To make the state eligible for $400 million in federal "Race to the Top" grants, last December the Michigan Legislature passed a package of school reforms, one of which creates a state "school reform/redesign officer" and office in the Department of Education, with the authority to take over the management of 5 percent of the lowest achieving public schools statewide. The office would then implement one of four strategies specified in the RTTT guidelines: a "turnaround" model, a "restart" model, a "transformation" model or a "school closure" model.
A new report from the Brookings Institution suggests that the state should rely primarily on the last, "school closure." As Brooking's Senior Fellow Tom Loveless put it, "The study suggests that people who say we know how to make failing schools into successful ones but merely lack the will to do so are selling snake oil." Here's his description of actual research and findings:
Part II asks a simple question: do schools ever change? The sample consists of 1,156 schools in California that offered an eighth grade in 1989 and 2009. Test scores from 1989 are compared to scores from 2009. The scores are remarkably stable. Of schools in the bottom quartile in 1989-the state's lowest performers-nearly two-thirds (63.4 percent) scored in the bottom quartile again in 2009. The odds of a bottom quartile school's rising to the top quartile were about one in seventy (1.4 percent) . . . Changes in a school's socioeconomic status had only a marginal statistical relationship with test score changes.
The persistence of test scores has major implications for today's push to turn around failing schools. It can be done, but the odds are daunting. California certainly cannot be accused of inactivity in education reform from 1989 to 2009. Few states tried as many diverse, ambitious reforms that targeted every aspect of the school system-finance, governance, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Not only have these efforts failed to elevate California from its low national ranking on key performance measures, but they have also had little effect on the relative ranking of schools within the state.
Other studies have found similar results. A number of examples are related by Andy Smarick in Education Next. Here's one:
In the first year of California's Academic Performance Index, the state targeted its lowest-performing 20 percent of schools for intervention. After three years, only 11 percent of the elementary schools in this category (109 of 968) were able to make "exemplary progress." Only 1 of the 394 middle and high schools in this category reached this mark. Just one-quarter of the schools were even able to accomplish a lesser goal: meeting schoolwide and subgroup growth targets each year.
In contrast, Smarick describes the success of an alternative formula that he says "boils down to four simple but eminently sensible steps: close failing schools, open new schools, replicate great schools, repeat."
If these patterns hold true here, the reforms adopted by the Michigan Legislature in December aren't likely to be much help to students in this state's failing schools.
The Legislature failed to adopt other reforms that may have more potential, and which were also required to become eligible for the RTTT money, such as a provision allowing schools to fire "consistently ineffective" teachers, which squeaked past the Senate but was never taken up in the House. What was supposed to be a merit pay provision merely contains language about evaluating teachers, but nothing about paying the best ones more. School reform proponents argue that the watering down of the legislation was evidence of the excessive influence of the Michigan Education Association union, and were the reason this state did not qualify for the first round of RTTT grants.
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