Since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, all states have been under federal pressure to identify “failing schools.” Much of that pressure has come from the U.S. Department of Education, which has encouraged the Turnaround model as an option for schools to use in order to improve student achievement. Turnaround is something like surgical intervention on a school: it includes, among other actions, replacing a principal and at least 50 percent of the school’s staff, adopting a new governance structure, and implementing a new or revised instructional program. Unfortunately, what has happened in Arkansas is that educational administrators have poured a great deal of time and money into Turnaround policies, but with little indication that they are successful.
Earlier this year, the Institute of Education Sciences — part of the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) — released a report on the states’ ability to implement Turnaround. (Here’s a Washington Post article describing this report.) The report was based on structured telephone interviews with administrators in all state departments of education (DoEs) to find out if they had enough expertise to address the problems of “failing schools” in their state. No express policy recommendations were included in the report, but it did contain an implicit recommendation: namely, if state DoEs don’t have enough expertise to implement Turnaround, then maybe they need more money from the USDE to hire such expertise and to provide an office within the state DoE to carry out USDE policies.
But I think there is a fundamental problem on the ground that is not explicitly spelled out in USDE’s report. That problem is the failure of the Turnaround policy itself—one of four choices suggested by the Bush administration (but mandated by the Obama administration) for schools that are found to be “chronically low-performing.” Most Turnaround schools have not turned student achievement around. Low-performing schools, for the most part, remain low-performing schools – even after the federal government cuts checks to state DoEs that are supposed to increase school performance. Since 2009, the amount of money flowing to state DoEs is well over 4 billion dollars, chiefly as School Improvement Grants.
Although the federal government’s report asks if the state DoEs had enough expertise to implement Turnaround, that report lets the policy itself off the hook. Turnaround, as such, deserves scrutiny, but you won’t find that scrutiny in USDE’s report. Administrators in state DoEs have every incentive to deny that they have enough expertise to turn chronically low-performing schools around, even in the context of a massive national failure of the policy itself. That incentive is, to put it bluntly, that administrators’ denial that they have adequate resources is an invitation to the federal government to supply more of the same.
I would have liked to see a report that explored questions that would actually be helpful to education policymakers. For starters, the interviewers could have found out how much grant money each state gave to the “intermediaries” (think of them as subcontractors) who compete to receive grants. But the report says nothing about how much these various “intermediaries” received for the work they did with low-performing schools — or even how many low-performing schools in each state were able to improve their standing with the help of whatever “intermediaries” they had partnered with.
It is a pity that the report accepts as uncontroversial a theory that is highly questionable: namely, that these “intermediaries” (who are all named in the report) had the expertise for turning around low-performing schools. I think there is reason for skepticism – can it really be true that all these intermediaries are really capable of improving school performance? Speaking generally, state DoEs never had the capacity of addressing all the problems in the public schools (typically, staffers have limited experience as teachers or administrators in the public schools), and the purpose of most of this federal money was to enable state DoEs to partner with some of the “experts” available. These partners include federally supported centers or labs (such as comprehensive centers, regional education laboratories, equity assistance centers, and content centers); institutions of higher education; “distinguished” educators; other external organizations; and regional and county offices.
The great scientist Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) famously said that “when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.” It is not to our credit that we regularly ignore this guidance in the realm of education policy. How we might evaluate the work of these myriad partners on a state-by-state basis should be the major task for a future study by the USDE. Collation and disclosure of how much money these “intermediaries” received from this federal grant (as suggested by an excellent 2012 report by the Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research) is almost as important. It is clear to anyone who knows state DoEs that no matter how much money they receive from the USDE or whom they hire, it will be difficult or impossible for any state agency acting for a federal agency to bring about the kind of changes that will trigger long-term academic gains by the students in these schools.
How much in federal grants will the USDE give state DoEs for turning around low-performing schools? Will we ever see anything like measurement of results, a reasonable justification for the Turnaround policy, or further research on the quality of the “intermediaries?” In the final analysis, the “intermediaries” may be the only winners in this political game. They get the benefits of the lack of accountability that is apparently wired into the system. It’s a shame that it’s our schoolchildren who bear the costs.