Promise Neighborhoods is tied to the Obama administration’s overall effort to reform the nation’s schools, a piece of which includes dramatic interventions in low-performing schools.
While not mandatory, applicants are encouraged to consider implementing one of four administration-approved school intervention strategies in these schools as part of their proposed cradle-college-career continuum. The four intervention strategies are:
- School Closure: An intervention where the target school is closed and students are sent to higher-achieving schools;
- School Restart: An intervention where the target school is converted or closed and reopened under a charter school operator or a for-profit education management organization;
- School Turnaround: An intervention where the principal of the target school is replaced and at least half of the school’s teachers are replaced; and
- School Transformation: An intervention where the principal is replaced but most of the other staff remain — but with new performance-evaluation systems and other changes put in place.
These interventions are both dramatic and controversial. What are some of the arguments surrounding them? How will local Promise Neighborhoods implement these changes? What are some of the touch points between Promise Neighborhoods and these strategies?
We asked Justin C. Cohen, President of The School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education & Research Institute, an organization known for its work on school turnarounds.
Building Neighborhoods: For those who may not be well versed in the history, can you give us a little background on the four turnaround interventions being pushed by the administration? How did we get here?
Justin Cohen: Absolutely! First of all, thanks for having me here!
Under the version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that went into effect in 2001 (“No Child Left Behind”), Congress created a federal measure of individual school performance. The law basically required all schools to be evaluated against their ability to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), as measured by the percentage of students who were proficient in math and reading in a given year, according to a state administered assessment. Schools that failed to make AYP for multiple years landed in a series of increasingly intense sanctions, depending on the number of consecutive years the school failed to make AYP. The final federal category of school improvement was “Restructuring,” which required the school to undergo a major governance change.
This approach to school improvement bugged a lot of people, and justifiably so. First, and probably most importantly, AYP only measured a school’s “point in time” performance and failed to capture growth. A school that stagnated at 50% proficiency could make AYP, while a school that went from 29% proficiency to 49% proficiency in a single year – a remarkable feat – could fail to make the target. While that example is somewhat of an oversimplification, it’s illustrative of the lack of sophistication of AYP as a measure.
Second, states were developing their own accountability systems, and the federal school improvement schedule of sanctions often failed to jive with those systems. You had troubled schools responding to “improvement plans” mandated at several levels of government, with little coherence across those plans. Furthermore, because states could define their own metrics for AYP, states had an incentive to create lower bars to avoid the associated sanctions. This resulted in significant variation in the rigor of AYP across states.
Finally, the school improvement program under NCLB was “all stick and no carrot.” Yes, there was a small increase in funds to support the increasingly dramatic interventions being required of struggling schools, but for the most part, schools were being asked to improve with little guidance or resources to do so. This led to NCLB becoming known as an “unfunded mandate.”
Building Neighborhoods: So the original restructuring mandate under NCLB was not very popular. What changed?
Justin Cohen: Fast forward to the current administration, and you start to see real funding. Under NCLB, the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program was one small slice of Title I funds that went to districts and states to support implementation of school improvement plans. When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was passed in 2009, President Obama and Secretary Duncan used the opportunity to re-imagine the SIG program and make it more responsive to both the needs of struggling schools and the criticisms the sanction schedule had received. While the school improvement regime writ large couldn’t completely be overhauled until the reauthorization of ESEA, the administration saw this as an opportunity to use changes in grant requirements to signal and test future changes to the law.
First, they departed from the tiered sanction schedule, which included five different levels of school improvement, and instead asked states only to identify their “bottom 5%” of schools. States were already required to have accountability systems for schools, so federal intervention in only the bottom 5% seemed more reasonable. Moreover, these are the schools that persistently failed to educate children, making action a moral imperative. They also created substantial flexibility in how to identify that 5%, allowing for “growth measures,” a much more sophisticated method for understanding school performance.
Second, they provided a massive increase in funds to deal with the challenges those schools presented. The SIG allocation under ARRA was $3.5 billion, a fund almost as large as the much better known Race to the Top fund. But unlike Race to the Top, all states would receive SIG funds. Moreover, whereas before a school might be labeled as failing without any resources to drive change, the Department of Education was now allowing states to grant up to $2 million per school per year.
