Democratic School Turnarounds: Pursuing Equity and Learning from Evidence, a report for the Education Testing Service (ETS), written by Tina Trujillo of the University of California, Berkeley and Michelle Renee, of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Brown University, is a study of the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s efforts to transform low-performing schools.
The Obama administration recognized the plight of low performing high schools and decided to dramatically “turn around” low performing schools through the use of the School Improvement Grant program (SIG). Schools could receive up to $2 million but for only a three year program. The school, by pursuing these funds, would agree to administrative and teacher replacement. A school that receives SIG funds agrees to one of four reform methods: turnaround (the principal and all teachers are fired), transformation, restart, or closure (the school is closed).
The report’s authors noted that while the Obama Administration touted the radical approach to school reform actually that type of reform had been aground for the past 40 years. The authors point out what they consider to be two errors: (1) thinking that a corporate-based model can transform a school culture, and (2) that drastically transforming school staff would be beneficial. The authors did not feel that the data supported those observations.
The Abstract for the report mentions that few arguments get as much attention as the comparison of American schools to the schools of other countries; especially when the academic performance is mentioned in tandem to the economic performance. International large-scale assessments (ILSA) data have a powerful influence on public discussion. Trujillo and Renee’s paper concentrates on cautions on interpreting the data of ILSA by utilizing a research agenda that considers their validity and utility.
They also note that the Obama school turn around approach is anchored in “its narrow reliance on standardized test scores.” It does not seem to take into consideration the effects of poverty, race, and funding inequalities that have a large effect on student achievement. This seems to strengthen the administration’s belief that punitive sanctions on the schools are justified. As the authors state, “Fundamentally the SIG policy is an extension of the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) market-based approach to education, not a change in direction.”
The report finds that the SIG policy does not encourage a democratic education. It takes the decisions for the school out of the hands of its stakeholders. A democratic education should have the opportunity for the local community to create its own options. It can achieve this by having the community deliberate and self-govern and provide all students with opportunities to learn. The authors feel that the SIG program did not engage those most affected by the policy.
The report has six recommendations to help concentrate the purpose of school turnaround and reform:
- Increase current federal and state spending for public education, particularly as it is allocated for turnaround-style reforms.
- Focus school turnaround policies on improving the quality of teaching and learning rather than on technical-structural changes.
- Engage a broad cross-section of schools’ communities – teachers, students, parents, and community organizations – in planning and implementing turnaround strategies that are tailored to each school and district context.
- Surround struggling schools with comprehensive, wrap-around supports that stabilize schools and communities.
- Incorporate multiple indicators of effectiveness – apart from test scores – that reflect the multiple purposes of schools.
- Support ongoing, systematic research, evaluation, and dissemination examining all aspects of turnaround processes in schools and districts.