Southern States Found Cautious in Using Sanctions

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Although most Southern states have enacted policies to intervene in poorly performing schools, a recent study reports, they have been cautious in applying sanctions.

The study by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, an interstate consortium, found that only three of 15 member states--Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia--do not have sanctions on the books.

But in most states, only a tiny proportion of schools--typically about 5 percent--have been identified as unsuccessful enough to justify severe consequences, the report found. And most state takeovers have been for financial rather than academic problems.

State sanctions range from firing employees and moving students to other schools to closing the school building. In general, the report notes, negative consequences kick in only after a school has received outside assistance and still failed to improve adequately. Such help typically includes expert advice, more money, or both.

'Balanced Approach' Needed

The report, released last month, argues that "a balance between rewards, assistance, and sanctions is necessary to build an accountability system that is effective and widely perceived by educators and the public as fair and worthy of support."

But it found that rewards for positive school performance are less widespread. Only six of the 15 states surveyed provided financial rewards either to schools or to individual teachers.

And only a third of the 15 states have taken "a truly comprehensive" approach to accountability, the report asserts. This includes having rewards, sanctions, assistance, state-level standards, and school-by-school reporting to the public. Such an approach, the SREB argues, holds the greatest possibility for success.

In 1995, North Carolina legislators crafted an accountability system designed to balance rewards and sanctions. But deciding how to judge every high school in the state proved so contentious that at first only elementary and middle schools were included in the program.

The state school board approved a plan last month that extends rewards and consequences to high schools.

Beginning next school year, high schools must meet a certain standard of progress on student test scores and on the percentage of their graduates who are prepared for college or for technical programs in community colleges. Schools with the worst performance must accept help from outside experts.

In Kentucky, a legislative task force also is scrutinizing that state's rewards and sanctions with an eye toward possible changes.

In the past, states focused more on so-called inputs to hold schools accountable, the report's authors, Lynn M. Cornett and Gale F. Gaines, point out.

Focus on the Schools

Now, "the light is really focused on the schools and on school-by-school results," explained Ms. Cornett, the SREB's vice president for state services, in an interview. Increasingly, states are setting clear goals for schools but giving them more flexibility in meeting those goals, she said.

The report found that all 15 states publicly report achievement results for school districts, and all but one--Arkansas--release results for individual schools.

The authors draw some common lessons from states' early experiences with creating accountability systems:

  • Get the tests right;
  • Ensure sufficient time for planning and make midcourse adjustments;
  • Make sure the program is easy to understand; and
  • Help educators change.

Copies of the report are available for $6 each plus postage and handling from the Southern Regional Education Board, 592 10th St. N.W., Atlanta, Ga. 30318-5790; or call (404)

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