And finally, the administration created a set of four interventions that schools and districts had to implement to receive the funds. The four interventions were modeled on the governance changes suggested in the former “restructuring” category of school improvement. The four interventions ensured that there would be real accountability attached to grant funds. The schools in the bottom 5% are our most troubled educational institutions; they must do something both dramatic and different to change.
Building Neighborhoods: What are the major intersection points between the HCZ model and these four models?
Justin Cohen: In 2007, we published a report called The Turnaround Challenge. In that report we looked at the massive body of research on effective schools, with particular attention to the “high-poverty, high-performing” (HPHP) schools research.
The overwhelming finding from the report was that schools do occasionally rapidly and sustainably improve, but the results are somewhat scattershot and lacked strategic coherence. That said, we found that HPHP schools seem to share a few notable characteristics, which we codified in our “Readiness Triangle.”
The Readiness Triangle illustrates that all HPHP schools share a “Readiness to Teach,” “Readiness to Learn,” and “Readiness to Act.” The “Teach” side of the triangle is somewhat intuitive, but hard to execute well. It codifies the manner in which teachers and administrators must share responsibility for student achievement and create a professional teaching culture built upon that expectation. That includes personalizing instruction for students and ensuring that schools use all tools at their disposal to ensure that the most effective educators are teaching the neediest children.
The “Learn” side of the triangle addresses head-on the challenges that are inherent with educating students in a high-poverty environment. Schools that succeed in these environments certainly don’t eradicate the effects of poverty, but they do systematically mitigate those challenges through: close adult-student relationships, systems of care for socio-emotional issues, appropriate safety/discipline policies, and other creative mechanisms.
Finally, the “Act” side of the triangle illustrates the somewhat counterintuitive result that high-poverty schools need more flexibility with respect to how they marshal resources and deal with challenges. As I mentioned above, law and policy tends to place increasing sanctions and restrictions on challenging schools, but these schools have the most unpredictable circumstances in which to operate. We must create “agility in the face of turbulence” in these schools, but only with the requisite capacity to use that flexibility.
For me, there are huge intersections between this framework and the HCZ model. The HCZ model understands and codifies the whole community as the unit of change, and through that recognition, gets at many of the “Readiness to Learn” issues that I mentioned above. We truly believe that schools should be the center of most services that children receive, but great schools draw on the expertise, and resources that myriad other organizations in their communities can bring to bear. Many great schools “go it alone,” so to speak, but the HCZ model builds the expectation of inter-agency and inter-organization coordination into the model. It’s incredibly powerful, and hugely compatible with our research.
Building Neighborhoods: Is it possible to provide high quality wrap-around services and quality education in an environment that is being radically disrupted through one of the four intervention models? How is that done?
Justin Cohen: I would flip this question a little bit. I would argue that the only way to provide a quality education and high-quality wrap around services in a persistently underperforming school is through some form of dramatic change. The four intervention models in SIG – in my mind – are merely proxies for dramatic intervention and improvement. Are they perfect? Absolutely not, but sophisticated state, district, and school leaders will understand that they are tools to create the conditions under which change can happen.
Remember, we’re talking about the chronically underperforming schools in our cities, suburbs, and rural areas. These are schools for which nothing we have done in the past has worked and quality education does not exist. To continue with the status quo defies reason.
Building Neighborhoods: Reform is another word for change and change usually prompts opposition. Turnarounds are no exception, so let’s review some of the criticisms. Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute is one critic. He argues that school turnarounds don’t go far enough, that they are rarely successful, and that the right approach is close the school and/or start over. What do you say to that?
Justin Cohen: I’ve spent a lot of time publicly and privately debating this issue with Andy. Andy wrote a piece called “The Turnaround Fallacy,” but I would argue that Andy’s solution – close all struggling schools and open new ones – suffers from “The Panacea Fallacy.” He’s right that turnaround efforts of the past haven’t gone far enough. If you look at historical data, the vast majority of school turnaround efforts have focused on “silver bullet” solutions. For example, “if we just buy this new curriculum, it will solve our problems.” Or, “if we just replace the entire staff, it will solve all of our problems.”
Any intervention that does not acknowledge that dramatically changing results for children means pulling “multiple levers at once” is doomed to be less than successful. So, where I would agree with Andy is that most of our prior efforts have been unsuccessful. But I’m not arguing to do more of the stuff that hasn’t worked in the past; that would be silly. I’m arguing that we stop funding failed strategies of the past that we know don’t work, and that we apply both real resources and real accountability to schools that want to try something substantively different.
