The good, the bad, the ugly: school turnarounds and profiteers

Van Schoales

Guest blogger Van Schoales is the CEO of A+ Denver and a Colorado DFER advisory board member. This post originally appeared on the Democrats for Education Reform blog.

We recently did some research on the state of school turnarounds in Colorado. I was reminded of that great “spaghetti” western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
For those of you that don’t remember the movie, it was a tale of
intrigue, deceit and murder among three men (not so good, bad, and ugly)
in a quest for buried gold in the context of the chaos of the Civil
War. It’s one of my favorite movies for the remarkable cinematography,
directing, and character acting, not to mention one of the best scores
ever. Oh yes, there’s also the interesting sub-texts on war and the
West.

So, what’s the connection with the federal School Improvement Grant
(SIG)/ turnaround schools program? The SIG program is hardly as
interesting as the movie, but turnarounds are filled with struggle,
conflict, and failure; often the only ones benefiting are the outside
consultants making upwards of $5,000 a day. It’s like the end of the
movie where after all the death and destruction, the “not so good”
walks into the sunset with the gold. In this case it’s the consultants
walking off with a check on their way to the next district. And who says
education doesn’t pay?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for identifying the worst schools and
doing everything possible to turn them around or, when necessary,
replacing them with new high performing schools. My fear, however, is
that while the SIG program will have done some good helping to support
the development of a few new schools (like several here in Denver),
most of the funds will go to ill-conceived and clumsily implemented
interventions with little change in student outcomes.

I just don’t believe that many states and districts have the
appropriate levels of oversight nor the capacity to manage turnarounds.
The current program shovels out $4.5 billion over four years to states
with the expectation that state departments of education can
effectively oversee the distribution of these funds to improve schools.

Let’s take my home state of Colorado as a detailed example. In
Colorado we have a reform-focused and relatively well-run state
department of education, but even here, I fear the SIG program will do
little to improve our schools. I can only imagine how terrible it is in
those states where the departments are in the business of shelling out
cash and developing simplistic, check-off the box compliance
procedures.

Colorado is positioned to receive a total of $51.4 million in
federal SIG dollars, the majority of which will be allocated to support
approximately 30 school turnaround schools. So far, 19 schools were
awarded grants receiving an average of $2.3 million over three years –
not chump change. The state, as all states, encourages its schools to
have an outside turnaround partner. The problem is there are very few
turnaround partners that have been proven successful. So the result is
that you have numerous outside turnaround partners obtaining big money
contracts, without having proven their ability to successfully
turnaround a school. While it is fairly difficult to tell at this point
who has these contracts, what they are expected to do and for how much,
it’s clear there is a great deal of money being made by these
contractors who have yet to prove their effectiveness. The only good
news is that the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has just
undergone reorganization and the new Assistant Commissioner has pledged
to look into these questions and hold districts along with providers
accountable.

Well, what about the results so far? I
know it’s only the first year for test results, but you’d expect some
schools to have shown improvement, right? As far as I can tell this has
only occurred in a few schools like West Denver Prep in Denver, which
is a school that was just opened as one of three schools (and the only
new charter) housed in the Lake Middle School turnaround complex.
Overall, SIG grant funded schools in CO have not really improved as a
group and some have even gotten worse. Pueblo, Colorado’s five schools,
for example, have shown no substantive improvement. Student growth in
reading and math ranged from 22% to a high of 47% compared to student
growth at a high performing Denver SIG school (West Denver Prep) with
reading and math growth at 63% and 88%. In short, in these already
low-performing Pueblo schools, students are actually losing ground,
their achievement scores will be worse as a result of attending these
schools. There are, however, several Denver SIG schools showing some
growth like Lake middle school, even if they have not yet made much
progress on the percent of students reaching proficiency, which is the
end goal.

And what about the money being spent on outside turnaround partners? While perusing the CO Department of Education’s website,
I was surprised to discover that of those firms working as turnaround
partners some disclosed cost structures which ranged from $800 per day
(only one) to a high of about $7,000 a day; that must be one hell of a
five-day workshop with an army of coaches. Even more surprising was the
fact that not one of the firms listed on the website responded “YES”
to whether they provided a “performance guarantee contract,” regardless
of cost. There was also a section on the website where the consulting
firms gave references and examples of their work. The Leadership and
Learning Center provided Carlile Elementary in Pueblo as a reference, a
school that is far below the state median growth in all subjects (not a
school I’d pitch as a success).

So where
do we go from here? Do we wait till the feds have burned through $4.5
billion in the next couple of years, watch hundreds of new school
turnaround businesses prosper while there is little change in student
achievement for the nations’ worst schools?

I hope not. Let’s take a timeout and figure out how best to invest
these precious public dollars so that our most disadvantaged kids have a
quality education. While we may not know much about how to turn around
low-performing schools, we do know how to create new high performing
schools for the most disadvantaged students. Maybe more funding from SIG
should go to new school development, not weaker transformations. In
addition, the SIG program should undergo its own “turnaround” so
districts and providers are held accountable for results from each year
of the grant. State departments of education should be easily able to
retract or extend funding if the schools are not meeting performance
targets. State departments of education should also have strict
performance contracts for managing their portfolio of turnaround
schools. The kids trapped in failing schools deserve better leadership
from our district, state and federal officials.

Somewhat ironically, as one of the consultants, a former New York
City education commissioner, Dr. Rudy Crew, said in a New York Times article
published shortly after the grants were being given out, “This is like
the aftermath of the Civil War, with all the carpetbaggers and
charlatans.”

Crew’s firm, Global Partnership Schools, has a multi-year agreement
for more than $6 million dollars from the Pueblo 60 School District.
Global Partnership received half of the funding from SIG for Pueblo. Not
a bad return on investment for Global Partnership; I wish I could say
the same for taxpayers given the results of those Pueblo schools. I’ve
heard a rumor that CDE may intervene in some way given the progress in
Pueblo.

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