School Turnarounds Are Succeeding

Secretary Duncan at the Grad Nation Summit

Portland, Ore., Public Schools Superintendent, Carole Smith, DC Public School teacher Mrs. Rose Smith, and DC Public Schools student Daquan Burley join Arne for a panel at the Grad Nation Summit. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

America cannot keep the promise a quality education to every child without ending the cycle of failure in our chronically low-performing schools.

From the early days of the Obama Administration, the President and Secretary Duncan explained that the country could not continue the status quo, with the idea that some schools are merely destined to fail.

“We could not continue to tinker,” Duncan explained earlier today at the Building a Grad Nation Summit in Washington. “[The President] and I believe that dramatic change is needed in low-performing schools.”

The President and Duncan worked with Congress in 2009 to make an unprecedented investment in turning around low-performing schools.

Through ED’s School Improvement Grants (SIG), the Administration dedicated more than $4 billion dollars, that has reached over 1,200 schools. The goal of SIG is to accelerate achievement in our nation’s lowest-performing five percent of schools. The federal grants from ED are just one element in addressing a challenge that requires input and support from school leaders, teachers, unions, and local partners in the community.

Secretary Duncan announced this morning that the preliminary SIG data shows that the program is producing impressive gains in learning.

In year one under the new SIG:

    • Nearly one in four schools saw double digit increases in math proficiency.
    • Roughly one in five schools had double-digit increases in reading proficiency.
    • In nearly 60 percent of SIG schools, the percent of students who were proficient in math or reading went up in the first year.

Duncan noted that the positive results are from the first year of data, and that it will take several years of data to confirm that SIG is making a lasting improvement in academic achievement.

“At the heart of all these successes,” Duncan explained, “are teachers and school leaders who are excited about the prospect of change.” Before joining a panel at the Summit, Duncan closed by reminded those in attendance that, “Children only get one chance at an education,” and that there isn’t time to wait for reform to happen.

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Nevada District Finds Success in Turning Around

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of vising Dilworth STEM Academy for 7th and 8th graders in Sparks, Nevada to meet with Washoe County School District (WCSD) leadership and school staff. This district serves 63,000 and has had amazing success in turning around what just two years ago was an underperforming district. My congratulations go out to 2011 Nevada Superintendent of the Year, Dr. Heath Morrison; Deputy Superintendent Jane Woodburn; and President of the 2011 Nevada School Board of the Year, Ken Grein, and their dedicated partners and staffs. And a special thanks to Principal Tom Wortman of Smithridge Elementary School, Principal Wanda Shakeenab of Sparks High School, and Principal Laura Petersen of Dilworth Middle School who took the time to spend their morning with me.

In Nevada, where the dropout rate is 24 percent above the national average, WCSD’s high school graduation rates in 2009 were below the state average, and the district was in desperate need of help. Dr. Morrison put in place a strategic plan with the goal of getting every child to graduation, supported, in part, by a U.S. Department of Education School Improvement Grant (SIG) and a $9 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant. Despite cuts in funding from the state, Dr. Morrison and his committed team set ambitious goals and began instituting innovative solutions to drive dramatic change.

The district expanded early learning programs, focused on developing a workforce-ready curriculum, and stressed the importance of professional learning communities grounded in student learning data to inform and improve instruction. District leadership also enhanced its teacher evaluation system to better recognize key drivers of student learning.

Partnerships were formed with local colleges and universities to help inform curriculum development and ensure that students graduated ready for college without the need for remedial courses. With the estimated cost of remedial education being $5.6 billion nationwide, these are the kind of efforts we need to ensure that our students are fully prepared to not only get to college but to graduate from college.

Equally as impressive was the work that was done to educate and collaborate with the community. Working with business leaders, parents, and advocacy groups, the district created “Parent University,” with twenty-two organizations to offer over 200 classes to help families help their children succeed.

And the results are staggering. After four years of stagnating graduation rates, the graduation rate in WCSD has increased 14 percent to 70 percent in just two years! Every single school in the district has improved, and the district overall has seen the most growth in graduation rates among black and Hispanic students, as well and English learners.

While we sometimes hear that a focus on outcomes can limit innovative thinking and student engagement, WCSD students are more engaged than ever. The district’s High School Signature Academies serve as hubs for learning, and focus on areas such as health sciences, digital technologies, and sustainable resources. In Nevada, where the unemployment rate is 13 percent, the highest in the country, these academies are providing the skills necessary for the 21st Century workforce. Any 8th grade student can apply to attend these academies, providing students the choice and motivation to challenge themselves and actively engage in learning.

