What to do about chronically low-performing schools has become a central issue in education policy, strongly influencing state school improvement efforts and accountability systems. Its urgency has been underscored recently by the federal "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2001, which mandates an aggressive system of corrective measures for schools receiving federal assistance that fail to meet progress goals.
States customarily categorize schools as "low-performing" or "failing" by virtue of persistently subpar scores on standardized tests, sometimes along with low graduation and high dropout rates (Seder, 2000). Schools labeled as underperforming are disproportionately located in disadvantaged areas. By extension, they often have limited resources and insufficient facilities and supplies, and are able to employ fewer well-qualified teachers than other schools do. Many low-performing schools face overcrowding and student-discipline problems. Frequently plagued by low morale, they may also lack organized learning environments and high expectations for students (U.S. Department of Education, 1998; Quality Counts 1999, 2003).
States and districts generally seek to buoy struggling schools through various assistance or intervention plans. According to Quality Counts 2004, 26 states had policies to assist low-performing schools, as of January 2003. (See table.) Assistance plans vary widely and are often used in combination or in progressive stages. Designed to allow states and districts to work collaboratively with troubled schools to address problems, they often include elements of the following:
Improvement planning. The state may require a failing school to design and implement a formal improvement plan, identifying deficiencies and outlining strategies to bolster achievement. Improvement plans may address financial, management, and instructional practices, as well as set specific academic goals.
Technical assistance. The state or the district may assign teams of experts, curriculum specialists, or master teachers to visit or work at a failing school. Those educators may monitor and offer recommendations on improvement efforts along with helping train school personnel.
Intensive academic programs. Failing schools may be directed or encouraged to implement structured academic programs—often drawn from comprehensive school reform models—in which prescribed curricula are used in combination with measurable goals and targeted staff development. Academic changes may also entail tutoring services and extra school time for some students.
Additional resources. Acknowledging that low-performing schools often have inadequate resources, some states and districts provide additional money to help such schools execute needed improvements. The extra money is often earmarked for specific purposes or programs (Quality Counts 2004; Brady, 2003; ECS, 2002; U.S. Department of Education, 1998).
Schools that fail to respond to collaborative improvement strategies after an extended period can be subjected to far more intrusive, top-down treatment. State and district accountability systems variously include provisions for such interventions as internal school reorganization, voluntary student transfers, and, in dire cases, school closure. The two most commonly referenced and controversial strategies used to treat chronically underperforming schools are reconstitution and takeovers.
Reconstitution. Reconstitution occurs when a state or district replaces some or all of a school's staff members and essentially starts over. Staff members may be allowed to reapply for their jobs, but they are required to accept a new mission and working arrangements (ECS, 1998). The purpose of reconstitution is to change a school's culture, eliminate entrenched practices, and bring in more effective educators and leadership. Proponents of the practice also believe the very threat of reconstitution can motivate a schools' employees to make needed improvements. Critics, however, contend that reconstitution demoralizes teachers and disrupts schools without necessarily addressing underlying social and equity issues (U.S. Department of Education, 1998).
Nineteen states have policies that allow them to reconstitute failing schools (Quality Counts, 2003). By one estimate, at least nine districts have reconstituted schools (Brady, 2003). Prominent examples include the San Francisco and New York City districts.
Takeovers. A close cousin to reconstitution—the terms are often used interchangeably—a takeover is when a state officially assumes governance of a low-performing school or, much more commonly, an entire district, supplanting the local school board and top school administrators. Takeovers are often a last-resort punishment within state accountability systems, reserved for those beset by mismanagement, infrastructure problems, and declines in student performance. As of 2002, 24 states permitted takeovers, and takeovers had actually taken place in 18 states (ECS, 1998; Seder, 2000; Wong and Shen, 2002).
Backers of takeovers say the practice empowers states to modernize failing districts' management and instructional practices and to introduce the radical changes needed to boost student performance. Critics tend to see the practice as arrogant. They say it diminishes local control over schools and demoralizes employees and community members. And, as with reconstitution, skeptics charge that takeovers do little to address the underlying causes of schools' failures (ECS, 1998; NASBE, 2002).
