Greg Toppo -- USA TODAY
- School Improvement Grant program fueled by federal stimulus
- States are also getting up to $6 million per school
- All sides agree that big, urban school districts are riddled with problems
In 2002, educator Ryan Hill opened his dream school with all of 80 students, four teachers and one office manager. "I was there till midnight every single night," he said. "It was really hard."
Like many startups, the Newark middle school started with a single grade level and grew by adding a grade each fall. Eleven years later, TEAM Academy belongs to what is essentially a four-campus mini-district: two elementary schools, another middle school and a 525-student high school, each of which grew the same way. The TEAM charter school network, part of the national KIPP schools movement, enrolls 1,800 students, with plans to double over the next few years to 10 schools. Its waiting list, almost 9,000 names long, covers nearly one in four Newark students.
The secret to Hill's success: starting from scratch. "Learning how to manage four people is not easy," he said, "but (it's) way easier than learning how to manage 40. It allows you as a principal to grow into the role and makes it possible for more people to pull it off."
The Obama administration has long supported charter school startups like TEAM Academy, but it now invests much more - $3 billion in all - into a very different strategy. Instead of starting from scratch, Obama wants to "turn around" the USA's worst public schools, improving the schools we've got.
At least one education expert says the effort is bound to fail, for a simple reason: turning schools around almost never works.
Instead, argues former New Jersey Deputy Education Commissioner Andy Smarick, school districts should start with a clean slate by closing underperforming schools and opening independently managed charter schools that end years of failure and build a new culture of achievement.
"We've gotta start 'Plan B'ing' ASAP," Smarick says.
His basic idea has support from critics on both the left and right, who say "turnarounds" are bound to disappoint. But whether more charter schools are the answer isn't clear, they say.
All the same, independent research backs up Smarick's main point: A 2009 Brookings Institution study found that in a 20-year span, only 1.4% of the bottom one-fifth of California schools that underwent mandated improvement ended up in the top one-fifth. More recently, early findings from the Obama administration's School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, released late last year, find mixed results on a national level.
Fueled by the federal stimulus, the three-year SIG program is the largest investment ever in turnarounds, a strategy most notably employed by President George W. Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. It requires persistently failing schools to replace teachers or the principal, change how it evaluates teachers or implement one of several other improvement plans.
Early results aren't encouraging: A one-year analysis of SIG-funded schools shows that while two-thirds saw better math and reading results, one-third got worse, despite the huge infusion of cash. Even among those schools that improved, the gains were often modest: 40% had single-digit math gains and 49% had single-digit reading gains.
"That's a pretty low standard for what we want to call school improvement," said Tina Trujillo of the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Education.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urges caution on the findings. In a speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers last November, he said, "We're in this for the long haul. One year of gains isn't success. One year of declines isn't failure." Meanwhile, he's handing out millions more to states to continue the process - up to $6 million per school in some cases. Just this month, the administration announced new awards for 13 states.
But in his new book, The Urban School System of the Future, Smarick says the biggest problem with turnarounds isn't with individual schools - it's with the entire system.
Big, centralized urban school districts sprang up in the early 20th century, as progressive, good-government reformers fell in love with the newly emerging efficiency of corporations. They saw corporations' professionalism and size as protections against "the messy machine politics of the day," he writes. But a century later, nearly every observer, on both sides of the political spectrum, agrees: Big, centralized urban districts often make things worse, not better.
"It's hard to make the case that the urban district is going to revolutionize itself and someday provide a great organization," Smarick says. "We can have public education. It just doesn't have to be delivered through this 100-year-old system that never worked."
Smarick spent several years working on reforming urban schools in Newark, Paterson and Camden, three of New Jersey's largest cities. "You can't walk away from that and say this is just a 'schools problem,'" he said. "You have to say this is a 'systems problem.'"
Trujillo, of the University of California, said she agrees that turnarounds are problematic. Research on schools that were "reconstituted" under NCLB shows that school climate suffers. "The teachers are demoralized (and) the students lose their engagement with their role models, because their role models are all fired."
But she and others point out that charter schools, as a group, don't have a much better track record than other schools.
Michelle Renee, a researcher at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, said part of the success of charter schools comes from the fact that, more than 20 years after the first one opened, they're still essentially small experiments. "They're taking a small cross-section of people, and they're taking a small group of really invested teachers," she said. "When you try and do that at scale across an entire system, all of them are having trouble."
Instead of trying to expand charter schools, she said, districts need to ensure that schools have stable funding, a reliable supply of high-quality teachers and "wraparound" services such as medical care for students.
"There are so many layers upon layers and layers of inequity that go on in our school system that I feel like it's a cop-out to just blame it on just a toxic, failing culture," she said.
In Washington on Thursday, a group of education researchers proposed that the USA's education policy should shift to focus on poor students' "opportunity gap" in education funding as well as housing, health care, jobs and other indicators. Stanford University education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond noted that, compared with the 1970s, 60% more young people now live in poverty. Nations that are outpacing us educationally, she said, "don't allow their children to live in poverty."
One of Duncan's top former deputies, Carmel Martin, said the administration's attitude on turnarounds is "one of optimism, although pragmatic realism, that there are a lot of challenges ahead." Martin, who last week left the administration to work at the D.C.-based think tank Center for American Progress, said Duncan supports charter school startups but that it's not practical to rely on high-quality charters to replace all failing schools, especially in rural areas.
Smarick, who previously worked for Bush, said the administration's investment in charter school startups pales in comparison to what it's investing in turnarounds. In many districts, he said, persistently failing district schools "exist forever - they exist in perpetuity."