Overhauling low-performing schools via federal turnaround programs: What’s around that corner? And who is there?

iStock_000005455527XSmallQuoting a story from the Associated Press. Dec. 3, 2009:

“…federal officials have an incentive in the turnaround program, which gives money to states for school districts to overhaul the lowest-performing schools. Districts will have to compete for grants. Applications for the money, made available Thursday to states, should result in a list of about 1,200 schools that states have been targeted for turnaround, the Education Department said, adding that the eventual goal is 5,000 schools.

To get the money, a district must do one of four things:

-Fire the principal and at least half the staff and reopen the school with new personnel.

-Turn a school over to a charter school operator or other management organization.

-Close the school and send students to higher-achieving schools in the district.

-Replace only the principal and take other steps to change how the school operates.

A special focus will be on fixing middle schools and high schools, especially “dropout factories” where two in five kids don’t make it to graduation.”

I experience a lot of competing ideas and emotions about approaches such as this. On one hand, we know that there are schools that are failing our children in multiple ways. Those schools should not exist, and we have been negligent for decades in allowing so many children, youth and families to be discarded and scarred. On the other hand, the criteria for being deemed a ‘failed’ school are very narrow, as many education scholars, including Warner faculty, have demonstrated through rigorous research and work in schools. How do we balance the very real and urgent need to step in to stop the harm and long-term damage being done to children and youth, while also recognizing and acting on the complexity of power, cultural practices, history, economics, and politics (not to mention the nature of knowledge in current societies) that course through schools and classrooms?

I for one am pretty skeptical about schooling as it exists today in general, but that is too big a fish to fry in this conversation. The central issue right now in light of this government action, I think, is that we (educators, education researchers, education advocates) need to insert ourselves into the conversation about what constitutes a failure. Failure is achieved, just as success is. The requirements outlined by the federal Department of Education seem to ignore the fact that schools are situated in sociopolitical and economic contexts that impact very directly what they are able to do and what they are asked to do. Without also attending to those larger contexts, heavy-handed actions like those above can end up ‘blaming the victim’ and masking the sources of problems and the potential solutions (e.g., connecting schools, communities, and civic institutions in substantive, truly collaborative and respectful partnerships).

Further, if this line of action is followed (which seems very likely), what are the criteria for the new regime that is brought into a school? Will they have to be responsive to local neighborhoods, cultural and social communities, and economic conditions? Who will decide on the actions taken and the subsequent staffing and management of the school? To whom is the new regime accountable and it what ways? From where does the curriculum originate and to whose interests does it speak? What about pedagogical approaches in light of the population of the school?

Maybe some of these questions are addressed in the guidelines the Department of Education is laying out, but my fear is, given past history, many such details are not addressed, especially regarding relations of power that have created ‘failing’ schools in the first place. A related fear is that this will not really result in meaningful change that enriches educational experiences and life chances. Instead, it will result in our government supporting an entrenched system that will continue to produce failure for the same groups it has marginalized for way too long.

Article written by

Nancy Ares

Nancy Ares is an Associate Professor at the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education. Her research examines classroom and community practices, with particular attention to the ways that cultural and linguistic diversity and social interaction affect teaching, learning, and community transformation. For more on Prof. Ares, click HERE.

2 Responses

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  1. Josh Groves - Construction Industry
    Josh Groves - Construction Industry at |

    Another point to be made about this federal initiative, and the issue which first popped into my head is, often the crux of the problem with these underperforming schools is that nobody cares enough to do anything drastic – not the teachers, district, or community.  And now, this federal program, to be effective, relies upon the teacher/district/community to take initiative.  I’m just concerned that the schools who truly need this sort of reform will never get submitted for review.

  2. url shortener
    url shortener at |

    The real problem with education is government involvement.

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