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Autopsy of a Turnaround District

Massive school and district turnarounds seem a dime a dozen nowadays, but it's worth taking a look at the Public Policy Institute of California's new evaluation of one of the most hotly debated turnaround attempts from the early days of No Child Left Behind: San Diego Unified School District's short-lived "Blueprint for Student Success."

The Blueprint program, which ran from 2000 to 2005, included several interventions that should sound familiar if you've heard any speech by Arne Duncan in the last two years: pedagogical coaches for teachers, extended days and years for students in schools with low reading performance, summer intensive sessions for low readers and English learners, and double- and even triple-length English block periods.

San Diego's turnaround story had all the hallmarks we've come to know: high-profile superintendent Alan Bersin and his New York City transplant-turnaround specialist Anthony Alvarado pushed wholesale changes; a furious teachers union protested the "my way or the highway" terms; parents feared the intensity would frustrate and disengage students and the reading focus would hamstring students' progress in other core subjects. After budget cuts and a school board election shake-up, funding for the blueprint programs dried up and Bersin was driven out a year before his contract expired.

Yet five years later, University of California, San Diego economics professor Julian Betts and his team have released a calm, nuanced evaluation of both the interventions' effectiveness and the validity of the criticisms that led to its demise. The researchers found the interventions did not lead to lower scores in math, though they did lead to high school students taking fewer foreign language courses. The programs did not cause more students to miss school or drop out. And the overall effectiveness was a mixed bag.

"We're not getting at the issue of the top-down nature of the reforms, we're just asking, did it work?" Betts told me, "and the answer is yes. It was effective in the lower grades, and in high school, no, it was not."

For example, a student who attended a "focus" school—one in the lowest 10 percent of district elementary schools, which received an extended school year, peer coaches for teachers and additional funding—would increase in district ranking by 3 percentile points over four years.

"These additional days at the elementary school level really seemed to work, but they were really expensive," Betts said, noting that they were cut in budgets only three years into the reforms. "It's a really gut-wrenching finding, ... given that not just in California but nationwide we're tending to see a shortened school year, either formally or informally through furloughs."

In middle school, the double-length "literacy block" and triple-length "literacy core" classes increased students' reading achievement by 1.6 and 5.5 percentile points each year. A student who participated in both programs over the course of his middle school career would be 12.6 percentile points above the rank he would otherwise have achieved.

Of course, Mr. Betts cautioned, "Lots of these students were hovering around the 25th percentile. It would take a lot to bring them up to average."

Moreover, he thought many of the "quite significant gains" made in elementary and middle school would have been "eroded away by the negative effects in high school." The same programs so effective in lower grades—extended-session literacy block and core—actually brought down reading achievement for students in high school; for English learners, in particular, the block periods were associated with a drop of 4.9 percentile points a year.

The irony? Early budget cuts meant the extra funding and extended-year portions were cut from the blueprint after only a few years, while the detrimental extended sessions in high school stayed around for years.

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