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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 08/16/2010

The problem with favoring high schools in turnaround grant program

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Sarah Garland is a staff writer for The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the author of Gangs in Garden City: How Immigration, Segregation and Youth Violence Are Changing America’s Suburbs (Nation Books, 2009).

By Sarah Garland
In his education speech in Texas on Aug. 9, President Obama told the nation, “We know what works. It’s just we’re not doing it.”

The speech came as the U.S. Department of Education hands out $3.5 billion in turnaround grants to failing schools around the country, an outsized proportion of which will go to high schools. But when it comes to turning around high schools, educators admit that no one knows exactly what works.

The overrepresentation of high schools in the turnaround grant competition is partly on purpose. Department of Education officials say that secondary schools historically have been left out of allocations for disadvantaged schools despite research identifying thousands of so-called “dropout factories.”

So a whole new category, called Tier II, was created in the grant competition just for high schools.

At least 43 percent of the Tier I and II schools that applied for school improvement grants – about 900 out of the 2,100 applicants – are high schools, according to my analysis of a report by Communities for Excellent Public Schools, which was led by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Nationwide, high schools make up only 24 percent of all schools.

The high percentage of high schools among the country’s worst schools might seem obvious. Once children reach high school, educational deficiencies have compounded over the years. Disadvantaged students who start out behind in kindergarten fall even further behind their more advantaged peers as each year passes.

Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education, points out that high schools also tend to be singled out for turnaround more often because rates of violence and suspension are higher among older students.

The focus on high schools in the turnaround competition raises some questions, however.

For one thing, experts say it’s harder to transform a high school from bad to good. As Tim Cawley, the managing director for the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) in Chicago, which is listed on the Education Department’s website as a model program, put it: “Nobody’s really cracked it.”

AUSL focuses on elementary schools and applied for an Investing in Innovation grant to work on a model for high school turnarounds, but its application didn’t make the final cut last week.

In 2004, Johns Hopkins University researchers identified 2,000 “dropout factories” around the country, and school districts have been trying to improve these high schools for the past decade to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. For the most part, they’ve floundered (see what happened in Portland and Philadelphia for examples).

The relatively few successes are evidence that turning around high schools is a delicate and very expensive project.

Locke High School in Los Angeles, which was taken over by Green Dot, a charter school operator, is a positive example that the U.S. Department of Education also cites. But the high costs of the transformation have raised eyebrows among educators, who wonder how they can replicate a $15 million effort with the $6 million or less allotted for each school in the federal grant competition.

In New York City, education reforms seem to have been more effective at the high school level, where graduation rates have risen over the past eight years, than at the middle school or elementary levels, where results on state tests arguably show little improvement. Yet New York City’s high school reforms were also funded largely by private dollars and there were many flaws; the school system is still working out all the kinks.

And Hempstead High School on Long Island – where I spent about four years in and out of the school as I was researching a book about gangs – is an example of how difficult it is to sustain improvements.

When I arrived, the school’s problems ranged from low graduation rates to kids being murdered on or near school grounds. The turnaround was an excruciating process. The district finally hired a strong principal after years of churning leadership and tried other innovations like splitting the school into smaller academies. Over the four years, the graduation rate shot up, to 65 percent from 40 percent. But the gains didn’t last: The principal left last year, violence escalated and the graduation rate slipped.

Joseph Harris, director of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research, agrees that high schools are particularly tricky in the already tricky business of school turnarounds.

“If you look historically, high schools look a lot more like they did 50 years ago than elementary schools,” he says. “High schools are big, bulky and they’re old-fashioned, and therefore getting them to do things totally differently to meet the needs of all students is a challenge.”

The problems at struggling high schools often include students who are years behind their peers. “It’s the high school’s problem, but it’s not the high school’s fault alone,” says Justin Cohen of Mass Insight Education.

So why not focus on elementary and middle schools, where the work is potentially easier – the preferred strategy of many charter school networks? Elementary and middle schools, not to mention early childhood, are also arguably where the problems start. But Harris says that despite the difficulties, high school reform shouldn’t be avoided.

“It’s important to invest early to avoid the problems in high school, but you can’t ignore one or the other,” says Harris. “If high schools were easy to [fix], people would have done it.”

