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Study: District Support Strategies Can Impede School Turnaround

As hundreds of districts work to turn around low-performing schools via federal school improvement grants, administrators' strategies for supporting the schools can sometimes hinder their progress, a new practice guide warns.

The Center for American Progress and the Broad Foundation based their report released Friday on an analysis of a decade of improvement cases by Education Resource Strategies, Inc. The analysis suggested that schools improve more through targeted, integrated interventions and supports. Yet districts, in part out of an urge to be fair, frequently provide more across-the-board interventions layered on top of a foundation of unaddressed problems.

For example, Karen Baroody, the managing director of ERS and author of the report, found that most districts provide supplemental money for schools identified for improvement through local or state money, federal school improvement grants, or a combination of both. Yet pre-existing imbalances in district spending allocations, such as the cost of more experienced staff that tend to disproportionately work at better-performing schools, mean that schools in turnaround status often have a lower operating budget than the district average, even after money provided for turnaround efforts is taken into account. Moreover, because most supplemental "turnaround" money expires at most a few years after a school improves academically, Ms. Baroody said schools can quickly slide back into academic failure if the underlying resource gaps are not corrected.

"We talk about investment when we want more money, but I don't think we think of it the way people on Wall Street think about investing; putting money where it will have the greatest yield," said James McIntyre Jr., superintendent of Knox County schools in Tennessee, at a briefing on the report Friday in Washington. "When you treat schools equally who are facing very different circumstances, that's not really equitable."

James Willis, the chief financial officer at Stockton Unified School District in California, found that out firsthand. While Mr. Willis planned the district's budget to cope with state funding cuts, the principal of one school in improvement warned him that she would lose a majority of her teachers if the district used traditional seniority-based lay-offs because its staff was newly hired for turnaround. Stockton eventually had to overhaul its entire staffing process to prevent schools in improvement from ending up in a teacher-turnover feedback loop.

The report recommended five steps that districts should take to ensure their systems support low-performing schools:

  • Develop a comprehensive, systemic, and ongoing process to identify what each school needs.
  • Identify all the district's resources, from grants to community and parental support, to the flexibility available to class time or teacher assignment, and work with all principals to figure out how to use them efficiently. According to Ms. Baroody, these "high-leverage" changes are usually more difficult politically but cost less financially.
  • Customize the improvement strategy to each school, rather than providing general across-the-board interventions.
  • Improve the district, not just individual schools. In Boston, for example, the report noted that while a dozen schools qualified for federal school improvement grants based on their academic scores, 28 other schools had scores only six points higher, meaning the district's problems were broader than just the schools identified for improvement officially.

"The school district needs to be able to fundamentally rethink the way it's supporting its schools," Mr. Willis said.

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