The News and Observer recently ran an article titled Study of School ‘Turnaround’ Program Finds Declines, which analyzes efforts to improve struggling schools in North Carolina. Funded by a federal Race to the Top grant, the turnaround program is an attempt to bring the bottom 5% of schools in North Carolina up to standards conceived by policymakers. Jennifer A. Heissel of Northwestern University and Helen F. Ladd of Duke University analyzed the results of some of the schools from the state’s ‘turnaround’ program. Heissel and Ladd looked at the best elementary and middle schools that were in the turnaround program and compared them to schools that hovered just above the 5% cutoff. They found that reading and math scores had declined and even saw that suspensions had increased from 2012-2014. The researchers stated, “In sum, the schools subject to the state’s turnaround program exhibit worse or no better than student outcomes than comparable untreated schools.” In 2010, North Carolina won a $400 million Race to the Top grant from the Federal government. The grant articulated ‘turning around’ failing schools in North Carolina by providing them with one of four strategies to pull the failing schools out of the bottom 5%. The four choices include:
- Closing the school
- Closing the school and reopening it as a charter
- Replacing the principal and increasing professional development for teachers and administrators
- Replacing the principal and half of the teachers and improving effectiveness with professional development
Most districts in North Carolina chose to replace the principal and increase coaching and professional development for teachers and administrators. Ladd commented that the “state does good work and that the problem may be with the remedy the Federal government prescribed.” Unfortunately, teachers who participated in the increased professional development experienced an increase in meetings and paperwork. Although the state followed the guidelines implemented by the Race to the Top Grant, it failed to consider forces at play outside of school. The ‘turnaround’ model simply doesn’t take into consideration, “that low income students bring to school with them a lot of barriers that make it difficult to learn.”
No amount of money thrown at a problem within the school will make up for failures of society to help poor students outside of school. Students in these schools might have benefitted far more from wraparound services—or support networks that will help with the whole child—than from the approaches taken.
Interestingly, the state hired their own researchers to evaluate the program results. The results of the state’s study included all schools from elementary through high school and “reported an average increase in proficiency for schools in the turnaround program…. but that the improvements were in the lowest of the low-performing schools.” The state believes that the programs did work—just not as well for higher performing schools. I’m not sure how I feel about seeing such different results from one program—and especially when one results from the state hiring researchers to examine results. I’d love to see more about these studies and see results from the same schools rather than looking at different populations.
When school districts take money for the sake of pragmatism from organizations such as the Gates foundation and the federal government, they become bystanders. They lose the opportunity to have a voice and are beholden to policies that they might not otherwise implement. Teachers are becoming more and more dissatisfied as they are told to simply implement what policymakers have decided. Why do we consider teachers to be the problem rather than look at them as a solution? Certainly, teachers can control what happens in their classrooms, but they can and should have a larger voice about what is best for students and the teaching profession. The Federal government and large foundations should not solely attempt to establish standards, curriculum, or accountability standards for students and teachers. Rather, I believe knowledgeable teachers and child development experts should help develop curriculum. Does this mean that there is no place for corporations, the Federal government or organizations such as the Gates Foundation in education? That is the million-dollar question.