Turning Around Struggling Schools

by Matt Williams on November 28, 2012

Over the last four years, the Obama Administration has focused on turning around the lowest performing schools. We applaud the Department of Education’s emphasis on these schools in its Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant (SIG) programs, and in its state ESEA waivers. We can debate the numbers of and terms applied to these schools but what we cannot debate is the pronounced need for strong, scalable effective strategies.  Effective school turnaround is complicated and multifaceted work, but it must be brought to scale if we are going to close achievement gaps and ensure all children are college and career ready. It is essential that we are successful in these challenging environments; it is not an overstatement to say that our collective futures are at stake. Study after study has illuminated the links between education, economic development, citizenship, and national security. With these stakes, effective strategies and interventions cannot merely be boutique options or localized strategies. Our work at KnowledgeWorks (through our subsidiaries EDWorks and New Tech Network) has taught us that additional steps are necessary to increase the pace and impact of turning around the nation’s most challenged schools and school systems.

To expand upon these results, and to more effectively utilize existing resources devoted to turning around struggling schools, KnowledgeWorks recommends supporting schools on track to becoming the worst performing; scaling effective turnaround programs and providers; and driving collaboration in school turnaround efforts through the following actions:

 (1) Reserve a portion of the SIG national activities set-aside to encourage states to scale effective practices and providers in schools which are not SIG eligible but are on a trend line towards this designation. States receiving these additional resources must implement a system of early intervention for these schools by first analyzing the reasons for their lack of performance and the measures necessary to address it.

(2) Increase the Title I set-aside for school improvement activities and target the additional resources to drive intrastate collaboration among school districts with low performing schools. Specifically, the state would utilize these resources to encourage school districts to work together to turn around their lowest performing schools. Collaborative efforts should focus on building district capacity by scaling strategies shown to work at the school level.

(3) Require school districts using SIG funding to partner with community organizations and entities to leverage these resources. Our work has shown that school turnaround efforts often don’t reach their full potential without the knowledge, skills and resources of the community.

By making the aforementioned recommendations a reality, the Obama Administration and Congress can take a significant step forward to assuring that all students are on a prosperous path towards an education that provides them with the college and career readiness to compete in an interconnected, global economy.

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