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When it Comes to Struggling Schools, School Choice Is No Substitute for Systemic Change

Denver Public Schools and Lawrence Public Schools show how to reorganize resources and change the rules to support struggling schools.

Access the story as it originally appeared in The Hechinger Report.

The school choice option favored by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump isn’t enough to turn around chronically struggling schools. In addition, America’s educators need to redesign state and district systems so that every child has better choices.

The Obama administration favored a menu of different approaches that focused on individual schools through the federal School Improvement Grant Program (SIG) program. In addition to more money, the program offered four options, from staffing and curriculum changes to charter conversions or school closings.

Research evaluating this grant program tells a complicated and inconclusive, story. By earlier accounts, this program helped lower the number of high school “dropout factories” with increased graduation rates and boosted test scores in about two-thirds of the schools in the program. At the same time, nearly a third of the schools receiving improvement grant funding actually got worse.

Perhaps because many of these schools simply took the money, replaced principals and made cosmetic changes in curriculum and training.  The most recent study, quoted by DeVos, concluded that grant program had “no significant impacts on math or reading scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.” Clearly we need to dig deeper as one analyst suggests, pointing out the limitations of the study. But DeVos is not waiting. She is using the report as proof that choice is the best answer.

What everyone seems to miss is the promise of aggressive, district-level turnaround—i.e. using all the tools available: transformational leaders, better teachers, more challenging instruction, and a willingness to dismantle barriers to success. Consider Lawrence, Massachusetts and Denver, Colorado.

In four years, Lawrence Public Schools raised their  high school graduation rate by almost 20 points, and increased the number of Level 1 schools – i.e. the highest rating in the Massachusetts accountability system – from two to ten.

Denver Public Schools has been slowly increasing student achievement for over ten years – and is now just 5% percentage points below the state average proficiency, despite serving a far needier population and introducing a more rigorous exam.

Here’s how they are doing it:

Focus on people. Teaching quality is the most important in-school driver of student outcomes, and the quality of the principal and the leadership team is the most important reason that teachers choose to work at a school. These districts have focused on attracting great teachers and leaders, supporting them and giving them meaningful career paths, rewarding their success and removing the minority who don’t improve over time. These districts also increased the quality of central office leadership, which supports all schools.

Invest in instructionNew, more rigorous standards are critical for student success in the global economy, but we still have to change how teachers teach. They need better instructional materials, access to experts, time with colleagues to reflect on and adjust their practice, and timely data on student progress.

Embrace choice, but only within an overall strategy. Denver and Lawrence both leveraged proven charter school operators as one part – but not the whole — of their turnaround strategy. Critically, both traditional school systems had the authority to bring in external operators and hold them accountable.

Many other school districts don’t have the same level of authority. Detroit for example has one system running the traditional schools and separate entities authorizing and overseeing charters. The two systems compete, rather than complement each other.

Break down barriersLayers upon layers of state regulations, district practices and collective bargaining agreements constrain schools and districts from making the changes they need to make. Successfully turning around schools means giving them more flexibility to redesign teaching jobs, re-envision the school day, and engage partners and outside providers to bring needed, cost-effective help. Both Denver and Lawrence enjoyed collaborative relationships with their local teachers unions and school boards, which helped to make big changes possible.

America’s educators need every tool in the toolbox to turn around chronically struggling schools. Choice alone won’t do it. Local control, in and of itself, won’t do it; for the most part, we have local control and it’s one of the big reasons some low-performing schools languish for decades. More money is important, but all funds need to be spent strategically.

Successful turnarounds must be accompanied by real and meaningful changes in the way we train and support teachers, the way we instruct students and the way we structure our time and use our resources. It’s not sexy but it works.


When it Comes to Struggling Schools, School Choice Is No Substitute for Systemic Change
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