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Making Successes Out of Failing Schools

CAP Action Event Examines Washington’s Role in School Turnaround

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“Across the nation, not only are individual schools making dramatic improvements, but states and districts are creating brand new systems to identify, support, and turn around low-performing schools, so that the success of the few becomes the success of many,” said Cynthia Brown, Vice President for Education Policy at the Center for American Progress, at a June 30 event hosted by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. She explained that innovative solutions, such as federal turnaround grant programs and charter schools, can have a positive effect on the nation’s low-performing schools. “We believe federal policy has a key role to play in encouraging systemic change.”

Presentations and a panel discussion followed Brown’s opening remarks. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) spoke on the importance of reforming the education system for school turnaround. Two presentations followed, including Jessica Quillin, managing director of Quillin Consulting, LLC, and Diane Castelbuono, associate superintendent for strategic programs of the School District of Philadelphia. A panel discussion followed featuring Quillin and Castelbuono, as well as Jesse Dixon, director of the Office of District and School Turnaround in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Rayne Martin, director of the Office of Innovation in the Louisiana Department of Education; and moderator Jeremy Ayers, Senior Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

CAP released on the same day two reports on turning around failing schools. Quillin’s “Snapshot of SIG: A Look at Four States’ Approaches to School Turnaround” discusses how to make the School Improvement Grants program more effective at improving low-performing schools. And Melissa Lazarin’s “Charting New Territory: Tapping Charter Schools to Turn Around the Nation’s Dropout Factories” discusses the successes of charter schools in encouraging school turnaround.

Sen. Landrieu began the event with an endorsement of charter schools and federal turnaround grant programs. “The city of New Orleans may be the first city in the country with an all-charter system,” she said. “They are remarkable schools.”

She agreed with the two CAP reports and believes in a proactive federal education reform policy that would improve schools in low-income areas. “We’re in the year 2011, and our public schools are not generally up to par with where they need to be. And it’s a big problem,” Sen. Landrieu said. “There is a difference between what poor families can provide, what middle-class families can provide, and what wealthy families can provide. Instead of standing back and waiting until every family can provide the same, why don’t we adjust our school system?”

Castelbuono and Quillin discussed in their presentations the struggles of turning around America’s schools and ways to ease the turnaround process. Castelbuono described how she hosted open school meetings almost every night of the week in order to develop support for the charter school system. “Turning around low-performing schools is not rocket science, but it is hard, hard work,” Castelbuono said. “It is a sprint and a marathon.”

She believes that to be effective, charter school initiatives must serve all children, be accountable to parents, innovative, flexible, and remain replicable in the wider school system.

Quillin also gave recommendations for school turnaround policies. The School Improvement Grants program—which is a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and is designed to channel federal funds to states and districts with struggling schools—faced reluctance from states and often was difficult to implement on a local level. To counter these problems, Quillin recommends more flexible, less prescriptive SIG requirements, increased assistance and improved accountability and data collection systems, and a lengthening of the time required for states to apply for SIG funding.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is long overdue for renewal from Congress. ESEA reauthorization and the charter school movement have the potential to make successes out of America’s lowest-performing schools. School turnaround success is contingent not only on passing the right legislation and creating dynamic policies that can work on federal, state, and local levels, but also on the efforts of teachers in schools around the country.

“At the end of the day, policy and funds create the conditions to turn around schools,” Jesse Dixon said. “It’s schools that turn around schools.”

For more information on this event, please see its event page.

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