Some NC schools in ‘turnaround’ program declined, study finds

An effort to improve struggling schools in North Carolina – funded by a federal Race to the Top grant – did not work in some of them, two researchers have concluded.

Jennifer A. Heissel of Northwestern University and Helen F. Ladd of Duke University analyzed results from some of the schools in the state’s “turnaround” program under Race to the Top. The state assigned schools that were in the bottom 5 percent to the program.

The analysis concluded that the schools in the turnaround program ended up worse than comparable schools that weren’t in it, the researchers wrote. The study looked at the best elementary and middle schools that were in the turnaround program and at comparable schools that were just above the cutoff point for entry.

Reading and math test scores for the schools in the turnaround program declined, the researchers wrote. They also found evidence that student suspensions increased in the turnaround schools in 2012. The analysis looked at results from 2012 to 2014.

“In sum, the schools subject to the state’s turnaround program exhibit worse or no better student outcomes than comparable untreated schools,” the researchers said.

The study was published as a working paper by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.

North Carolina won a $400 million Race to the Top grant in 2010. The grant program emphasized “turning around” the state’s lowest-achieving schools.

Under the federal guidelines, districts could choose one of four strategies for schools in the turnaround program:

▪ replacing the principal and improving teacher and administrator effectiveness.

▪ replacing the principal and half the teachers and improving effectiveness.

▪ closing the school and reopening it as a charter.

▪ closing the school.

Most districts in North Carolina chose the first option, replacing the principal and increasing coaching for teachers and administrators.

In an interview, Ladd said that the state does good work and that the problem may be with the remedy the federal government prescribed.

“It doesn’t get to the root of the challenges,” she said, noting that low-income students “bring to school with them a lot of barriers that make it difficult for them to learn.”

“If they’re going to learn, the school had to deal with the problems they confront,” she said.

Ladd and Heissel found that teachers in the turnaround schools received more professional development, but also went to more meetings and did more paperwork.

The state also hired researchers to evaluate its Race to the Top program results. They generally reported more positive results for the turnaround program.

Gary Henry, one of the researchers who evaluated the program results for the state, said that his findings and Ladd’s do not conflict. His examinations had a different focus, he said.

Henry, formerly at UNC-Chapel Hill and now at Vanderbilt University, said that his report looked at all schools in the program, including high schools, while Ladd and Heissel focused only on higher-performing elementary and middle schools.

The final report that Henry co-wrote in September reported an average increase in proficiency for schools in the turnaround program, but noted that the improvements seemed to be concentrated in the lowest of the low-performing schools.

“The question is, did the program work?” Henry said. “I think our paper and most people come to the conclusion yes. We show it worked less well for the higher-performing schools.”

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner