Why is education reform stuck in a snow bank?


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Winter is coming, and anyone who has been in New Hampshire for any length of time has probably helped someone retrieve their car from a snow bank. When in that predicament, some are expert drivers and accelerate just right to get the car moving; others, however, put their foot on the accelerator, spinning their tires, and actually dig a deeper hole. Undeterred, they just keep at it, spinning the tires in the same spot, imagining — or simply hoping — that the car will somehow start to make progress. It rarely does.

Educational improvement efforts reflect many of the characteristics of this second driver.

For at least a century, New Hampshire and nearly every other state have been developing plans to help turn around low-performing schools. 

Substantial federal funding — upwards of $15.7 billion in 2018 — is committed to helping improve student achievement each year. Funding in this area has been around at least since 1965 with the original enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The result of big dollars being spent has been the emergence of a “school improvement industry” and considerable growth in the number of school turnaround consultants.

Every year, new providers open up shop to sell their services. However, some appear to have little or no expertise or experience in rapidly turning around persistently low-performing schools, then-education reporter for The New York Times, Sam Dillon, noted in 2010.

Under the Every School Succeeds Act, New Hampshire receives approximately $40 million per year to help improve student achievement. This year, the NH Department of Education will hire consultants at the state level to help schools diagnose academic growth challenges and build innovative turnaround plans.

Last month, I read about 200 pages of proposals for turnaround consulting services for our low performing schools. When I completed the review of the proposals, I mentioned to my colleagues that I could summarize the various vendor proposals in one sentence — “We’ve been turning around the same schools for the past 40 years.”

Of course, this sentence incorporates a degree of humor. However, two professors from the University of Virginia released a study that seems to indicate that my statement is not too far from the truth.

In their study, “So Many Educational Service Providers, So Little Evidence,” Coby Meyers and Bryan VanGronigen analyzed the effectiveness of these so-called education turnaround consulting firms. The results are not pretty.

Meyers and VanGronigen evaluated 151 school-turnaround providers across 13 states (New Hampshire was not one of the states in the evaluation, but many of the providers are working in multiple states).

Of the 151, “only 17 (11 percent) had evidence of impact — experimental or quasi-experimental research showing significant student achievement outcomes such as test scores and attendance graduation, and dropout rates. Of those, only seven (5 percent) had evidence of impact on student outcomes in samples focused on low-performing schools.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

States are hiring consulting firms to turn around low-performing schools and less than 5 percent of those firms have actually demonstrated that they have ever successfully done the work.

Like that driver who gets stuck in a snow bank and lets rip on the accelerator but just spins their tires and digs a deeper hole, education turnaround efforts for low-performing schools seem stuck. While our educators work really hard to overcome the barriers, even here in New Hampshire, we see some of the same schools appear on the low-performing list, again and again.

There are some that will read this and view it as a criticism of our education system. It is not. It is a call to self-reflection and a willingness to step out of our comfort zone. We can keep doing the same thing and imagine — even hope — that it will result in a different outcome. But I think we would all agree that the students and teachers in under-performing schools deserve better. We, as a state, and as a community, need to be willing to try something different and get education improvement efforts unstuck. 

Frank Edelblut is the commissioner of the NH Department of Education.

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