Like a family that has finally hit the lottery after years of hard living, the Department of Education is dropping money all over the place. Following two decades of relative poverty, its latest stimulus-supplemented gambit is to devote billions to try to fix the nation's very worst schools. After having directed almost $50 billion toward saving teacher jobs and $4 billion toward its Race to the Top program, in which states vie for reform-oriented funding, the department just made available applications for districts to compete for $3.5 billion earmarked for turning around failing schools. As part of the application, each state identifies its most "persistently lowest-achieving schools." The submission deadline for this race to the bottom is Feb. 8.
This summer, Education Secretary Arne Duncan set a national goal to turn around the bottom 1% of America's schools approximately 5,000 of them over the next five years. While he has since dialed back the scope of the project (the Education Department now expects the funds to tackle 1,200 or so schools), the objective remains the same. "My goal isn't quantity but quality," Duncan told TIME in July. "That bottom 1% are made up of dropout factories, where 50, 60, 75% of kids are dropping out. Change around the edges isn't going to get us where we need to go."
The Obama Administration's turnaround funds are being routed through the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. In the past, SIG has provided federal dollars (up to about $500 million) to failing schools in order to implement changes. Of the five SIG restructuring options available to such underperforming schools, the most commonly chosen simply requires schools to make some change, any change such as a new curriculum or extra training for teachers. Weak sauce, in other words. With this new $3.5 billion, districts (which will compete for cash obtained by states through the application of a formula) will have to show that they are ready for and capable of implementing one of four rather dramatic strategies: (1) replacing the school's principal and at least 50% of its staff; (2) closing the school and reopening it as a charter school; (3) closing the school and moving students to better ones; or (4) using a four-pronged transformation strategy of replacing the principal and taking steps to increase teacher effectiveness, instituting comprehensive instructional reforms, increasing learning time and creating community-oriented schools, and providing operational flexibility and sustained support.
While it's difficult to argue with the larger philosophical goal let's fix the U.S.'s dropout factories some critics say the evidence of success in turnaround strategies just isn't there. Worse, it isn't even that clear what makes a turnaround a turnaround. "There's no agreement on how bad a school has to be in order to qualify," says Andy Smarick, a former deputy assistant education secretary who is a visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-reform think tank. "There's no agreement on how long it has to sustain that level of excellence. There's no agreement on whether it means the entire population of students or just certain subgroups. Does it mean having a school go from an F to a C or from an F to an A?"
The Department of Education, sensitive to such criticisms as well as to the years-long frustration with No Child Left Behind's focus on testing, is hoping to use turnarounds to place the focus more on "growth models," in which the most important measurement is not a single year's test score but rather whether students are improving from year to year. (Currently, NCLB requires states to simply take a snapshot of students based on their year-end standardized test scores, as opposed to tracking advancement over time.)
The Denver public-school system, which for more than a year has been utilizing such a growth model, is one of the first districts to adopt school turnaround plans that mimic those favored by the Education Department. On Nov. 30, the city's school board approved measures that would have the district employ each of the four turnaround strategies at various schools across the district. "We can't pretend that modest changes to the status quo are going to deliver significantly different results," says Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg, who has been on the job for a year since replacing former superintendent (now U.S. Senator) Michael Bennet.
While enthusiastic about the district's reform plans, Boasberg is the first to admit that some of its turnarounds and, by extension, some of the turnarounds across the country will not succeed. "If we had a magic formula for school success, we wouldn't be lagging behind other countries like we are right now," he says. "We have to be prepared that some of these efforts will fail, but I'm confident that on the whole, they'll do far better than what they are replacing."