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Turnaround Strategy Needs Turning Around, Says NEPC Report

Guest blog post by Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Efforts to improve schools through "turnaround" efforts like those supported by the federal Student Improvement Grant program are based on "faulty evidence and unwarranted claims," says a policy brief released Monday.
The brief by the National Education Policy Center, an education research organization based at the University of Colorado at Boulder, includes a critical review of current research on turnaround programs and makes recommendations for what it describes as a "more democratic" process for school turnarounds.

The authors of the policy brief, Tina Trujillo, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Michelle Renée, a principal associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, R.I., particularly question the federal SIG program, which has led to an increase in turnaround efforts nationwide by providing districts with funds for three years to implement four different turnaround strategies but does not fund longer-term improvements. The authors say that the research on turnarounds, and especially on their longer-term effectiveness, is limited.

In a press release, the authors decry a policy that encourages districts to "turn around" schools. "Low-performing schools are placed in a terrible situation," author Renée explains. "In order to get the needed federal resources in the middle of this fiscal crisis, they must implement strategies that are more likely to cause upheaval than to help. When a school is in crisis, it is damaging to remove the people who are committed to helping children learn."

The report also questions the premises on which turnaround efforts are based, saying that the grant program is based on a market-based understanding of education that is not evidence-based. The report has some eloquent language arguing for thinking of public education as a public good that doesn't function in the same way as a profit-driven company (though the report also cites data questioning whether turnarounds that involve replacing large portions of a company's staff work well even in the business world).

The authors conclude with a series of recommendations for policymakers: increasing spending on public education; focusing turnaround efforts on improving the quality of teaching; engaging a broader swath of the community in planning and executing turnarounds; determining school quality through multiple measures rather than just test scores; providing wraparound support for struggling scores; and providing more and more-rigorous research on school turnarounds.

The NEPC also released suggested legislative language for creating equitable state-level school improvement grant programs, written by Tara Tini, a senior staff attorney at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and legal advocacy organization with offices in San Francisco and Sacramento.

Bryan Hassel, a co-director of Public Impact, an education policy and management consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C., was unimpressed by the NEPC's recommendations. "The authors' recommendations are largely a rehash of what failing schools have been trying for years with little success," he said in an email to Education Week. "Children simply cannot wait: Schools must try bolder strategies. But schools also must include communities and parents in change—both within schools and their communities."

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