The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: School Turnarounds and Profiteers

By Van Schoales, DFER Colorado Advisory Board Member and the CEO of A+ Denver

We recently did some research on the state of school turnarounds in Colorado. I was reminded of that great "spaghetti" western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. For those of you that don't remember the movie, it was a tale of intrigue, deceit and murder among three men (not so good, bad, and ugly) in a quest for buried gold in the context of the chaos of the Civil War. It's one of my favorite movies for the remarkable cinematography, directing, and character acting, not to mention one of the best scores ever. Oh yes, there's also the interesting sub-texts on war and the West.

So, what's the connection with the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG)/ turnaround schools program? The SIG program is hardly as interesting as the movie, but turnarounds are filled with struggle, conflict, and failure; often the only ones benefiting are the outside consultants making upwards of $5,000 a day. It's like the end of the movie where after all the death and destruction, the "not so good" walks into the sunset with the gold. In this case it's the consultants walking off with a check on their way to the next district. And who says education doesn't pay?

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for identifying the worst schools and doing everything possible to turn them around or, when necessary, replacing them with new high performing schools. My fear, however, is that while the SIG program will have done some good helping to support the development of a few new schools (like several here in Denver), most of the funds will go to ill-conceived and clumsily implemented interventions with little change in student outcomes.

I just don't believe that many states and districts have the appropriate levels of oversight nor the capacity to manage turnarounds. The current program shovels out $4.5 billion over four years to states with the expectation that state departments of education can effectively oversee the distribution of these funds to improve schools.

Let's take my home state of Colorado as a detailed example. In Colorado we have a reform-focused and relatively well-run state department of education, but even here, I fear the SIG program will do little to improve our schools. I can only imagine how terrible it is in those states where the departments are in the business of shelling out cash and developing simplistic, check-off the box compliance procedures.

Colorado is positioned to receive a total of $51.4 million in federal SIG dollars, the majority of which will be allocated to support approximately 30 school turnaround schools. So far, 19 schools were awarded grants receiving an average of $2.3 million over three years - not chump change. The state, as all states, encourages its schools to have an outside turnaround partner. The problem is there are very few turnaround partners that have been proven successful. So the result is that you have numerous outside turnaround partners obtaining big money contracts, without having proven their ability to successfully turnaround a school. While it is fairly difficult to tell at this point who has these contracts, what they are expected to do and for how much, it's clear there is a great deal of money being made by these contractors who have yet to prove their effectiveness. The only good news is that the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has just undergone reorganization and the new Assistant Commissioner has pledged to look into these questions and hold districts along with providers accountable.

Well, what about the results so far? I know it's only the first year for test results, but you'd expect some schools to have shown improvement, right? As far as I can tell this has only occurred in a few schools like West Denver Prep in Denver, which is a school that was just opened as one of three schools (and the only new charter) housed in the Lake Middle School turnaround complex. Overall, SIG grant funded schools in CO have not really improved as a group and some have even gotten worse. Pueblo, Colorado's five schools, for example, have shown no substantive improvement. Student growth in reading and math ranged from 22% to a high of 47% compared to student growth at a high performing Denver SIG school (West Denver Prep) with reading and math growth at 63% and 88%. In short, in these already low-performing Pueblo schools, students are actually losing ground, their achievement scores will be worse as a result of attending these schools. There are, however, several Denver SIG schools showing some growth like Lake middle school, even if they have not yet made much progress on the percent of students reaching proficiency, which is the end goal.

And what about the money being spent on outside turnaround partners? While perusing the CO Department of Education's website, I was surprised to discover that of those firms working as turnaround partners some disclosed cost structures which ranged from $800 per day (only one) to a high of about $7,000 a day; that must be one hell of a five-day workshop with an army of coaches. Even more surprising was the fact that not one of the firms listed on the website responded "YES" to whether they provided a "performance guarantee contract," regardless of cost. There was also a section on the website where the consulting firms gave references and examples of their work. The Leadership and Learning Center provided Carlile Elementary in Pueblo as a reference, a school that is far below the state median growth in all subjects (not a school I'd pitch as a success).

So where do we go from here? Do we wait till the feds have burned through $4.5 billion in the next couple of years, watch hundreds of new school turnaround businesses prosper while there is little change in student achievement for the nations' worst schools?

I hope not. Let's take a timeout and figure out how best to invest these precious public dollars so that our most disadvantaged kids have a quality education. While we may not know much about how to turn around low-performing schools, we do know how to create new high performing schools for the most disadvantaged students. Maybe more funding from SIG should go to new school development, not weaker transformations. In addition, the SIG program should undergo its own "turnaround" so districts and providers are held accountable for results from each year of the grant. State departments of education should be easily able to retract or extend funding if the schools are not meeting performance targets. State departments of education should also have strict performance contracts for managing their portfolio of turnaround schools. The kids trapped in failing schools deserve better leadership from our district, state and federal officials.

Somewhat ironically as one of the consultants, a former New York City education commissioner, Dr. Rudy Crew, said in a New York Times article published shortly after the grants were being given out, "This is like the aftermath of the Civil War, with all the carpetbaggers and charlatans."

Crew's firm, Global Partnership Schools, has a multi-year agreement for more than $6 million dollars from the Pueblo 60 School District. Global Partnership received half of the funding from SIG for Pueblo. Not a bad return on investment for Global Partnership; I wish I could say the same for taxpayers given the results of those Pueblo schools. I've heard a rumor that CDE may intervene in some way given the progress in Pueblo.

It's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in education reform.

Van Schoales is a Colorado DFER Advisory Board Member and the CEO of A+ Denver