This work is not easy, but it is vital. The district made courageous decisions and formed crucial partnerships to ensure success and their work deserves to be commended. In a state where currently only 1 in 10 high school freshmen go on to graduate from college, WCSD has demonstrated that in the words of Superintendent Morrison, “demography need not be destiny” when it comes to providing a world-class education for all students.

Tony Miller is Deputy Secretary of Education

Building Capacity for School Turnaround: The 2011 School Improvement Grant Regional Conferences

Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education

This morning, I’m excited to help kick off the 2011 School Improvement Grant Eastern Regional Conference in Washington, DC – an intensive, two-day event for school, district, and state leaders who are working to turn around their lowest-performing schools. The conference, hosted by ED’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) in partnership with our Comprehensive Centers, is the second of four regional capacity-building sessions that will take place over the next two months. The conferences are a key part of OESE’s efforts to provide our grantees with support and technical assistance as they implement the School Improvement Grant (SIG).

From the beginning of his administration, President Obama has made the commitment to turn around America’s lowest-performing schools a centerpiece of his cradle-to-career education agenda. Through our newly redesigned SIG program, we have provided an unprecedented amount of funds to help turnaround this country’s 5,000 lowest-performing schools over the next five years.

In addition to providing unprecedented resources for school turnarounds, ED is working in partnership with schools to ensure student success. Having been a Superintendent, I know how much support is needed on the ground to implement reforms, and how difficult it is to actually turn around failing schools. But, I also know that school turnaround can be done, with the right supports.

This is why these conferences are especially important. In the next two days, grantees at the Eastern SIG Conference will have opportunities to learn from their colleagues and other education leaders on what’s working, and what looks promising, in school turnaround efforts across the country. The conference will address not only structural and organization reforms for turnaround, but also instructional best practices to meet the needs of students in schools. And perhaps more importantly, school, district, and state leaders will build new relationships, strengthen existing ones, and begin building communities of practice that will allow them to continue to share promising practices and successes they see with SIG in their schools and districts.

I’m confident that this conference – like the Western conference, held just last week, and the Central and Midwest Conferences coming up in May – will be just the beginning of continued conversations and learning among grantees and all stakeholders invested in the success of school turnarounds. And, it’s my hope that all participants will return to their states and districts re-energized and equipped with new information, resources and networks that will help transform our struggling schools into world-class centers of teaching and learning.

Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana is Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education for the U.S. Department of Education

4-H and Extensions Offer Partners for School Turnarounds

“I couldn’t be more hopeful, more optimistic about your generation” Secretary Duncan told a group of nearly 500 4-H youth delegates earlier today at the National 4-H Youth Conference in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Secretary Duncan at the conference where both Secretaries answered questions from the audience and talked to students about the challenge of educating our way to a better economy. In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama emphasized that “to win the future, we have to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world, tapping the creativity and imagination of our people.”

Secretary Duncan said that one of our greatest challenges is turning around the bottom 5% of our nation’s schools.  To address this challenge, the Obama Administration dedicated more than $4 billion in school improvement grants to states through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the budgets for fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

States have identified their lowest achieving schools and we are challenging them to compete for this funding by putting forth their best turnaround plans. However, schools and districts cannot do this work alone. They need to engage and work with public and private partners such as the 4-H and land grant university extension programs. “Forming these kinds of partnerships provides the best chance for rural areas to turn around their lowest performing schools and keep children from dropping out,” said Secretary Duncan.

4-H is the nation’s largest youth development organization and a program of our nation’s cooperative extension system. Each U.S. state and territory has a state cooperative extension office at its land grant university and a network of local and regional offices that can work with schools. The 4-H and extension programs can provide community-based partnerships that help schools create sustainable community changes in a number of ways.

The National 4-H and Extensions can work with schools to create programs that are specific to the school community’s needs, including financial literacy, parenting, healthy living, food and nutrition, science literacy, robotics, and civic engagement to bridge formal and non-formal learning experiences.

Check out the USDA’s Youth Development and 4-H page for more information.

- Sherry Schweitzer

The President in Miami: Winning the Future Through Investments in Education

Cross-posted from the White House blog.

This afternoon, President Obama will visit Miami Central Senior High School in Miami, Florida, along with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The President will lay out his vision for improving American education through investments that are focused on responsibility, reform, and results.

Secretary Duncan previewed today’s visit with an op-ed for the Miami Herald:

Turning around a struggling school is some of the toughest work in education. Experience shows that effective turnarounds require strong leadership and the flexibility to recruit staff with special skills and commitment. Not every teacher or principal wants or should be in this demanding environment. But extraordinary principals and teachers who choose to work in turnaround schools deserve our full support and commitment.
The administration is supporting an array of bold options to help the children trapped in America’s lowest-performing schools. “More of the same” is not one of them.