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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 12/ 1/2010

Some Education Department spin

By Valerie Strauss

It didn’t take long for the U.S. Education Department to try to link its school turnaround policy to the new report that says that the number of high school “dropout factories” has declined in the last decade.

On the same day that the report “Building a Grad Nation" was released, the department issued a press release saying:

“As the recently released "Building a Grad Nation" report provides a renewed call to action to address high school graduation rates, the U.S. Department of Education announced today that of the more than 700 schools receiving School Improvement Grants (SIG) to implement one of the four turnaround models this year, 48 percent are high schools.

"In the past, low-performing high schools have been almost totally ignored in most districts’ school turnaround efforts," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "Yet nearly half of the 730 schools implementing one of the four models this year are high schools."

That sounds like an attempt to link the policy to the report, which said that the number of U.S. “dropout factory” high schools declined from 2002 through 2008, though close to 40 percent of minority students continue to fail to graduate with their class.

The number of dropout factory high schools fell by 261, from a high of 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008, a decline of 13 percent, the report said, and the actual number of students in these schools dropped by 15 percent.

“Dropout factories,” first identified by Johns Hopkins University researchers early in this decade, are defined as schools at which less than 60 percent of students who started as freshmen are still enrolled four years later. Half of the nation’s dropouts are believed to come from these schools.

Here’s one problem with making any link between the Obama turnaround policy and the decline in dropout factories: The drop detailed in the report occurred between 2002 and 2008. Obama didn’t become president until 2009.

Here’s another: One of the authors of the study, Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz, made clear in an interview that no single approach led to the decline, and that school districts used varying combinations of measures to improve their sagging schools. One thing they all did have in common was that the solutions that worked in each area included a mix of in-school and out-of-school supports for students.

“If there were a silver bullet, we would have figured it out a long time ago. It’s a matrix of support,” said Marguerite W. Kondracke, president and chief executive officer of Gen. Colin Powell’s nonprofit America’s Promise Alliance, one of the co-sponsors of the report, (along with the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins and the public policy firm Civic Enterprises).

In fact, the report notes that one of the issues that will hinder efforts to make more progress in turning around dropout factories is that there is simply "not enough manpower in high-needs schools to provide" supports at the scale needed.

The issue of providing students with a variety of academic, health, psychological and other support has become important because the Obama administration’s policy on “turning around” failing schools involves four options for individual schools that have nothing to do with providing kids with help. The options are considered by both Democratic and Republican critics to be punitive, and some members of Congress have complained that they are inflexible and ignore community and parental involvement.

The four turnaround models available to districts dealing with the chronically lowest performing schools:

*Turnaround Model – This would include among other actions, replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the school’s staff, adopting a new governance structure and implementing a new or revised instructional program.

*Restart Model – School districts would close failing schools and reopen them under the management of a charter school operator, a charter management organization or an educational management organization selected through a rigorous review process. A restart school would be required to admit, within the grades it serves, any former student who wishes to attend.

*School Closure – The district would close a failing school and enroll the students who attended that school in other high-achieving schools in the district.

*Transformational Model – Districts would address four specific areas: 1) developing teacher and school leader effectiveness, which includes replacing the principal who led the school prior to commencement of the transformational model, 2) implementing comprehensive instructional reform strategies, 3) extending learning and teacher planning time and creating community-oriented schools, and 4) providing operating flexibility and sustained support.

If the report suggests anything, it is that much more is needed to turn around a school than simply moving around teachers, administrators and kids.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 1, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Tags:  america's promise, arne duncan, building a grad nation, dropout crisis, dropout factories, education department, high schools, school dropouts, school reform, turnaround models  
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Notice not one of the models involved the culture or family. It's all about the teachers and administration.

If they drop teachers, will they just harvest more from the teacher trees? Here's a hint...they don't grow on trees!

If they drop the school isn't that a little like a shell game? Bring in the same teachers (read above about teacher trees) and call the school another name? Is this an educational witness protection program?

Many schools are judged now to be over capacity. Shutting doors and moving children could be clearly in violation of programs already voted in by citizens. Will the school buildings turn into giant pumpkins or just a giant albatross around the communities neck in costs?

That last option is a conglomeration of what has already happened and still we are moving in circles. Here's an option...

Tell parents that unless and until they enroll in a parent academic program and show the child's improvement they will be required to pay child care in a system similar to daycare but with textbooks.

Parents of those children do not feel the pain of taxation in many cases and therefore it doesn't concern them...just blast the teachers (like these options) and saunter along as if the problem required someone else to care for it. Make it painful on parents and like a broken leg, they will seek a cure/fix.

Posted by: jbeeler | December 1, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Congresswoman Judy Chu last Spring offered a constructive alternative to the Department of Education's unimaginative and punitive options for struggling schools. Please read:

Posted by: anthony_cody | December 1, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Yes, there was a slight decline in dropout rates over an 8-year period. But your piece fails to mention the continuing and ever widening high school graduation gap between students of color and white students as well as between urban and suburban school districts. The same report you cite also shows that nearly all high-poverty urban districts have graduation rates below the national average. While some schools were able to make significant gains in lowering their dropout rates by implementing internal reforms or by restructuring, the system as a whole failed to close that gap. What we have is a systemic problem that goes way beyond the purview of the classroom or school building. No magical single in-school reform will have much effect without improving the living conditions of students, their families and the communities in which they reside.

Posted by: MickeyK | December 1, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

In addition to all of the things mentioned above in relation to high-risk high school difficulties, there is the problem of very serious violence that regularly takes place, and I don't mean even the kind like the recent hostage situation in Wisconsin or even the terrible Columbine massacre some years ago.

High schools with at-risk populations frequently have day-to-day operations interrupted by fights and drug incidents serious enough to call in the police. This means that the whole school culture is distracted and disrupted for some weeks and sometimes the rest of the year by all of the intensive follow-up that is required by staff, parents and social services involved.

And we wonder why it's difficult to produce graduates under these circumstances?

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 1, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Our district used the turn around model because it was least intrusive into the good things we were already doing with very little money. When the turnaround model called for us to remove one of our principals (because he has been principal of our middle school for more than 3 years) we drew the line in the sand. This successful principal of a "failing" school had served 2 of his 4 years in either Iraq or Afghanistan. We refused to move the principal. Sometimes you have to take a stand against "crazy." PS We received the funds anyway.

Posted by: charlottehummel | December 2, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

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