The Obama administration is offering a $900 million carrot to the nation’s school systems to tackle what many view as an abysmal dropout rate that threatens America’s ability to compete in the new global economy. But it’s the “stick” portion of the administration’s plan that has rankled many educators.
Districts would get the money only if they agree to one of four plans to dramatically change or even shut down their worst performing schools. One of these plans involves firing the principal and at least half of the staff members at a struggling school—a turnaround plan that captured national attention when it was tried by the Central Falls, R.I., school system last week.
President Obama took aim at the nation’s school dropout epidemic in a March 1 speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During the event—which was sponsored by the America’s Promise Alliance, a youth-oriented organization founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma—Obama noted the economic impact that dropouts have on America’s ability to compete.
The White House says 1.2 million students drop out of school each year, and only about 70 percent of entering high school freshmen go on to graduate. The problem affects blacks and Latinos at particularly high rates. About 2,000 high schools turn out half of all dropouts, and the administration says it will work with states to identify those schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.
Obama described the crisis as one that hurts individual kids and the nation as a whole, shattering dreams and undermining an already hurting economy.
“There’s got to be a sense of accountability,” Obama said in announcing his latest get-tough school proposal. The president’s plan would seek to help 5,000 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools over the next five years.
“In this kind of knowledge economy, giving up on your education and dropping out of school means not only giving up on your future, but it’s also giving up on your family’s future,” Obama said. “It’s giving up on your country.”
Obama has been pushing schools—using federal money as his leverage—to raise their standards and prod them to get more children ready for college or work. It is a task that former President George W. Bush and Congress, along with many leaders before them, have long taken on, but the challenge is steep.
Obama’s 2011 budget proposal includes $900 million for School Turnaround Grants. To get a share of the money, states and school districts must adopt one of four approaches to fix their lowest-performing schools:
• Turnaround Model: The school district must replace the principal and at least half of the school staff, adopt a new governance structure for the school, and implement a new or revised instructional program.
• Restart Model: The school district must close and reopen the school under the management of a charter school operator, a charter management organization or an educational management organization. A restarted school would be required to enroll, within the grades it serves, former students who wish to attend.
• School Closure: The school district must close the failing school and enroll the students in other, higher-achieving schools in the district.
• Transformational Model: The school must address four areas, including teacher effectiveness, instruction, learning and teacher planning time, and operational flexibility.
The administration also is putting $50 million into dropout prevention strategies, including personalized and individual instruction and support to keep students engaged in learning, and better use of data to identify students at risk of failure and to help them with the transition to high school and college.
But it’s the four models for turning around chronically underperforming schools that have garnered the most attention, especially after the Central Falls, R.I., school board voted to fire 88 teachers and other staff members at Central Falls High School at year’s end.