As to the specifics of Andy’s solution, I wish there existed data to suggest that closing a bunch of schools and opening new ones was somehow academically superior to the approaches he lambastes. Unfortunately, that research just doesn’t exist. The only comprehensive examination of the “close and disperse” theory of action he advocates was done by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and the results were grim for the students in the schools that were closed. I am not opposed to to closing schools … in fact, in some cases that will be the best solution. But there must be a high quality alternative for the displaced children, and as a country we haven’t yet predictably created high quality new schools at scale.
[Editors note: To be balanced, we will invite comment from Andy Smarick.]
Building Neighborhoods: At the opposite end of the spectrum, the turnaround model has also been criticized by unions and others on Capitol Hill, who say it goes too far, that it is too focused on firings and closings, that it is too disruptive, and that there is little evidence that turnarounds improve results. Thoughts?
Justin Cohen: First, it’s important to note that I use the term “turnaround” to mean any dramatic intervention that results in both academic results for children and a transformed school culture that supports long-term sustainability and excellence. That was the notion we captured in our 2007 report, The Turnaround Challenge. For better or worse, one of the four intervention models in the SIG program is also called “Turnaround.” I’ll use the capital “T” when discussing the federal model.
When folks criticize the “Turnaround” intervention, a lot of the ire is focused on the requirement that the school replace 50% of teachers. The argument is that 50% is an arbitrary figure, and to be honest, it is somewhat arbitrary. But the fact that all of the focus has been on “firings” distracts from the fact that there are three other intervention models, and the fact that the “Turnaround” model actually requires a number of other components that do have substantial evidence of improving results, including: extending learning time and adopting more rational teacher evaluation processes.
Finally, I think it’s important to say that if we knew exactly what worked, we wouldn’t have thousands of schools that serve millions of children in unacceptable states of persistent underperformance. That’s the nut that the SIG program attempts to crack. Anyone who says “I have the answer!” is selling snake oil. The four intervention models aren’t perfect, but the spirit behind the law is that the federal government has an appropriate role in identifying persistent school underperformance, and subsequently providing the right mix of resources and accountability to drive change. Folks shouldn’t be trying to get rid of the accountability, they should be trying to strengthen it.
Building Neighborhoods: Some Republicans have said they don’t like mandates from Washington, turnarounds or otherwise. Is the federal role needed to drive turnarounds?
Justin Cohen: Well, if someone doesn’t think that the federal government has any role in public education, there’s not much room for a discussion.
But anyone who sees even a mild role for the federal government should acknowledge that having millions of students in chronically failing schools – in this richest nation in the history of the world – is downright shameful. To ignore that problem would be similarly shameful.
If the debate is about the appropriate role of the federal government – as opposed to whether there should be a role at all – I think there are some important points to make. State and local governments are obviously better equipped to understand the unique needs of their schools and systems. If there’s one criticism of the SIG program that I would like to hear folks debate more, it’s that the program focuses very heavily on inputs, and not enough on outcomes. If we set real, aggressive outcome targets for the improvement of our most challenging schools, we should be able to be more flexible on the inputs.
Building Neighborhoods: How do we handle turnarounds in rural settings?
Justin Cohen: Turnaround in the rural context is caught up in the same complexities that challenge education writ large – not to mention other social services – in the rural context. Schools in rural contexts are dealing with smaller, static human capital pools; the students often live very far from schools; the systems cover giant geographic areas; and students lack access to a diverse set of post-secondary opportunities.
Handling turnaround in that context is a problem that nobody has solved. As an organization, we’re actually embarking on best-practice research that hopefully will provide us with some strong hypotheses. Some early thinking leads us to believe that there would have to be a huge amount of inter-sector coordination with economic development and healthcare providers. Moreover, there may be a role for regional human resource authorities and online learning. I’m sure the HCZ/Promise Neighborhood model could teach us a great deal about the complexities rural jurisdictions are bound to confront.
Building Neighborhoods: Given all these arguments, it seems you need a supportive constituency for turnarounds to be sustained. In fact, in your 2007 paper, you wrote about the importance of building a supportive constituency. How is that coming?
