Disproportionate share of turnaround money headed to high schools

In his education speech in Texas on August 9th, President Barack Obama told the nation, “We know what works. It’s just we’re not doing it.” The speech came as the U.S. Department of Education hands out $3.5 billion in turnaround grants to failing schools around the country, an outsized proportion of which will go to high schools. But when it comes to turning around high schools, educators admit that no one knows exactly what works.

The overrepresentation of high schools in the turnaround grant competition is partly on purpose. Department of Education officials say that secondary schools historically have been left out of allocations for disadvantaged schools despite research identifying thousands of so-called “dropout factories.” So a whole new category, called Tier II, was created in the grant competition just for high schools. (An explanation of the three types of schools eligible for turnaround money can be found here.)

Kelvyn Park High School in Chicago is one of the high schools eligible for a school improvement grant according to an Annenberg report (photo courtesy of Steven Kevil)

At least 43 percent of the Tier I and II schools that applied for school improvement grants – about 900 out of the 2,100 applicants – are high schools, according to my analysis of a report by Communities for Excellent Public Schools, which was led by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Nationwide, high schools make up only 24 percent of all schools.

The high percentage of high schools among the country’s worst schools might seem obvious. Once children reach high school, educational deficiencies have compounded over the years. Disadvantaged students who start out behind in kindergarten fall even further behind their more advantaged peers as each year passes.

Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education, points out that high schools also tend to be singled out for turnaround more often because rates of violence and suspension are higher among older students.

The focus on high schools in the turnaround competition raises some questions, however. For one thing, experts say it’s harder to transform a high school from bad to good. As Tim Cawley, the managing director for the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), which is listed on the Education Department’s website as a model program, put it: “Nobody’s really cracked it.” AUSL focuses on elementary schools and applied for an Investing in Innovation grant to work on a model for high school turnarounds, but its application didn’t make the final cut last week.

In 2004, Johns Hopkins researchers identified 2,000 “dropout factories” around the country, and school districts have been trying to improve these high schools for the past decade to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. For the most part, they’ve floundered (see what happened in Portland and Philadelphia for examples).

The relatively few successes are evidence that turning around high schools is a delicate and very expensive project. Locke High School in Los Angeles, which was taken over by Green Dot, a charter school operator, is a positive example that the U.S. Department of Education also cites. But the high costs of the transformation have raised eyebrows among educators, who wonder how they can replicate a $15 million effort with the $6 million or less allotted for each school in the federal grant competition.

In New York City, education reforms seem to have been more effective at the high school level, where graduation rates have risen over the past eight years, than at the middle school or elementary levels, where results on state tests arguably show little improvement. Yet New York City’s high school reforms were also funded largely by private dollars and there were many flaws; the school system is still working out all the kinks.

And Hempstead High School, on Long Island – where I spent about four years in and out of the school as I was researching a book about gangs – is an example of how difficult it is to sustain improvements. When I arrived, the school’s problems ranged from low graduation rates to kids being murdered on or near school grounds. The turnaround was an excruciating process. The district finally hired a strong principal after years of churning leadership and tried other innovations like splitting the school into smaller academies. Over the four years, the graduation rate shot up, to 65 percent from 40 percent. But the gains didn’t last: The principal left last year, violence escalated and the graduation rate slipped.

Joseph Harris, director of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research, agrees that high schools are particularly tricky in the already tricky business of school turnarounds.

“If you look historically, high schools look a lot more like they did 50 years ago than elementary schools,” he says. “High schools are big, bulky and they’re old-fashioned, and therefore getting them to do things totally differently to meet the needs of all students is a challenge.”

The problems at struggling high schools often include students who are years behind their peers. “It’s the high school’s problem, but it’s not the high school’s fault alone,” says Justin Cohen, of Mass Insight Education.

So why not focus on elementary and middle schools, where the work is potentially easier – the preferred strategy of many charter school networks? Elementary and middle schools, not to mention early childhood, are also arguably where the problems start. But Harris says that despite the difficulties, high school reform shouldn’t be avoided.

“It’s important to invest early to avoid the problems in high school, but you can’t ignore one or the other,” says Harris. “If high schools were easy to [fix], people would have done it.”

Almost all of the states that applied for school improvement grants have now been awarded the funds. The next step in the process, already under way in many states, is for state departments of education to distribute the funds on a competitive basis to local districts. The U.S. Department of Education has published state applications, including lists of all eligible schools, here.