Hold Me Accountable on SIG

Throughout his tenure as Secretary, Arne Duncan has often told audiences, “Hold us accountable.” It’s an honorable sentiment from a public servant.

But it’s also a model of good behavior for those of us currently in the chattering class—commentators, pundits, critics, etc., who hold forth instead of fighting in the arena.

For some time now, I’ve been giving the Department a hard time about not releasing enough data on the performance of the SIG (School Improvement Grants) program—I’m trying to hold them accountable for the Secretary’s talk of turning around 5,000 persistently failing schools over the course of five years.

I suppose they will eventually give us some results, and I’m certain that I’ll have something to say about them.

But in the spirit of the Secretary’s refrain, I should be held accountable, too.

I publicly predicted—on numerous occasions—that SIG was not going to produce anything remotely close to the results the Department and others were promising. I was alarmed at how much we were spending on SIG and the awful track record of previous turnaround efforts, and I was sure that districts would pick weak interventions and that kids were going to continue languishing in these schools while we went about this misguided adventure.

Ultimately, the results will speak for themselves. But until then, here is a sampling of what I wrote more than four years ago. I caused a fuss about this program. If I got it wrong, I’ll say so. You can hold me accountable for that.

May 11, 2009

I’m convinced that turnarounds are not a scalable strategy for fixing America’s struggling urban school systems. There is simply too much data from the world of education and other industries showing that the success rate of turnaround initiatives aimed at persistently failing entities is staggeringly low.

If the ED team believes that we just need to build a better turnaround mousetrap, I’m concerned that we’re about to waste several billion dollars.

September 1, 2009

I’ve been arguing over the last several months that the administration’s fixation on turnarounds is a major mistake.

It gives states four options for using School Improvement Grants, and I believe two will almost certainly fail to have any meaningful positive impact. While one is called the “turnaround model” and the other is called the “transformation model,” they amount to the same thing: using the same types of interventions applied over the last number of decades to try to improve struggling schools—replacing some staff, improving professional development, changing the curriculum, etc.

Because the first two options are the least cumbersome for states and districts, these are likely to be the most used. That unfortunately suggests that we are about to embark on another ill-fated mission to improve America’s most troubled schools.

December 6, 2009

The Obama administration’s Department of Education recently launched what I believe will become its most expensive, most lamentable, and most avoidable folly.

The final guidelines allow for tepid interventions (the “transformation” model) to qualify as a turnaround attempt. While districts could choose to pursue more radical activities, history teaches us that few will.

Nevertheless, the die is cast, I’ve lost, and we’re about to pursue school turnarounds with vigor. My hope now is that the department undertakes an evaluation of this effort (like it is doing with the Race to the Top) so we can learn from this massive investment and be better positioned in the future to address the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

February 11, 2010

Early in his tenure, Secretary Duncan’s rhetoric got ahead of the evidence, and he charged the nation with turning around 5,000 failing schools within five years. Falling into the same trap that had ensnarled countless previous reformers, the administration contended that generations of failed turnaround efforts were the consequence of insufficient funding and the wrong strategies.

The administration’s “Closure” option is certainly the most promising. But districts had this opportunity under NCLB’s “other” option (v) and almost never took advantage of it. We would be unwise to assume it would be widely embraced now.

NCLB provides a final critically important lesson. Districts, finding the four other options too troublesome or challenging, did take advantage of the “other” option–to implement meek interventions, like professional development or turnaround specialists. With the “Transformation” option, this administration has provided an equivalent short cut. Apart from requiring the principal’s removal, this alternative will allow lukewarm reforms to pass for meaningful change.

We should all pause to consider that, if the administration gets its way with the 2011 budget–meaning another $900 million for turnarounds–the federal government, in just a few years, will have invested approximately $5 billion in an area with consistently poor results via previously ineffectual strategies. If we include the significant portion of RTTT funding that will be used for the same purposes (such efforts make up one of four program priorities) the figure swells to over $6 billion.

Congress may not have yet passed the 2011 budget, but the turnaround train has already left the station. And it may have a new name, more cargo aboard, and a fresh coat of paint, but the tracks are leading to the same, sad destination.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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