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Obama pledges $900 million more to stem 'dropout crisis'

Citing a high-school dropout crisis in America, Obama pledged an additional $900 million in school-improvement funds. That may mean more controversial school 'turnarounds,' like the one last week in which all the teachers at a low-performing Rhode Island school were fired.

By Staff writer / March 1, 2010

President Barack Obama walks through Lafayette Park to the White House after pledging $900 million to address the high school dropout crisis at the America's Promise Alliance Education event in Washington, Monday.

Jim Watson/AFP/Newscom

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The sort of controversial school turnaround strategy employed in Rhode Island last week, in which the entire staff of a poorly performing school was fired, may get more common.

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President Obama reiterated his commitment to such approaches in a speech Monday morning highlighting the dropout crisis.

“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 and giving up on your country's future. And yet, that's what too many of America's children are doing today,” Obama said at an event organized by the America’s Promise Alliance, an organization founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma.

Obama cited statistics that nearly 1 in 3 high-schoolers don’t graduate each year, and noted that just 12 percent of schools produce about 50 percent of America’s dropouts – the reason, he says, that he wants to focus attention and resources on the poorest-performing schools, and employ drastic turnaround measures. (For Monitor coverage of the Rhode Island school decision, click here.)

Obama has pledged to add $900 million in his 2011 budget to the $3.5 billion he earmarked for school-improvement funds last year, as part of the stimulus package. Under those guidelines, schools and districts could adopt one of four strategies to qualify for the funds:

• A turnaround, in which the principal and least half the staff are replaced, and a new instructional program is adopted.

• A school closure, in which students are enrolled in other, better-performing schools in the district.

• A “restart,” in which the school is reopened as a charter school or under the management of another educational group.

• A school “transformation,” in which the school takes significant steps to improve itself by addressing curricula, structure, governance, and teacher education.

“Too often, we find that schools try to chip away at the problem,” says Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education. “But when you’re facing a graduation rate below 60 percent, or your school is scoring in the lowest 5 percent of the state test scores, you need to make dramatic changes.”

Still, some educators note that there is no research proving the effectiveness of these approaches.

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