Takeovers can take a variety of forms. Though they are generally authorized at the state level, the day-to-day control of the affected schools may be designated to other entities. That approach is behind the growing trend of mayoral takeovers, wherein big-city mayors assume administrative authority over beleaguered urban school systems. Mayoral takeovers have taken place in Boston; Chicago; Cleveland; Detroit; the District of Columbia, New York City; and Oakland, Calif.; among other districts.
In a number of cases, takeovers have also dovetailed with appeals for school privatization, with operational control of underperforming schools farmed out to outside school-management firms. The most prominent and closely watched example of this has occurred in Philadelphia.
Even as states continue to formulate their intervention policies, the federal No Child Left Behind Act has added a significant new dimension to the treatment of low-performing schools. Within its accountability framework, the law incorporates a number of the intervention strategies states use into an aggressive system of penalties and "improvement options" that states and districts must administer to lagging schools that receive funding under the federal Title I aid program for disadvantaged students. The law's timeline for progress is considerably more accelerated than those of most states, and its demands generally more extensive (Brady, 2003).
Under the law, every public school must meet state "adequate yearly progress" goals, based largely on standardized-test scores, for the school as a whole as well as for individual subgroups of students, such as those with disabilities or limited English. Any Title I school that fails to make adequate progress for two consecutive years must receive technical assistance, while its students must be given the option of transferring to other, higher-performing public schools in the district. When a school misses targets for a third straight year, its students must be furnished "supplemental education services," including private tutoring.
After a school's fourth year of failure, the district must take "corrective action." Options include replacing staff members, introducing a new curriculum, and reorganizing internally. After five years, the alternatives become ever more drastic. They include reconstituting the school, reopening it as a charter school, farming out its management, or putting the school under state control. The law also imposes a similar system of corrective measures for failing districts (Paige, 2002).
The No Child Left Behind Act's aggressive course on low-performing schools has caused apprehension among some educators and state officials. One concern is whether states will have the capacity to help that miss progress goals. For the 2002-03 school year, according to a survey conducted by Education Week in late 2003, states identified at least 23,812 schools as not making adequate progress and at least 5,200 as in need of improvement (missing that mark for two or more consecutive years) (Olson, 2003; Quality Counts 2004).
By consensus, attempts to improve failing schools have so far yielded highly mixed results, while research on intervention strategies has been limited. Commentators tend to agree that the success of particular intervention strategies depends a great deal on individual circumstances. While acknowledging that many examples of successful school transformations exist, for example, author and school administrator Ronald C. Brady contends that "there [is] no specific strategy that [has] resulted in compelling evidence that it is superior to other interventions in terms of effectiveness" (Brady, 2003). Similarly, the Education Commission of the States stresses that "local context plays a critical role in how well interventions work" (ECS, 2003).
At the same time, education experts do single out certain intervention programs and characteristics as having positive effects. Several reports, for example, point to achievement gains emanating from technical-assistance programs in Kentucky and North Carolina. What distinguishes those programs, observers note, is both their comprehensiveness and their detailed attention to the individual needs of schools and districts (ECS, 2002; NASBE, 2002; U.S. Department of Education, 1998).
Likewise, some studies have found that—in individual cases—the introduction of rigorous, prescribed curricula within the context of comprehensive models for school improvement can produce gains in student performance, especially if allowed time to take root (Borman, 2002; Mac Iver, et al.).
Finally, while the results of reconstitutions and takeovers have been highly uneven—and remain politically divisive—some reports have highlighted positive aspects of both. One researcher has found that reconstitutions that incorporate good community ties, strong leadership, effective teacher training, and a long-range strategy can improve student performance and school culture (O'Day, no date). Others have linked gains in student achievement to specific mayoral takeovers, stressing the importance of strong community ties and smooth administrative transitions. Takeovers have also been shown to be effective in improving schools' fiscal-management practices (ECS, 2002; Seder, 2002; Wong and Shen, 2002).
Isolated though they may be, such success stories frequently echo a body of research oriented around "effective schools." In uncovering key components of successfully run schools, that research points to strong instructional leadership, a clear focus on academics, regular measures of academic progress, high-quality teaching, and good community and parent relations (Cotton, 1995).