Tighter on Ends, Looser on Means

No child should have to attend a school that for years has failed to improve student outcomes. Fortunately, most of the country seems to agree on this, and lately I spend far less time convincing folks that something has to change. Unfortunately, there’s not a ton of agreement about what exactly should change, and in the meantime, there are still thousands of schools that continue to let down children and families every single day.

That said, a plethora of recent studies on the effectiveness of school turnaround – and more specifically, the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program  – should spur some conversation about future efforts to remedy chronic failure.

The good news? Turnaround can dramatically – and surprisingly quickly – increase student achievement, when districts address fundamental, politically sensitive issues. The bad news? It’s still too easy to do what we know doesn’t work: light-touch, silver-bullet solutions that are much less politically risky.

So how do we stop doing what doesn’t work? The feds and states have an important role to play, but I worry that policymakers are focused on the wrong issues. We need to stop worrying whether there are four turnaround models or six models or a dozen models.

Instead, we need to worry about two things:

1)   Are districts fundamentally changing the structures and operating conditions around chronically underperforming schools, while delegating day-to-day decisions to accountable operational units that are closer to children? We’re foolish if we think that the top-down bureaucracies that were complicit in chronic failure will be the same ones that reverse the trend. We need to make decisions – and spend dollars – closer to students.

2)   Are schools seeing measurable increases in student achievement after two years? Are leading indicators of change – like increases in credit accumulation and decreases in absences/dropouts – changing after one year?

It’s an easy enough trade to conceptualize: big changes for big results. But it’s still politically difficult. SIG funds are both a carrot and a stick. If used smartly, they can make a real difference for the hundreds of thousands of kids still trapped in bad schools. Some states like Delaware, Indiana, New York and Louisiana get it; they are using SIG as a lever to demand real structural changes in districts and schools. In essence, they are making the risk of maintaining the failing status quo greater than the risk of doing things differently. Until that approach becomes the norm, we’re making it too easy for folks to get off the hook for real change.