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Turnaround Schools Struggle With Staffing, Time, and Climate

Anyone who has taken a close look at the federal School Improvement Grant program—or turnarounds in general—probably knows that school staffing, scheduling, and climate can be among the toughest challenges to tackle. The Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, which has already done some must-read studies of SIG, took a deeper look at the these three tricky issues in a trio of reports out today.

The reports relied both on a survey of 46 Title I directors, conducted by CEP in the winter of 2011-12, and on "case studies" of SIG schools in three very different states: Idaho, Maryland, and Michigan. (Other reports using the survey and case-studies are available here and here.) Background on the very complicated program, including its four complex models here


The two most popular of the four models for the SIG program—"turnaround" and "transformation""—require schools to remove the principal, unless that person has been on the job less than two years and was hired as part of a turnaround effort. The turnaround model also requires schools to get rid of at least half the teachers. Both of those interventions have been highly controversial, and haven't been easy to implement.

Does getting rid of staff help? For the most part, state officials seem to think it does. Fifteen out of 45 states using the most popular model (transformation, which is used at three-quarters of SIG schools) saw getting rid of the principals as a key element of the turnaround. Ten states said it helps "to some extent," while 16 states said the extent varies from school to school. Just one state said it didn't make a difference, while three thought it was too soon to say. The results were similar for states using the turnaround model when they were asked whether getting rid of half the staff made a difference.

States—which are supposed to provide technical assistance to SIG schools—largely steered clear of the human resources challenges, perhaps because hiring and firing is usually a district prerogative. Just 10 out of 46 states said they helped districts find and recruit good principals. And just eight of the 46 said they helped pinpoint and enlist effective teachers. 

Interesting tidbit: Finding staff for turnaround-model schools was so hard that, in the second year of the grant, Prince George's County, Md., opted instead for the "restart model," which requires schools to become charters or partner with an education management organization. (They could still, technically, hold on to their entire staff if the charter operator agreed.)

The bottom-line: Even a ton of new money doesn't create new people, and good staff is hard to find. Plus, the short time frame for the grants didn't help much on this front. (The Government Accountability has also dinged the department for expecting schools to move to fast to implement the complicated SIG program.) CEP's research-based suggestion? The feds should consider some flexibility when it comes to the personnel requirements of SIG, particularly for rural schools.

CEP also took a close look at the way states are implementing the extended learning time piece of the program, which has been a puzzle for districts and schools. It found that the Maryland schools in the case study were spending the extra time primarily on the students who are struggling the most academically, while Michigan schools were pushing to extend the school day for everyone, with mixed results (i.e. some schools were only able to add a small amount of time to the school day). Idaho schools, which were largely rural, especially struggled with the requirement and don't see it as an essential piece of the school improvement formula. Overall, the perceptions about whether extended learning time really works were generally positive, but mixed, with some state-level folks saying it was too early to say and others saying it really varied from school to school.

The third CEP report focuses on climate and school culture. Under the School Improvement Grant regulations, schools aren't necessarily held accountable for improving school culture and climate, but many principals felt it was necessary to start to tackle non-academic challenges, such as attendance and behavior. And some had creative ideas to get the job done, including bringing in an entourage of behavior specialists, social workers, community coordinators, and other outreach for parents.  

Officials at Gholson Middle School, in Prince George's County, Md., spent the first week and a half of its first year in the grant just on school climate, such as getting the kids to refer to themselves as "scholars" and wear uniforms, which the schools' two principals refer to as "paycheck attire."

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