The Spokesman-Review

Report: $50M school turnaround program failing

THURSDAY, MARCH 29, 2012, 2:45 P.M.

SEATTLE — The federal school turnaround program is mostly failing in Washington state, even though teachers and administrators are trying their best to make a difference for kids, according to a report issued Thursday by education researchers at the University of Washington.

The federal government is spending more than $3 billion nationwide to help districts turn around their worst-performing schools.

Washington school districts are failing to make aggressive reforms with their more than $50 million share of the money, researchers from UW’s Center on Reinventing Public Education say.

Teachers are working very hard but their efforts are mostly wasted because the districts don’t have a good plan, said Sarah Yatsko, a UW research analyst and lead author of the study.

She said part of the problem is that districts were rushed into reform by the federal government. Another issue is the hodgepodge approach they are taking. And the changes being made are only marginally different from previous school improvement efforts.

“We’ve got the money. We’ve got this fresh start. We’ve got all this energy,” Yatsko said. “The vast majority were really doing what we call tinkering.”

She expects a similar critique could be made of turnaround efforts in other states. The report does mention a few states — and individual districts — that are taking a different approach to turnaround and could get much better results.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn believes it’s still too early to tell if the turnaround efforts are working.

“I’m going to reserve judgment until I’ve seen the actual data,” he said Thursday, while acknowledging that he also has concerns about whether the changes are going to “move the needle.”

Dorn said there’s evidence that a few things are essential to school improvement: a top notch leader, expanding the school day either by seat time or through technology, and a clear focus on the goals.

Yatsko’s list includes: luck, good timing, thoughtful planning, careful examination of all kinds of data — not just test scores — and a targeted approach that addresses the particular problem a school faces.

The report is based on interviews with teachers and administrators at all the turnaround schools that received the first round of federal grants, which means they are currently in the second year of the three-year process.

Nine districts qualified to participate in the federal program: Seattle, Tacoma, Marysville, Yakima, Wellpinit, Sunnyside, Highline, Grandview and Longview.

A handful of schools are succeeding in their turnaround efforts, but the report does not include the names of those schools and Yatsko would not supply the names of either failing or succeeding turnaround schools.

She said the schools making the most progress are in places where a “superstar” principal was asked to take over a failing school and that principal was allowed to bring along his or her own ideas and handpick some of the staff.

The turnaround program isn’t doomed, Yatsko said, but the schools and districts need more help to make it successful.

“It can’t be a lost cause because it’s so desperately needed,” she said. “You’re talking about kids who are the most marginalized.”

Dorn said the state education department and the UW researchers share the same goals: to improve student learning, so his team is talking to the researchers to learn from their work.


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