Commentary: A way to fix struggling schools

Every day educators across the country are challenging the status quo and showing that low-performing schools can be turned around. Today, the President and I will visit Miami Central Senior High School to talk to some of those educators. Central has received nearly $800,000 in federal funding to support and accelerate turnaround efforts already underway.

Working with the school district and teachers union, Central promoted a strong school leader to be principal and replaced more than half the staff. It extended learning time after-school and during the summer, and engaged the community by offering Parent Academy classes for parents on graduation requirements and financial literacy. More than 80 percent of students are on free or reduced price lunch. Yet academic performance is steadily improving — and students and teachers are showing that a committed school can beat the demographic odds.

The burdens of poverty are real, and overcoming those burdens takes hard work and resources. But poverty is not destiny. Hundreds of schools in high-poverty communities are closing achievement gaps. America can no longer afford a collective shrug when disadvantaged students are trapped in inferior schools and cheated of a quality education for years on end.

President Obama and I are determined to challenge low expectations at under-performing schools. For the first time, the federal government is providing billions of dollars to states — roughly $4 billion all told over the next five years — to help turn around the nation’s 5,000 lowest-performing schools.

These schools represent just five percent of America’s public schools. Yet unlike in the past, these schools will now be instituting one of four far-reaching reform models to boost student achievement. Our redesigned School Improvement Grants program (SIG) will provide up to $6 million for each school targeted for turnaround over a period of three years.

Why is the administration taking this unprecedented step? The easy, timid approach to turning around low-performing schools has been tried over and over again — and failed.

Under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, districts had five options to intervene in schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” five years in a row. But over 80 percent of the failing schools chose the minimalist “other” option that asked for little change from principals, teachers, and district administrators.

The tragic result of this tireless tinkering is that millions of children continue to be denied their one shot at an American birthright — an education that opens the door to college, careers, and opportunity.

Today, 1,800 of the lowest-performing elementary and middle schools in the nation have on average gotten worse over the past three years, underscoring the ineffective nature of the interventions in NCLB. Meanwhile, 2,000 high schools — which historically have been ineligible for the SIG program — persist as “dropout factories,” producing half of the nation’s dropouts.

Persistently low-performing schools need dramatic change to build a culture of high expectations. That kind of change starts with the leadership — and all four new turnaround models require schools to take on a new principal, unless the principal has recently arrived to lead a school turnaround.

That leadership shift is reinforced by requiring that schools use funding to adopt proven instructional methods. Both students and teachers in underperforming schools need more time on task — students will get more instructional time, and teachers can have more time to collaborate and pursue professional development.

The new turnaround models are adaptable to the unique needs of each school. Teachers, for example, will have new incentives to fill hard-to-fill positions in math and science. And contrary to some press accounts, districts will have the flexibility to choose between the four turnaround models, only some of which require changes in teaching staff.

In one model, all of the teaching staff can be retained. Under a second approach, up to half of the teachers can stay. A third option allows a new school operator, such as a charter school management organization, to retain or replace staff. In the final model, the superintendent closes the school and transfers students to better-performing schools.

Turning around a struggling school is some of the toughest work in education. Experience shows that effective turnarounds require strong leadership and the flexibility to recruit staff with special skills and commitment. Not every teacher or principal wants or should be in this demanding environment. But extraordinary principals and teachers who choose to work in turnaround schools deserve our full support and commitment.

The administration is supporting an array of bold options to help the children trapped in America’s lowest-performing schools. “More of the same” is not one of them.


Arne Duncan is the U.S. secretary of education.