Justin Cohen: That’s a really important point, and I’m glad you asked. As you might suspect, the families and children for whom dramatic school improvement is most critical are also some of the most politically disempowered families and children. For that reason, there is rarely going to be a natural constituency for school turnaround, whereas there will always be powerful political constituencies for the status quo.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of organizations around the country – including ConnCAN in Connecticut, Stand for Children nationally, Advance Illinois, and the Rodel Foundation in Delaware – who are committed to creating constituencies to sustain dramatic reform efforts. The realities of our school governance structures are such that political and administrative changes are frequent and somewhat unpredictable. The frequency of turnover is bad for all systemic issues, frankly, but it’s devastating for dramatic school improvement efforts. Our research demonstrates that it takes at least a couple of years to see the fruits of a turnaround effort, from an outcomes perspective. Yes, there are leading indicators that signal change much earlier than that, but when the average tenure of an urban superintendent in America is about two years, it’s easy to see why insulating turnaround efforts from political change is so important. Nothing will ever get a chance to work, otherwise. Building these constituencies is critical to that sustainability, and it’s an ongoing process with some early wins.
Building Neighborhoods: Look into your crystal ball. Where is this leading us over the next few years?
Justin Cohen: Four quick predictions. One, with the reauthorization of ESEA we will see real improvements to the SIG program that maintain both accountability and resources. This has always been the struggle; “carrot” vs. “stick” should not be an either/or proposition. Both are necessary to both drive reform and avoid the pendulum swinging that plagues long-term efforts at change. I think we’ll also see some of the valid, constructive feedback of states, districts, and teachers incorporated into the reauthorization.
Two, we will see some extremely promising “proof-points” for achieving turnaround at scale. This is the holy grail, so to speak. We have plenty of examples of individual schools turning around. It actually happens far more frequently than most folks know. What we don’t know is how to translate the unpredictable, episodic nature of turnaround into a promising systematic practice. I am very confident that the next few years will bring us some promising systematic approaches. Our organization is spending a lot of time on this.
Third, I think we’ll put to rest once and for all the notion that marginal changes will produce meaningful results. We have tried for too long to fiddle around the edges of schools. We must confront the fact that the core technology of our lowest performing schools is broken. Tinkering with these schools will never be the answer.
Finally, I think the tremendous amount of national attention will translate into a greater public understanding that chronically failing schools are not a niche issue, but rather a deeply troubling problem that affects everything from people living in poverty to the broader economy. Like a lot of issues that are intertwined with poverty, I think folks fail to realize how much this isn’t just an issue that affects “other people,” but rather impacts entire systems, neighborhoods, and cities/towns.
Building Neighborhoods: Is there anything else that the Promise Neighborhoods community should know about turning around low-performing schools?
Justin Cohen: There’s been so much focus on the various inputs and requirements put on challenged schools. Those are important things to discuss, and we should have those debates, but the focus needs to shift toward outcomes. We have yet to determine – as a country – what it means for a school to have “turned around.” There has to be some consensus about the outcomes we’re looking for, otherwise we’ll keep spinning our wheels on the inputs debate.
I think the Promise Neighborhood community has a real role to play here, because too much school improvement focuses upon short-term improvements that lack follow-up and sustainability. As I mentioned before, the short-term improvements are critical to signaling that change is both real and happening, but long-term sustainability and excellence are the most important factors to make sure that our most vulnerable children are truly seeing the benefits of reform. Neighborhoods and communities must play a role in defining the desired outcomes, which inevitably extend beyond the school building.
The other thing I will say is that change never happens without some sort of struggle, and it’s unreasonable to think that everyone will always agree with the manner in which change occurs. It is inevitable that governments, unions, teachers, administrators, and communities will at times disagree about the particular approaches to change. The Promise Neighborhoods community can play a real role in making sure that discussions about school change always center on decisions that are in the best interests of children. There are many adult concerns tied up in school change, including the incredibly important issue of teacher and administrator jobs. These issues should never be trivialized, but they must be contextualized in terms of what’s best for our most vulnerable children.
Finally, there are a number of resources on our website that deal with the various local, state, and federal issues impacting school turnaround. www.massinsight.org/stg
I also blog occasionally http://stsg.wordpress.com
Thanks for having me!
Counterpoint: Strengthening Our Schools: Congresswoman Judy Chu Outlines a Different Path for School Reform in Promise Neighborhoods, interview with Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA).