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Good news for California school reform

Aggressive turnaround reforms mandated by the federal government are making early and significant progress toward education improvement in California schools.

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A 2012 report shows preliminary results among California's persistently lowest-achieving schools -- those that have implemented aggressive turnaround reforms mandated by the federal government are showing significant improvements just one year later, a new study finds.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan revamped the longstanding School Improvement Grants program to focus on what he called "transformation, not tinkering" at the nation's "persistently lowest achieving" public schools – those performing in the bottom 5 percent of all schools in a state, Dee's study explains.

Beginning in 2010, as a condition of receiving School Improvement Grant funds, those schools had to enact one of three federally prescribed, multifaceted reform models for achieving school turnarounds.

The three reform models each require a package of reforms that emphasize, in varying combinations, leadership change, data-driven and differentiated instruction, and performance-based teacher evaluations, as well as "wraparound" community services like health and nutrition programs designed to support students' readiness to learn. Dee's study focused on California schools, he said, because they received far more of the revamped grants than any other state, claiming a tenth of all the turnaround grants for the 2010-11 school year, worth $1.5 million per school on average.

The study compares "just eligible" schools – where performance was just low enough to place them in the lowest 5 percent – to schools that were "just ineligible," with performance slightly above the 5-percent threshold. These schools on either side of the 5 percent threshold are essentially indistinguishable in terms of their baseline traits, Dee said. Compared with the "just ineligible" control group, the School Improvement Grant-funded schools, on average, saw dramatic improvements in their subsequent 2010-11 test scores, closing 23 percent of their achievement gap with respect to the state performance target. On average, the grant-recipient schools hired more teachers, resulting in roughly five fewer students per teacher. With the mix of teacher turnover and new hiring at these schools, the average level of teacher experience fell by two years.

These reforms are expensive in absolute terms – roughly $1,500 per pupil – but "fairly cost-effective," Dee said, comparing favorably with the cost-effectiveness of class-size reductions as quantified in other studies.

"Whether these promising improvements have been replicated in other states and can be sustained is still an open question, one that my research team and I will be studying carefully," Dee said.

Duncan has already taken notice of the study. "These data are still preliminary," he said in a May 1 press release. "Several years of data will be needed to demonstrate robust, long-term growth in student outcomes in SIG schools. But Dee's careful study belies the conventional wisdom that little can be done to significantly boost student achievement in low-performing schools.

"Dee's new study reminds us that poverty is not destiny."

Edited by Carolyn Allen
| education | california |

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