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Will Turnaround Rules Help Transform Struggling High Schools?

When the final guidelines for applying for Race to the Top money came out recently, there were some subtle shifts that I didn't explore in my blog post about it. One of the intriguing changes was the evolution of the role that the "transformation" option can play in a state's plans to get its worst schools back on track.

This has big implications for high schools, which are legendary for being the toughest nuts to crack in the school-improvement world. And the rules apply not just to the Race to the Top competition, but to requirements for school interventions across the stimulus programs, including the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund and the forthcoming Title I School Improvement Grants final notice.

(You might remember that Ed Secretary Arne Duncan has laid out four options for tackling the worst-performing schools: shutting them down, replacing most of the staff, replacing staff and handing them over to outside groups, or "transforming" them with curriculum and culture changes, intensive professional development, and the like.)

One of the things that happened as the RTT rules took shape was that the feds decided to allow states and districts more leeway in using the transformation option. Reflecting the fears of those who thought it could serve as a way to avoid deep changes, Duncan was speaking of the transformation option only as a last resort, warning that it shouldn't be used "as a dodge." But the final rules allow districts with nine or more super-low-achieving schools to use it in half of those schools.

While some welcome this as a great opportunity to do the hard, nuanced work of curriculum and professional development necessary to sustain real change, others are fearful that allowing the transformation option in such a large swath of low-performing schools will substitute for the disruptive shakeup these schools need. These questions hover in particular over urban districts, and over high schools in particular. (See Tom Vander Ark's blog post on this.)

My colleague Lesli A. Maxwell takes an interesting look at the evolution of the "transformation" option, and the discussion around it, in her story today.

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