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Education-Stimulus Priority: Reform Bad Schools

Educators are taking steps to turn failing schools around.

August 3, 2009

States face a major hurdle in reforming bad schools. The Obama administration is putting a major emphasis on turning around or closing failing schools. Still, this type of transformation has so far only been successful in a few districts, not entire states.

Despite the bleak outlook -- at least 5,000 schools are defined as failing under No Child Left Behind -- efforts to break the status quo are emerging.

The Administration's Expectations

The U.S. Department of Education knows that it's placing a tall order. States have to promise to invest in transforming schools, but federal officials realize that results will still take time. In the meantime, states must offer up data on how many of their schools are performing poorly (as defined by No Child Left Behind), what plans they have to fix them, and how many failing schools they've closed.

The Game Plan

School-turnaround experts say a few small things, such as aligning curriculum with state standards and creating focused time for reading and math, can yield short-term results. But Julie Corbett of Mass Insight Education, a nonprofit that focuses on school-turnaround efforts, says actually turning around a failing school requires comprehensive, sustainable planning and a willingness to look for outside help. This help often comes in the form of charter schools or partnerships with nonprofits, universities, and businesses.

Urban Centers Making Change

Several urban centers -- Chicago, Miami-Dade, Charlotte, New York -- have turnaround programs. Chicago, where current federal education secretary Arne Duncan was schools chief, started Renaissance 2010, which opens new schools to replace poor-performing and under-enrolled schools. The city closed dozens of schools, and more than 70 new schools -- many of them charter schools -- opened.

In Louisiana, the state takes over the worst schools and puts them into its Recovery School District. Most of the schools are in New Orleans, and charters are also a big part of the mix. The district has seen some small successes in the three years it's been in operation.

A State to Watch

Louisiana is one of the first states to create a recovery district, but the state's plans involve more than that. The Louisiana School Turnaround Specialist Program focuses on training principals in its worst-performing schools. Under the pilot program, 22 principals have attended the University of Virginia's School Turnaround Specialist Program, which combines the efforts of the education and business schools.

In essence, the principals, along with teachers and district officials, learn how to run failing schools like a business. Sheila Guidry, with the Louisiana Department of Education, says the principals gain more-strategic approaches to making change: They learn how to use data, work in teams, and foster communication between administrators, teachers, parents, and the community.

As part of the program, the Louisiana principals give their students interim assessments. These offer a glimpse of how individual students will perform on standardized tests, and schools can later use them to identify which instructional practices worked best, Guidry says.

The Results So Far

Louisiana's leadership program is in the second year of a pilot, so results are limited. In the first set of data, seven schools out of 11 reached the performance goals set for them, Guidry notes.

The state's recovery district, which got under way in 2006, has seen a boost in graduation rates. In one of the schools, there was a 43 percent jump in the rate from 2007 to 2008, and many other schools saw at least a 20 percent increase.

What You Can Learn

School improvement has been part of Louisiana's accountability standards for years, but many principals approached improvement plans as something to check off their to-do list, Guidry says. "They'd talk about doing a plan and put it in the binder and put it on the shelf," she explains.

The principals in the pilot program now create plans that involve taking action -- finding weak spots, then solving the problem, or at least figuring out ways to solve particular problems, Guidry adds.

What You Can Do Locally

The recovery district uses data to keep tabs on individual student's progress. The district places students into three categories: those that meet the benchmarks, those in need of some support, and those in need of intensive support. The idea is to give students -- and sometimes whole classes -- individualized instruction rather than rely on one set way to teach all students.

Finding the type of instruction that works requires a little experimenting, so teachers try out different methods. They continuously monitor students' progress to see which methods are effective, keeping those while rejecting the ineffective ones. There are also programs that can help. In March, the district bought a program from Carnegie Learning to give differentiated instruction in math. Paul Vallas, district superintendent, says the individualized approach helps keep at-risk students engaged and allows them to work at their own pace.

What This Means

States haven't shown yet that they have the ability to produce a turnaround plan on a statewide scale, experts say. The first step is to look at what types of programs they do have in place and whether they work -- then end the ones that don't, Corbett explains.

Once a state establishes each school's needs, what the state can provide, and how to use outside help, its next step is to create pilot programs in small pockets. The U.S. Department of Education wants to scale up what works. In this way, states can evaluate the effectiveness of their turnaround efforts. If states do so, Corbett notes, "They can really get it right in a few places."

Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.

This article is the fourth of four that outlines key steps to improving public education. If you haven't seen the others, start with the first one, and read about how schools can benefit from more sophisticated performance statistics.

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