Almost all of the states that applied for school improvement grants have now been awarded the funds. The next step in the process, already under way in many states, is for state departments of education to distribute the funds on a competitive basis to local districts. The Department of Education has published state applications, including lists of all eligible schools, here.

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By Valerie Strauss  | August 16, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  Tier 1, Tier 2, obama and education policies, obama and school reform, school improvement grants, school turnaround grants, school turnarounds  
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The next step in the process, already under way in many states, is for state departments of education to distribute the funds on a competitive basis to local districts.

They are distributing the funds on a competitive basis instead of based on need? Why? How fair is that?

Posted by: educationlover54 | August 16, 2010 7:55 AM | Report abuse

Ah, the sewing machine.....finally, all it really took (simplistic view) was for some insightful innovators to place the eye of the needle close to the point of the needle in contrast to the eye of the hand-held needle. In a similar fashion, education is often steered from the wrong mindset. The ill-fated strategies of Duncan and Co. in turning around schools and testing overkill still miss mark.

While specific tactics should always involve plans such as productive in-school suspensions models and tutoring, the basic framework for transforming a school is not as complicated as leaders in education may assume, and much is known about how to implement systemic transformation in a school/region. The article noted below is a good one, though there are many. The second link shows a table with health interventions that appears within the main article on the reframing school dropout.

Transforming schools may also involve making school more interesting through interdisciplary instruction rather than the streamlined-style courses we presently find in schools. Mini courses over several months would be great too. Students unwilling to commit to a year of physics may indeed take on a mini course. The premise that some students don't really need certain courses can be false. Surely, a crane operator or mechanic can benefit from a course in physics. In some states, students can graduate without high school biology! This ought not to be. Anyway, the below article is interesting.

Prev Chronic Dis. 2007 October; 4(4): A107.
Nicholas Freudenberg, DrPH, Distinguished Professor of Urban Public Health and Jessica Ruglis

Reframing School Dropout as a Public Health Issue

Health Interventions That May Contribute to Improved School Completion Rates

Posted by: shadwell1 | August 16, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I’m not a professional educator, but as a parent, I for one am glad to see that high schools may be getting some attention. Part of the problem is that these kids know that adults by and large have given up on them. That’s what the focus on elementary and middle schools, with the exclusion of high schools, says to me. Intensive intervention, along with breaking these behemoth, over-sized high schools into smaller academies where a sense of community can be developed is a start. The violence and gang problems have to be addressed on a community level. That is beyond the school alone to resolve. Unfortunately we have allowed the school environment to deteriorate to the point where policing is needed. Sad but true.

Another thing that I have observed is that many supports that are available in elementary and middle school are removed abruptly in ninth grade. What is so magical about that grade that we think that all kids can suddenly fend for themselves without structure, and often without much needed parental involvement? We’re putting them in a sink or swim situation and many of them are drowning. More individualized attention comes with smaller environments, smaller class sizes, parental inclusion and involvement, and targeted supports – food, social, medical, job training options, etc. Not cheap and not easy, but doable.

Posted by: Concerned_Citizen2 | August 16, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

We can choose to invest in our high schools or we can pay $50,000 or so a year to see many dropouts attend prison - often for many years. Or, these dropouts will be the next generation of struggling, inept parents that will continue the cycle of the lost.

No, it's not easy and it is expensive: elementary and middle schools are easier to focus on because the students are still children. Young adults are not nearly as attractive to help.

Our society does not make it easy to become a functioning, successful adult; you either have the good fortune to be raised in a stable family with reasonable values that can see you through college or vocational training, or you run the gauntlet of lousy/desperate choices: gangs, low-paying jobs, early parenthood,illegal activities, etc.

It is the job of the adult community to protect its young and to prepare them for opportunities to be contributing members of society.

Our young people desperately need to see hope, opportunity and adult caring in their lives. The negative, hyper sexualized media, lack of jobs and gangs/predatory adults have a huge impact on the young in troubled high schools.

As a whole, U.S. society has done a poor job of caring for its young adults. The time to invest fully and carefully in our high schools is way overdue.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | August 16, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

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