To get federal funds, schools must apply stronger measures to struggling schools

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 28, 2009

If a public school struggles year after year, is the solution to shut it down? Fire everyone and start over? Hand the reins to a contractor? Or help teachers and principals raise their game?

As the federal government offers school systems an unprecedented $3.5 billion to revive schools, a huge increase for a reform program launched with $125 million in 2007, policymakers increasingly are prescribing stronger medicine for the lowest performers.

In years past, educators generally opted for the least invasive remedies. Most shied from state takeovers, shutdowns, conversion to a charter school and the like.

Instead, they favored measures such as teaming a principal with a "turnaround specialist," who would offer coaching and encouragement. The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law, enacted under President George W. Bush, allowed the less-aggressive approaches.

Now the Obama administration is pushing a harder line for the weakest schools. School systems that want a share of the federal aid have four options:

-- Turnaround: replacing a school principal and at least half the staff;

-- Restart: converting a school to an autonomous charter school or hiring an education management organization to run it;

-- Shutdown: closing a school and dispersing its students; or,

-- Transformation: replacing a principal, improving teacher effectiveness and taking other steps for comprehensive reform.

Systems with nine or more of the weakest schools may use the transformation option in no more than half of them. That proviso significantly tightens the Bush-era accountability policy.

"After years of school improvement efforts," Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote this month in a document intended to justify the new approach, "there are far too few examples of persistently low-achieving schools that have significantly and rapidly improved performance. We believe that, in part, this is because turning around such schools generally requires fundamental changes in leadership and often in governance and staff, changes that many [local education agencies] are reluctant to make."

Will it work?

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