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Transformation: Most Popular School Improvement Model

Schools receiving millions of dollars in federal money meant to reverse years of low achievement are overwhelmingly opting for "transformation," the least disruptive of four intervention methods endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.

With all but 11 states now approved to receive their share of the $3.5 billion in Title I School Improvement Grants, many state departments of education have announced grant awards to those eligible schools that applied and were judged to have strong plans for improvement.

That means we can start to document the number of low-achieving schools that will be shut down, restarted as charters, turned around by replacing the principal and at least half the instructional staff, or, most popularly, transformed through changes such as a longer school day, a revamping of teacher evaluations, curricular and professional development changes, and, in most cases, a new principal.

You'll remember that when the feds originally designed the rules for how this supercharged pot of school improvement money could be used, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stressed his desire for "dramatic" actions that included converting these schools to charters and bringing in lots of fresh blood in the form of new principals and teachers. The transformation option was considered by Duncan to be the one of last resort for schools to choose, and the rules were written to limit the number of campuses that could elect for that method in districts where there are large numbers of low-performers.

Strong pushback from state and local education leaders prompted the feds to tweak the rules so that transformation was viewed as an equally viable option for school improvement as the other three, more aggressive models. (Of course, we all know that even the transformation option is not all that popular with educators, especially among rural school leaders who find the requirement to replace the principal especially challenging.)

Ok, so now that I've done all that throat-clearing, let's take a look at a sample of states and the frequency of schools using transformation as a first resort.

CALIFORNIA: 164 of 188 eligible schools applied to the state department of education to receive a school improvement grant. (113 of those, because of their concentrations of poverty and years-long low performance, will have priority for funding). San Jose-based blogger John Fensterwald at educatedguess.org has a lot of the details here, but the most interesting numbers to me are these: 72 schools will use transformation; two schools will shut down entirely. (Slight clarification on these numbers, courtesy Doug McRae out in Monterey: Not all of the 164 schools that applied for a grant fall into the state's bottom five percent, or those that are "persistently lowest achieving," which is the main target of the federal money. Fifty-one of them are part of the state's larger set of 3,500 schools that are technically eligible for the money, but because they don't sit in the bottom five percent, they aren't likely to receive funding.)

MINNESOTA: No awards have been decided yet, but of the 26 schools that applied in this state, 22 are opting for transformation, four for turnaround. It's interesting to me that in a state with the oldest charter school law on the books, no schools elected to use the restart method.

NEW JERSEY: The state department of education has awarded just over $45 million in school improvement grants to 12 schools. Seven of those have selected the transformation model for intervention, four opted for turnaround, and one school, an alternative high school in Newark, will be restarted. That school secured $4.6 million to spend over the next three years for its interventions that the state department called the "most comprehensive reform" of all the targeted schools. No schools opted to close themselves down.

NORTH CAROLINA: Here, the state awarded 25 schools with grants. Eighteen of them will use transformation, while six are opting for the turnaround method that requires replacement of at least half the teaching staff. One school will use the restart method and none will close.

OREGON: A dozen schools in this western state will receive grants to improve performance and all of them have elected to use the transformation option.

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