds, but because the report was based on only one year’s data, it was too early to draw conclusions.
“The focus on the nation’s lowest performing schools is vitally important so we can make sure all students have the benefit of a solid public education,” said Patte Barth, CPE’s Director. “In these efforts, education policymakers need to balance the need for evidence-based strategies while tapping the potential for local innovation, especially in cases like turnaround strategies where the data is limited.”
In examining research on the impact of school closure, restart, transformation, and turnaround models, the report concludes:
- Research is limited. There is some evidence of success, primarily for schools undertaking more dramatic turnaround reforms, but data collected over a longer period of time is needed.
- The vast majority of SIG schools — about three-quarters are choosing the “transformation model” which provides the most flexibility for local planners.
- Replacing a majority of teachers—required in the turnaround model—presents challenges for some schools. Rural schools are particularly challenged to find enough teachers to meet the replacement requirements.
- Rural schools also face difficulties with the restart model since they have limited access to private management organizations. The closure model also may not be feasible if they have no other schools in which to send students. Even in urban areas, a closure model seems to be promising only when students can transfer to schools with higher achievement rates.
- Replacing a principal may show promise, as some studies indicate principals are second only to teachers in their impact on student learning. But the strategy is new and again, the data is limited.
NSBA has repeatedly voiced concerns about the U.S. Department of Education’s mandates and overreach, which hinder school officials’ abilities to address their unique local needs. In response to NSBA concerns, the Local School Board Governance and Flexibility Act (HR 1386) has been introduced and now has 15 cosponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would ensure that the agency engages local school boards much more to preclude federal requirements that are ineffective and beyond local school district capacity.