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Evidence is mixed for Obama’s school intervention strategies

A large pot of federal funds has enticed most states to try the four approved models.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania joined 40 states in January in applying for a piece of the huge pot of $4.35 billion in so-called Race to the Top (RttT) federal education grant money, putting forth aggressive plans to turn around underperforming schools – even though evidence is scant that the strategies they want to employ have been effective.

Generous rewards will go to the winning states. Success of Pennsylvania’s application could mean as much as $118 million in new education funds for Philadelphia.

Stiff competition for the stimulus-funded RttT awards has allowed the Obama administration to dictate the direction of education reform, by judging states’ applications based on their willingness to adopt strategies approved by the Department of Education.

Pennsylvania is requesting $400 million, the maximum possible, in a 500-page application that details reform plans in four areas, including school turnaround.

The other areas are improving data collection to better track the progress of students and schools, taking steps to upgrade the quality and equitable distribution of teachers, and adopting rigorous state academic standards.

The turnaround piece is the most controversial – not least, according to critics, because it hews too closely to No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration’s education reform initiative that relied heavily on charter schools and privatization.

Under Race to the Top, chronically underperforming schools must apply one of four approved interventions. These are:

  • "Transformation,” where the principal is replaced and teachers receive intensive professional development;
  • “Turnaround,” where the principal and at least fifty percent of staff are replaced;
  • “Restart,” where a school undergoes a conversion or is shut down and reopened under outside management, such as a charter;
  • “Closure,” where the school is closed and students are enrolled in a nearby, higher achieving school.

“The leadership is acting on the basis of theories, hunches, or preferences, but not research or evidence or controlled experiments,” said Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University and a former assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush. “The strategy of closing schools will be encouraged by RttT, and thousands of schools are likely to be terminated, dissolving neighborhood schools and replacing them with privately managed charters.”

She added that RttT will place “even greater emphasis on test scores in a data-driven environment.”

The four turnaround strategies resemble those introduced by NCLB for schools that persistently failed to reach academic achievement goals set by states under the law. Research, however, has raised questions about whether these interventions work.

According to a December 2009 study by the Center on Education Policy that analyzed five years of NCLB “turnarounds” in six states, most found the prescribed federal strategies to be ineffective.

The report found that the turnaround model in which the principal and at least 50 percent of staff are replaced, had uneven success – and unforeseen consequences. Many schools encountered difficulties hiring qualified new faculty while others were stymied by teacher union contracts.

States and school districts had to lobby hard for the less drastic transformation model – which replaces only the principal while working with existing teachers – to win recognition by the federal government as an approved strategy.

However, federal guidelines say that large districts can use the transformation option in no more than half the turnaround schools – in Philadelphia’s case, no more than 38 of the 76 low-performing schools listed in the state RttT application.

According to the Center on Education Policy study, schools that had successful turnarounds “had a large pool of [teacher] applicants, a plan or vision… that allowed it to overcome its past reputation as a ‘failing’ school, support from the teachers’ union to resolve any contractual issues, and effective hiring systems that did not rely on principals alone to recruit and interview applicants.”

In Chicago, another recent study from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) showed that a less intrusive intervention in 10 schools by Strategic Learning Initiatives, a nonprofit educational consultant, boosted test scores in some of the city’s highest-poverty schools.

The SLI process requires 80 percent buy-in from the faculty and stresses shared leadership, focused professional development, and parental and community engagement. Facilitators work closely with the school to make sure the model is being followed.

“The results that SLI has achieved … suggest that well before decisions are made to reconstitute schools … school districts would be wise to consider far less drastic, but clearly powerful, interventions,” wrote AIR analysts Steven Leinwand and Sarah Edwards in a July evaluation.

Another concern about federal turnaround strategies is the viability of using successful charter school operators to transform existing public schools. A November 2009 study by Education Sector found that the country’s best charter schools often foundered in their efforts to scale up.

Thomas Toch, Education Sector’s cofounder and the study’s lead author, asked to have his name removed from the final report, charging that critical findings were watered down to suit charter management organization (CMO) advocates.

“CMOs produced 350 schools over a decade, and Arne Duncan is talking about turning around or replacing up to 5,000 schools through Race to the Top,” said Toch in an interview. “There’s no indication it will be easier to scale these organizations so quickly and maintain the high standards that some of the schools have achieved.”

Federal guidelines now note the Department of Education does “not believe that charter schools are the only or preferred solution to turning around struggling schools.”

The Department also specifies that schools should be closed only if there are viable options for their students to attend higher-achieving schools in the same neighborhood.

Community activists, including those in Philadelphia, are concerned about displacing the students in the turnaround schools. District officials are on record saying that they will take steps to prevent this from happening.

Pennsylvania submitted its proposal on January 19, the first round deadline. Rejected proposals are reconsidered in a second round, due June 1. First-round winners will be announced in April. If Pennsylvania wins a grant in the first round, the District must submit a detailed implementation plan to the state within 90 days.

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