'Lite' Choice in School Reform

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A report released today by a Washington think tank says the Prince George's County school system consistently chose the least drastic option available to 16 schools when faced with the academic equivalent of a management shakeup after years of low test scores: appointing "turnaround specialists" to make the tough decisions that would improve them.

Under-performing schools in Prince George's, Baltimore and elsewhere across the nation have seized on the turnaround specialist as a quick fix that satisfies the federal No Child Left Behind directive, which requires chronically low-performing schools to choose some form of alternative governance, such as a new staff or management by a private company.

The report by the Center on Education Policy cites the Prince George's system as emblematic of a national trend: When school systems are forced to take corrective action, they tend to chose the least radical -- and least corrective, it says -- option.

"It is 'restructuring lite,' " said Jack Jennings, president of the nonpartisan center.

The criticism comes one month after John E. Deasy, the new schools chief, announced an ambitious $33 million effort to improve scattershot performance in the 133,000-student system. It includes $13 million in remedial programs to target two dozen campuses that have missed performance targets for several years. He plans to fill those schools with an army of new specialists in reading, math and standardized testing, many of whom Deasy believes were "being used insignificantly," sequestered in district offices or floating ineffectively from school to school.

"There isn't a day that goes by that we aren't talking about these 24 schools," Deasy said. "I mean, it is a daily conversation."

By most accounts, the specialists dispatched to Prince George's schools in the 2005-06 academic year have had little effect. Rather than appoint full-time change agents, Prince George's school officials added turnaround duties to the already crowded schedules of a group of mid-level administrators. Principals see them no more than once or twice a week.

Deasy, who started as schools chief in May, said he quickly surmised that "the turnaround specialist model was not going to deliver the results."

The ultimate goal of No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2002, is that all students attain proficiency on state-mandated tests by 2014. Along the way, schools must meet annual performance targets that get a bit tougher each year. Schools that miss their targets for successive years face increasing scrutiny and, ultimately, restructuring -- in theory, a last-ditch remedy.

As of the 2006 academic year, 79 Maryland schools -- or about one in 20 -- had missed their goals for so many years that they were restructuring or planning to do so. State rules offer a menu of eight "alternative governance" models: Convert to a charter school, or, alternately, a quasi-charter school with an independent governing board; convert to a "school of choice," which lets students transfer out; hire outside management; replace the staff; cede oversight to the county school system; enact a recognized school-reform model; or appoint a turnaround specialist. Of the 63 schools that have enacted new academic governance, 46 chose turnaround specialists.

All the restructuring plans went to the State Board of Education for approval. Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools, said yesterday that she believes the board was misled by Prince George's officials.

"Sometimes what they present and what gets implemented are two different things," Grasmick said. State officials asked, for example, whether the turnaround specialists would have authority over principals. "There was no ambiguity" in the affirmative reply, Grasmick recalled. "And it didn't work out that way at all."

The job of turnaround specialist was given to regional directors working in five administrative areas. They were expected to spend two to three days a week working with -- if not in -- restructuring schools.

But the administrators soon found the time commitment impossible. One director, Karen Kunkel, told the education researchers she had "about a day and a half a week" to spend in the restructuring school under her care while overseeing 22 other schools in various stages of state monitoring.

Another, John Brooks, said he managed to spend half a day, two or three days a week, at each of the two restructuring schools under his authority. One principal reported seeing the turnaround specialist "once a month or on an as-needed basis," according to the 20-page report. Some employees at the restructuring schools weren't aware any such specialist existed.

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