Obama Looks at Closing (and Reopening) Failing Schools

Administration's $5 billion plan aims to turn around some of the country's lowest-performing schools.

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President Obama is planning to use a special $5 billion federal school turnaround program to prod local officials to reshape—and in some cases close and reopen—failing schools. The changes could consist of replacing teachers and principals or turning schools into charter school programs.

The goal is to take the nation's 5,000 lowest-performing schools—the bottom 5 percent—and transform 1,000 of them per year, over the next five years, into robust institutions of learning, Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently said. He was speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington, a leading education think tank. Department of Education officials say that closing and reopening schools is not the purpose of the intervention, but it may be deemed necessary for some schools, especially "dropout factories" where 2 in 5 kids don't make it to graduation.

Obama's focus on failing schools comes on the heels of a historic injection of federal education funding courtesy of his economic stimulus package, which doubles what the education budget had been under President Bush.

The 5,000 schools that will be targeted for the makeover will be determined by the states and local districts based on criteria they set themselves under the guidance of the federal Education Department. The criteria might include dropout rates, test scores, and the number of graduates going on to attend college. In determining which schools are "the most in need of help," the Department of Education says that local and state officials should take student achievement growth into account and should consider intervention for only the lowest-performing schools that are not making progress.

Assuming that $5 billion is enough dough to "turn around" some of the nation's worst public schools—and that the turnaround can be done in five years—would such an intervention even work? Besides firing and replacing staff or handing the schools over to charter school operators, Arne Duncan has yet to offer any specific examples of what a "school turnaround" would actually consist of. The mantra most recited by Education Department officials now is "bold action" in persistently low-achieving schools, but what does that actually mean?

Would simply replacing teachers and principals work? If all the other factors in a low-achieving student's life—family, neighborhood, social life—were to remain constant, would substituting an outstanding teacher for an ineffective teacherreverse the achievement levels? Are good teachers and principals all that is needed to turn around struggling schools, the majority of which are in impoverished communities where the parents might not have the time to help their children succeed in school? (Another interesting approach to "shut down" failing schools has recently been mounted by Steve Barr, who is gathering petitions from frustrated parents to convert Los Angeles public schools into charter schools.) What would teachers unions say about the potential massive firings of teachers in an effort to turn around failing schools?

During his speech to the Brookings Institution, Duncan said, "Our students have one chance—one chance—to get a quality education." But is that really the case? Consider the student who falls off the tracks and drops out but returns to school sometime later to obtain a GED. (NPR recently reported on this as it relates to the economy.) Does a poor record of performance—or dropping out entirely—necessarily seal a student's fate? It's a complex question.

As far as the money is concerned, the turnaround program currently receives about $500 million a year, but the stimulus legislation has boosted funding to $3.5 billion. An additional $1.5 billion would go to the program under Obama's 2010 budget proposal in a shift of dollars away from more traditional funding streams. Some educators, of course, are not happy about that prospect. Educators in those circles might then be in need of a turnaround of their own.

public schools
Obama, Barack
Obama administration
Duncan, Arne
Department of Education