Skip to main content

Persistently Low-Performing Schools Need More Options from the Feds

By October 20, 2011April 14th, 2022No Comments

Published by — Obama and Duncan’s four turnaround models for failing schools are a step in the right direction, but they comfort the status quo.

In 2009, the Obama/Duncan administration announced that they would spend serious money and attention redeeming the 5,000 worst schools in the nation. To my mind, this has been their best idea.

But then they came up with four — and only four — models for how to deal with these schools. I remember reading them over and over again looking for the good one. In vain. By its very nature, education policy made a million miles from a classroom – by Congress, say – risks insensitivity to the everyday reality of flesh-and-blood teachers and kids.

But let’s back up and look at the feds’ big plan for struggling schools.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) strategy left over from the Bush administration had two good results. First, states were forced to upgrade their data systems, so the public could get a better idea of whether kids were learning. Second, that data revealed conclusively that certain populations, like kids in poverty, were being sadly under-served. The problem with NCLB was that its main strategy for helping children was to heap a lot of bad test scores, threats and humiliating name-calling onto schools.

Frankly, we didn’t learn much of positive value from all that naming and shaming.

The new administration decided to focus instead on supporting innovation. Good, much more positive approach.

In the case of what they call “the persistently low-performing” schools, they allocated significant money for districts to support big changes at these schools. If the education industry can learn how to fix these schools in specific, it will learn how to help the poor, minority and special-needs children who are disproportionately stuck in them.

So, at the dawn of 2010, the feds told each state to create criteria to identify their most troubled schools, including all high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.

The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that 15,277 schools, or 16 percent of all schools nationwide, were identified as “persistently low-performing” schools. Each became eligible for federal School Improvement Grant money. Some schools opted out of the grants because other reform efforts were already underway.

The others, however, had to fix their problems by choosing from among the four federal models. They are:

Closure – Close the school altogether and transfer its students to high-performing schools in the district.

Turnaround – Replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff.

Restart – Open the school under a third-party education management organization, one that is independent of the district, such as a charter operator.

Transformation – Reform the entire instructional environment, develop teacher and school leader effectiveness, reward teachers based on student performance, increase community engagement, and extend learning time.


The first three models mainly reveal the policy-makers’ doubt that these schools might have any strengths. But in my experience, even badly-troubled schools sometimes have a core of fabulous people working under impossible circumstances. These three models change the circumstances by evicting most or all of the adults, presuming they are the root of the problem. And to be sure, they might be. But if they’re not, what a waste of the best thinking and experience of the people most intimate with the kids.

The fourth, Transformation, does just the opposite. It leaves the people AND the circumstances absolutely in place. Even the vague “extended learning time” can mean 5 paltry minutes. So under Transformation, the school district officials and the new principal can design a plan, but if they want to be able to hire teachers from outside the district, the union can always say no. If the principal wants to be free of a deadly curriculum, the district can say no. Transformation provides no leverage.

Recently I heard the new principals of four problem schools give presentations of their transformation strategies. Utterly gutless. The thinking seemed same-old, same-old. Every job was preserved, with the same person in it, probably doing pretty much the same thing, despite some nice-sounding programs – a triumph of rhetoric over action.

Not surprisingly, 74 percent of the nation’s “persistently low-performing” schools chose Transformation.

If I were able to add a 5th option, I would describe it as:

Radical Site-Based Management with Teeth

This model would identify a talented, committed core of people already in the building – assuming there is one – and empower them to take control of their own destiny. The district and community could decide if such a core exists and who, precisely, they are. Then, give them charter-like powers to develop their own strategies and unshackle themselves from any provisions of labor contracts and district policies they consider detrimental to teaching and learning. Give them power over and responsibility for their budget, personnel, strategy, schedule, and so forth. Free them to make a plan they believe will make them successful – within their budget. Keep the core staff and give them real power to change the circumstances.

Like creating any school, site-based management is not for the lazy. But trusting a core of existing staff would build on existing strengths. Experienced, talented adults who know their kids and their needs are the perfect people for the job. They have strong feelings about what’s been holding them back. Capitalize on their knowledge. What’s to lose?

These models all have risks. But empowering the best of an existing staff would show some respect for what good there is even in some of our most troubled schools. And they’d be more likely to turn things around for the kids faster than some outside group starting yet another new charter school.

At least give them a shot.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at

%d bloggers like this: