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Statement of Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) at the HELP Committee Hearing “ESEA Reauthorization: School Turnaround”

As Prepared for Delivery

“I’d like to thank all of you for being here today as we continue to discuss reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  In our two previous hearings, we gained valuable insight into the need for education reform in order for our country to remain globally competitive; and we heard from Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the Obama Administration’s views on how best to meet this challenge.  This afternoon, we will hear from experts on turning around underperforming schools.  Without question, turning around chronically underperforming schools – schools that consistently fail to educate the children entrusted to their care – is one of the great moral, economic, and civil rights imperatives of our day. 

“The Department of Education estimates that there are approximately 5,000 of these chronically underperforming schools across the country.  This is nearly 5 percent of our nation’s public schools.  These schools are attended largely by minority and low-income students.  Bob Balfanz of Johns Hopkins, who is one of our witnesses today, has identified almost 2,000 high schools with graduation rates of less than 60 percent.  Sixty-nine percent of all African American and 63 percent of all Hispanic dropouts come from these 2,000 schools. 

“Because just 12 percent of our high schools are responsible for 50 percent of the nation’s dropouts, targeting reforms at these lowest-performing schools has the potential to significantly reduce disparities in high-school completion, and to increase the number of students who graduate career- and college-ready.  We must find ways to better support students at these lowest-performing schools.  Not only are students attending the lowest-performing schools more likely to drop out, they are frequently unprepared for college-level coursework, and lack the life skills to fully participate in the global twenty-first century economy. 

“Turning around chronically low-performing schools is a daunting challenge for states, school districts, school administrators, and teachers.  These schools are often the most under-resourced, and as a consequence often lack the capacity to implement reform strategies.  They are also often filled with students who face major challenges to success, including poverty or limited English proficiency.  These schools need more resources than the average school, yet typically have fewer resources.

“Despite these challenges, a number of schools – indeed, in some cases, entire school districts – have had remarkable success in improving student achievement.  We need to learn from these powerful turnaround examples.  For example, in 2006, the Harvard School of Excellence in Chicago ranked among the 10 worst elementary schools in the State of Illinois.  After implementing a reform strategy focused on strong leadership, highly trained and effective teachers, curriculum changes, improved accountability measures, and school culture transformation, the number of Harvard elementary students meeting state testing standards increased by 25 percent in just two years.  This is but one example of how school turnaround is not only do-able; but has been done.  We need to scale up these turnarounds and implement them in all of America’s chronically underperforming schools.  This needs to be a major national goal – and it will certainly be a priority focus of ESEA reauthorization. 

“Our witnesses today will share their experiences in implementing school improvement strategies that have resulted in sustainable student achievement.  Their testimony will be extremely valuable to us as we work together, on a bipartisan basis, to craft ESEA reauthorization provisions designed to get America’s lowest-performing schools back on track. 

“I will now turn to my very capable partner in this reauthorization, Senator Enzi, for his opening statement, and then I will introduce our witnesses.”