Statement of Michael B. Enzi ESEA Reauthorization: School Turnaround

Chairman Harkin, I want to thank you for continuing the series of hearings on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with the important issue of school improvement and turnaround.  We have worked to create a diverse witness list to share best practices and research with the Committee and I look forward to learning more from each of you this afternoon.  The knowledge and practice you bring to the table will help us as we move forward to develop legislation that builds upon what we have learned from No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and fixes what has not been working. 

There are two issues I will focus on as we reauthorize ESEA related to school improvement and turnaround activities.  First and foremost is the impact these mandated federal turnaround models could have on rural and frontier schools and school districts.  The second is the research base used to determine whether these models have been proven to be effective at turning around low-performing schools. 

Rural and frontier schools and school districts are unique – and often need unique solutions to their unique problems.  To illustrate the size of Wyoming I often tell people there are only 14 cities in the state of Wyoming that have a population larger than their elevation.  This means that we have a lot of families and students spread across a very large area.  Wyoming is lucky to have many superintendents, principals and teachers like Dr. Mitchell who are dedicated to serving students in small and rural areas across my great state. 

I am very concerned that requiring school districts to use one of the four school turnaround models for schools identified for school improvement will adversely impact rural and frontier schools.  I support accountability and believe that it is important to identify the poorest performing Title I schools and require specific actions to spur dramatic improvement in those schools.  That said, some flexibility needs to be given to rural and frontier schools that simply cannot meet these strict federal requirements.  Rural and frontier schools need to identify and adopt turnaround strategies that will have dramatic impacts and increase student achievement, but I do not believe that all of these strategies can be identified or mandated from Washington.

Many schools in Wyoming do not have access to turnaround partners such as New Visions for Public Schools and do not have charter operators, such as Green Dot, that are either willing or able to open schools in remote areas.  It is often difficult to recruit principals and teachers to rural areas who will stay for any extended period of time.  Let me be clear that I am not proposing to give rural and frontier schools a free pass.  Strategies mandated from Washington will simply not solve the problems facing rural and frontier schools.  I believe it is incumbent upon us to work with state and local superintendents, principals and teachers from rural states, school districts and schools to find options that could work when balanced with an appropriate amount of flexibility from the federal level. 

I also believe it is important for Congress to understand the research behind each of these turnaround models.  It is my understanding from the research community that the knowledge base for how to turn around low-performing schools is shallow.  The scientific evidence or research for the four interventions proposed for school improvement grants is, at best, sketchy.  Again, this causes me concern because there is no research on turnaround efforts in rural schools and school districts.  If we are going to mandate interventions from the federal level we need to be clear about why we are mandating such reforms and what evidence we have for our actions.  Otherwise I worry that we are not learning from NCLB and are just repeating our mistakes. 

I want to welcome all of our witnesses and thank them for being with us today to share your experiences.  I look forward to learning more from each of you today and the efforts you have undertaken to improve academic achievement outcomes for children across the country. 

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