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Federal School Reform Program Failed to Pan Out

Long ago, before the Race to the Top, and before No Child Left Behind, the major federal school improvement initiative was a program called Comprehensive School Reform. Begun in 1998, the $1 billion program provided grants for schools with high concentrations of poverty and low levels of achievement to undertake research-based "whole school" reform efforts. This was considered an improvement over previous reform efforts, in which schools cobbled together a program here and there, or pulled struggling kids out of class for special instruction.

Before the program languished under President George W. Bush's administration, it provided grants to nearly 7,000 schools across the country. The trouble was that, by and large, it didn't work out very well.

At least that's the verdict from a federally funded evaluation of the program released this morning. Researchers from WestEd and the American Institutes for Research found that only a third of the schools that received CSR funding during those years fully implemented all the required program components. So it's no surprise, then, that the achievement gains overall in the CSR-funded schools were no larger than those in demographically similar comparison schools. According to the report, learning gains were "nonexistent in CSR elementary schools, marginally lower than comparison schools in middle school mathematics, and no different from comparison schools in middle school reading."

That's not to say some schools didn't make significant improvement; some even did so at a rapid pace. (Think turnaround schools here.) In an attempt to figure out what made those schools successful, the researchers also developed case studies of 11 of them. Of those 11, eight had essentially turned around within one or two years, and three were characterized as "slow and steady" schools because their gains mounted over a period of four to five years.

The study found that, regardless of whether their test-score improvements were rapid or slow, the 11 schools had all made strides in the same four areas: leadership, school climate, instruction, and external support. Beyond those areas, though, all bets were off. The schools all looked very different, following their own distinctive paths to success and doing it in their own time. That suggests there is "no one recipe for success," the researchers say.

But success can also be fleeting, the study found. Two of the fast-gaining schools later showed considerable decline. And even schools that sustained their growth reported that student mobility, maintaining a sense of urgency, and turnover among teacher leaders presented continuing challenges for them.

The final report and its sub-study of 11 high-performing schools are both available for free on WestEd's website. Although the CSR program has not been funded for years, there are plenty of lessons here for the U.S. Department of Education's current plans to turn around the nation's lowest-performing schools.

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