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Survey Finds Limited Familiarity, Success With Turnarounds

A new survey released today finds that few school districts are familiar with the four federal models for turning around low-performing schools and even fewer have implemented them.

More than a third of school districts reported they had no familiarity with the models that are part of the federal School Improvement Grants heading to school districts this fall in a bid by the Obama administration to change the fortunes of the bottom five percent of America's schools, according to the report from the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. And fewer than 12 percent had implemented any of the models in their schools.

"This really is a grand experiment to take the 5,000 lowest-performing schools in the country, tell them they have to follow four specific models of reform and putting a lot of money behind the reform," said Jack Jennings, CEP's president, in an interview.

His group's survey was done this spring, when states and school districts were waiting on the federal government, which is not known for moving quickly, to pass along the money from the $3.5 billion Title 1 School Improvement Grants.

The federal models for school improvement are: "Transformation," in which the principal is often replaced, but most of the staff remains and interventions, such as a longer school day, are added: "turnaround," which requires schools to replace at least half the existing instructional staff; "restart," which is the method that converts a school to a charter and also leads to dramatic turnover in teaching personnel; and "closure," which involves shutting down a low-performing school entirely and shifting students to a higher-performing campus.

Eleven percent of districts surveyed had implemented the turnaround model, while 6 percent reported having implemented the transformation model. Just 1 percent had implemented either the restart or closure models.

As more states begin preparing to use the SIG money this fall, most states and local school districts have opted for the transformation model, widely considered to be the least-disruptive model.

Some education reform advocates are unhappy with what they view as the path of least resistance, but it appears school officials have the public on their side: 54 percent of those surveyed in a recent public opinion poll said they preferred principals and teachers stay in place and are given outside help to boost a lagging school.

The study is the third installment in a three-year research project the nonprofit research and policy group is conducting on the impact of the stimulus law. The first, released in December, found states were struggling to improve teaching quality and low-performing schools, and that their capacity to implement significant education reform was a serious problem.

The second, released last month, found while school districts used money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help ameliorate the effects of The Great Recession, 75 percent of the nation's school districts expect to cut teaching jobs in the 2010-11 school year.

Jennings' group will survey school districts again in the spring, and expects to see higher numbers of districts implementing the various models and more states giving assistance to the districts. The majority will be urban and rural districts, but some suburban districts will be in the mix, too, he said.

"There will be many more school districts that have experience over the next couple of years," Jennings said. "We have to hope that the experience of the school districts will be carefully evaluated so we can learn what really happens when these models are implemented."


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