A new brief on school turnarounds was just released that Obama administration education officials and state school reformers should read, but, sadly, probably won’t. The report, by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and Brown University, says that the administration’s school turnaround policy is counterproductive and uses market principles that can’t work in a public school setting.

What will work? The brief, called “Pursuing Equity and Learning From Evidence,” says turning around failing schools requires a collaborative, community-driven effort that has a real focus on teaching and learning and is supported by sustained funding and wrap-around services that help students and their families.

Why isn’t the administration’s school turnaround policy working?

The policy began when the Education Department announced in 2009 that it wanted to “turn around” 5,000 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools through the School Improvement Grant program (SIG). Districts that receive SIG grants — up to $2 million per year for up to three years — must choose one of four corporate-based options to improve student outcomes, which are based on standardized test scores.

The researchers, Tina Trujillo at the University of California, Berkeley and Michelle Renée of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, said that the grants do nothing to change inadequate funding structures and end up fueling the very conditions that lead to school failure.

For example, all options allowed under the SIG program depend upon replacing the staff in one way or another, which leads to new staffing problems. They write:

Finding enough qualified personnel to refill vacant slots in reconstituted or turnaround schools has proven difficult. In some cities, for example, districts found themselves swapping principals from one SIG-funded school to another. In Louisville, over 40 percent of the teachers hired to work in turnaround schools were completely new to teaching. Another study showed how hiring difficulties forced many reconstituted schools to begin the school year with high numbers of substitutes.

The brief also says:

Lessons derived from the empirical research on educational effectiveness and high-stakes accountability, as well as from the growing literature on community engagement in reform, suggest that the current SIG policies will require different funding structures, focuses, guidelines, and measures of success if they are to promote more equitable, democratic turnarounds. Indeed, the overwhelming reliance of SIG policies on market-based strategies to improve the nation’s most struggling schools shows how the administration is banking on tools like competition, standardization, and test-based accountability to improve performance, despite what research tells us about their consistent lack of success in the corporate sector.

The market-based character of turnaround policies diverts public attention from fundamental questions about adequate, equitable funding and the insidious effects on schools of socioeconomic and racial isolation. In doing so, SIG policies and the literature promoting them misrepresent how powerfully students’ opportunities to learn are shaped by structural conditions related to poverty, race, and government spending.

Because the early literature on turnarounds repeats many of the methodological and conceptual errors that characterized previous generations of effectiveness research, these analyses have ended up calling for policies that are framed as challenging the status quo, but which in fact perpetuate the inequalities in conditions and resources in the nation’s neediest schools.

These policies are also limited by their reliance on test-based indicators of effectiveness. In this way, they carry on a long tradition of policies that promote narrowly economic purposes for schools, edging out other academic, social, and democratic purposes, purposes that are not easily measured by standardized tests.

The authors make some recommendations about how school turnarounds could be successful, including engaging community organizations in the process and providing comprehensive wrap-around supports to stabilize schools and communities.

You can read the entire brief here, at the website of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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