Turnaround experts eye state schools

July 9, 2011

Interventions by state officials next month in as many as 18 struggling schools will open Indiana to a new and unproven breed of private education entities that have sprung up in just the past decade.

That introduction is likely to be smaller than originally thought, but have far-reaching ramifications.

Only three to 10 of the 18 schools facing state takeover are likely to be completely taken over by state officials and put under the control of a private school-turnaround operator, according to a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education.

The department has already identified three operators as finalists, out of a field of 11 applicants, but the agency has declined to reveal the names of any companies it has talked to.

New York-based Edison Learning and Indianapolis-based EdPower, an affiliate of the Charles A. Tindley charter school, both confirmed they were applicants. Other likely candidates include Massachusetts-based Cambridge Education, New York-based Global Partnership Schools, New York-based Institute for Student Achievement, Baltimore-based Talent Development, and San Francisco-based WestEd.

But the unprecedented act of handing control of a public school to a private operator will reverberate across all of Indiana’s public schools—mainly because so few thought the state would ever take this step.

“It’s a shot across the bow. It’s going to shake people up,” said David Dresslar, executive director of the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis. He added, “You’ll see people say, ‘Holy cow, we don’t want that. We’ve got to do something.’”

For the other schools, the state intervention will be much lighter—and maybe won’t happen at all.

One possible outcome is for schools to escape intervention entirely—either by merit of improved test scores or because they have developed improvement plans on their own that receive the state’s blessing.

And in between outright state takeover and no intervention, most schools will likely enter one of numerous scenarios that involve state supervision of a district working with an outside group to turn around a school.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and his staff at the education department are using as a guide a 2007 report by Boston-based Mass Insight Education. It calls for school districts to create “turnaround zones,” which are free from nearly all district rules, then identify a private organization to act as a “lead partner” to overhaul the school’s personnel, practices and, ultimately, culture.

Bennett said he’s open to a whole gamut of options for the state’s worst-performing schools.

“We will literally customize the right solution for each and every school,” Bennett said.

Mass Insight is “keeping an eye on” the turnaround process in Indiana, but has not—as of yet—been asked to participate in the effort, said Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight.

The for-profit structure of some turnaround operators, such as Edison, has persistently sparked controversy—and did so again during the hearings held in June at the schools that face state intervention.

Some of the school districts controlling the struggling schools, such as Indianapolis Public Schools, have argued they are making progress and are in a better position than the state or outside operators to keep that progress going.

“IPS should be given a chance,” said Elizabeth Gore, president of the IPS board of trustees.

Low scores

State intervention in struggling schools became possible in Indiana in 1999 when the Legislature passed Public Law 221. Like the federal No Child Left Behind Act that came two years later, it required schools to improve their pass rates on the standardized ISTEP test each year.

Those schools that had very low pass rates and showed little improvement six years in a row could be taken over by the state. The federal law stipulated that five years in the lowest category of performance would require a school to undertake a significant restructuring—although it gave schools wide latitude to define “significant.”

For multiple reasons, the implementation of Indiana’s law was delayed. But in other states, the No Child Left Behind law—combined with federal and private grants—helped spawn a small industry of private groups offering to help schools improve their test results.

Edison, for example, which had been running charter schools since the early 1990s, shifted into school improvement work. It now manages 50 charter schools but has improvement contracts with 340 schools, including two in Indianapolis’ Perry Township.

In 2009, the growth of the turnaround industry exploded in response to President Obama’s using $3.5 billion of stimulus funds to give grants to struggling schools.

Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, declared the U.S. Department of Education would work to turn around 5,000 of the nation’s poorest-performing schools.

In 2010, seven Indiana schools won $29 million from the U.S. Department of Education to fund school turnaround efforts. Those schools included Marshall Middle School and Washington high school—the latter of which are among the 18 now facing state takeover.

Also, two charter schools—Challenge Foundation Academy and Indianapolis Metropolitan High School—won federal turnaround grants. Neither is subject to state takeover.

But so far, most of the turnaround work has been incremental and rather ineffective, said Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, a North Carolina-based group that studies school turnaround.

For example, a study released in December by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that fewer than 10 percent of low-performing schools made even moderate gains in performance from 2003 to 2009, in spite of the turnaround work inspired by No Child Left Behind. Fewer than 1 percent made dramatic gains.

A similar analysis by the Brookings Institution, focusing on California schools, found a similarly dismal result.

“There really isn’t any data to support that these private groups or private industry really have any greater success,” said Teresa Meredith, vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. She added, “I hope that it’s successful and we in public education learn some lessons from it. But I am concerned that it is an experiment.”

Some proponents of turnaround efforts acknowledge as much. Rick Hess, an education scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., wrote of turnaround efforts in a March 30 blog post, “it’s fairly clear that no one actually knows what to do.”

But Cohen, of Mass Insight, argues that true school turnaround really hasn’t been tried on a wide scale because 90 percent of schools have taken the incremental options offered them by the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Those of us that do turnaround are concerned that existing reform strategies writ large are too small-bore to have a systemic impact,” he said, adding, “Most schools that are bad, stay bad. What we need to look at is schools that try something wildly different.”•


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