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Transforming Low-Performing Schools

One of the most serious problems in American education is the persistently low-achieving school, one that despite substantial attention and efforts over the years fails to make significant progress on test scores and other indicators. My colleague Robert Balfanz calls high schools like this "dropout factories," but there are persistently low-achieving elementary and middle schools as well.

For many years, localities, states, and the federal government have tried a variety of carrots and sticks to try to improve these schools. Most recently, persistently low-achieving schools have been eligible for substantial School Improvement Grants (SIG), but to get them they have to choose among four draconian alternatives, including school closure, turning the school over to a charter operator, or replacing the principal and at least half of the staff. Most SIG schools choose a "transformation" alternative in which the principal is replaced and the school receives extensive professional development. Yet a recent analysis of SIG data from the U.S. Department of Education shows success is spotty and elusive for these schools, especially considering the billions of dollars spent on them.

Designing replicable "transformation" programs to help persistently low-achieving schools would seem to be essential, yet it has not happened. A few years ago, the Institute for Education Sciences put out a request for applications to create and evaluate whole-school designs for turning around persistently low-achieving schools, but inexplicably, they did not fund any of the proposals they got and never issued another RFA on the topic. Whole-school reform models developed and evaluated in the 1990s are almost all gone, due to opposition by the Bush administration. Some of these had excellent evidence of effectiveness, but this did not matter. These models were not even mentioned in an IES-produced practice guide on turnaround programs, for example. As a result, schools now receiving SIG funding are mostly making up their own strategies, often with the help of consultants. Some of these home-grown strategies may work, but we won't know which ones, or why.

The recent funding of Investing in Innovation (i3) might offer a model for identifying and expanding school turnaround practices. Some of the i3 funded programs that have already been proven effective were designed as transformation or turnaround models, especially our own Success for All model and our colleagues' Diplomas Now high school program. Despite their considerable evidence of effectiveness, neither of these are used in many SIG schools. Existing proven models, whether or not they are funded by i3, certainly need to be used in turnarounds. Yet more proven programs are needed. The Department of Education should set aside funds for fast-track development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven transformation models, patterned on i3 but restricted to turnaround strategies. This problem is far too important for there to be so few proven programs available for these desperate schools to use.

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NOTE: Robert Slavin is co-founder of the Success for All Foundation, a recipient of i3 grants.

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