You must focus on long-term solutions

U.S. Department of Education

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  • In Pueblo, CO and across the country, School Improvement Grant dollars should serve as a springboard, not a crutch.

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  • Successful schools rethink how they engage families, attract talented teachers, take advantage of technology, use student data

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Pueblo City Schools (D60) will soon decide whether to renew a contract with a consulting firm, New York-based Global Partnership Schools, to lead the effort to “turn around” five district schools.

GPS has been paid $4.8 million for the first two years, and is asking for another $2.4 million this coming year.

The funds in question come from the $12 million that District 60 received from the $3.5 billion federal School Improvement Grants. In policy circles, there’s plenty of debate about whether this effort to improve low-performing schools will work as hoped or will go down as an expensive failure.

On this count, history counsels caution. In the 1970s, millions of dollars were spent on “effective schools research” to find out what made good schools click. The answers were pretty predictable (strong leadership, professional teaching culture, and so on). The trick turned out to be in duplicating those features elsewhere.

In the past decade, research on the federal Comprehensive School Reform program found that it did nothing to improve lowperforming schools. And No Child Left Behind’s “school improvement” measures have disappointed. Meanwhile, District 60 has a practical decision to make about GPS. Some critics will note that the first-year results from GPS showed little evidence of improvement. In fairness, quick bumps in test scores are less significant than whether outcomes such as attendance, student achievement and school safety are steadily improving.

"The troubled history of 'school improvement' gives cause for skepticism when it comes to anyone or any organization claiming to know just how to turn around persistently low-performing schools." -- Frederick M. Hess

The troubled history of “school improvement” gives cause for skepticism when it comes to anyone or any organization claiming to know just how to turn around persistently low-performing schools.

Indeed, schooling has long been filled with vendors peddling fads or overpriced, jargon-filled pseudoexpertise.

So, the real question is not whether test scores spiked but whether GPS is taking care to position these schools for sustained success.

GPS has put much emphasis on setting up a system of former administrators to mentor, or coach, principals and teachers. The trick is that reforms that depend on new resources — as is the case with coaching — are like a sugar rush.

They may yield improvements so long as the coaches are around, only to peter out once the extra money is gone.

More to the point, the track record for efforts to improve troubled schools primarily through coaching or “professional development” is pretty dismal. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Science has reported that hardly any careful studies of these strategies even exist, and that there’s no “valid” evidence for their effectiveness.

Ultimately, in deciding whether to continue its partnership with GPS, District 60 ought to be clear that School Improvement Grant dollars should serve as a springboard, not a crutch. Smart interventions will ensure that changes are being made at the affected schools that will equip them to succeed when GPS and the extra dollars are gone.

The schools should be busy working to rethink how they engage families, attract and make the fullest use of talented teachers, take advantage of technology, create data systems to monitor and support student performance, and work to shift operational funds to where they’ll matter most.

If GPS is helping with that work, it may well represent a smart investment.

If it’s not, any short-term benefits are likely to follow GPS out of town.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of many books, including “The Same Thing Over and Over.”

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About the Author


Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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