What To Do When All Else Fails

Dealing With Low-Performing Schools

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In Madison, Ill., they’re not used to making headlines. But in 1997, two unrelated events put the small, Mississippi River town of vacant warehouses, modest brick homes, and old churches on the map: the opening of a $35 million motor speedway and the announcement that two of its four schools had made the Illinois education department's worst-in-the-state list. The gleaming speedway opened to much fanfare last May and has been the talk of the racing world since. But Madison's other distinction--having half its schools on the low-performing list--tells a different story.

The "academic early-warning list" was a first-time compilation of 122 Illinois public schools where more than half the students failed to meet mandated minimum scores on state tests.

The news, school leaders in the 1,200-student district say, met with predictable fallout.

"Immediately, every member of the news media was on the phone or at our door," Superintendent Gary J. Allison says. "The school bashing and teacher bashing began. Every finger was pointing at us because test scores weren't where they should be. Students were devastated, and teachers, who work their hearts out for our kids, were totally demoralized." Allison' experience is not an isolated one.


Though local officials often denounce the finger pointing, blame laying, and hurt feelings associated with them, lists of low-performing schools have become a cornerstone of state accountability efforts. Last year, more than 1,000 schools in 15 states earned the dubious distinction, an Education Week survey found. Four more states will begin listing low-performing schools this year.

State leaders and a legion of education experts stand squarely behind such rankings, touting them as a powerful tool to prompt change in schools where students are not learning and may not have been for years.

"I believe in the lists," says Cindy G. Brown, the director of the Resource Center on Educational Equality at the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington. "Schools have become fearful and terribly embarrassed if they're named to one."

That dismay, she adds, encourages them to gather all forces in a school and community to work as quickly as possible to get off the list. "It's a way to put pressure on the system to bring up achievement."


While some states view the lists as an end in themselves, in others they are merely the first step in a "shape up or ship out" approach to failing schools. Loss of accreditation, loss of state funding, takeovers by the state, and outright shutdowns and "reconstitutions" of schools have all been tried, with varying degrees of success.

But while such harsh consequences still loom over low-performing schools in many states, increasingly policymakers are seeking ways to help schools improve rather than punishing them. Administrators are turning more and more to efforts to stave off harsh measures with technical, professional, or financial assistance.

"The 'hit 'em with a hammer' philosophy may be fading," says Chris Pipho, a senior policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. States, he adds, seem to be "kinder and gentler" in their approach to failing schools.

In several states last year, officials took a softer tack or did nothing at all. In California, a crusade to come up with a school accountability system gave out mainly because state officials and the state teachers' unions couldn't agree on the balance of rewards, interventions, and penalties for its low performers. And last year in Michigan, officials backed away from imposing sanctions on failing schools.

"States are just beginning to commit to failing schools," says Anne C. Hallett, the executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a Chicago-based national network of urban school reform leaders. Since experience has taught that "the state just can't parachute in and take over," she says, "[states] are beginning to set up systems of collaboration and support."

Part of the new spirit has to do with the recognition that failing schools educate disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged students, as revealed in an analysis by Education Week:

  • More than half are in urban areas.
  • Four in 10 have minority enrollments that exceed 90 percent.
  • About three in four are high-poverty schools, where the majority of students qualify for federal free lunches.

Observers also note that such schools often lack facilities and programs, such as well-stocked libraries, up-to-date technology, and good sports and music offerings, that are found in more successful schools. They also are likely to be staffed by younger, less qualified teachers and to suffer from rapid turnover in leadership.

"We know who's going to these failing schools... poor children, immigrant children, children from homeless shelters," says Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Our research indicates that there is a close association between low-performing schools and uncredentialled and junior teachers."

Acknowledging that link, states are making an effort to deal with such problems. They are selecting from a variety of approaches to raise achievement in the lowest-performing schools--depending on the states' particular problems, available resources, and prevailing political philosophy.

Intervention can run the gamut from schools' self-studies and self-generated plans for improvement to extensive visits from an audit team appointed by the state. Some states send in experts who pay several visits to a troubled school during the course of a year; in others, the help is much less intensive.

The same goes for financial aid: Several states have millions of dollars available; in others, failing schools don't get an extra nickel.

"More and more states have in place, or are working to develop, high-quality support systems," Brown of the CCSSO says. ''Disadvantaged students need extensive learning opportunities, high-quality teachers, rich curriculum, and high standards," she adds, and state policymakers are beginning to recognize that.

In Florida, which has generated a list of "critically low-performing schools" since 1995, a patchwork of state grants and federal money is available to the lowest performers. Those schools also receive professional assistance from the state and their local districts. If they don't improve their test scores within three years, the state can recommend that their districts take more severe action, including: reorganizing the school under a new principal, allowing parents to choose another school, or other actions deemed appropriate.

"There's got to be a balance" between assistance and penalties, says Frank T. Brogan, Florida's outgoing commissioner of education, who has been elected the state's lieutenant governor. "Every school is different, and every plan is different, but the support is there. These schools aren't out there groping in the dark."

But Brogan adds that the state's accountability plan falls short of taking schools over. "If the state could run a school with greater success, then we shouldn't wait to move in," he says. "We should do it today."

That sentiment is shared by many state leaders elsewhere. After either experiencing for themselves or witnessing from afar unsuccessful state attempts to run entire districts of low-performing schools, lawmakers and policymakers have conceded that there are resource shortcomings in state education agencies, too.

"What are states going to do if they take over failing schools?" asks Norm Fruchter, the co-director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University. States, he says, "have capacity problems as well."


That seems to be the prevailing view in Illinois. As in Florida, one state test determines which schools make the list of failing schools. The punishment for chronic failure--defined in Illinois as four consecutive years of being singled out for low test scores--can range from the firing of the local school board the closing of the school. But, state officials say, Illinois’ support system for failing schools is designed so the state won't have to use such Draconian measures.

"We don't want this to be something top-down and negative," says Sheryl Poggi, who oversees state assistance for failing schools for the education department. "We want to help support schools so they can improve."

When an Illinois school makes the list, Poggi says, it is required to submit an improvement plan for state approval. Then the state sends in a specially trained team to review the school and interview its leaders. Based on that review, the school may be eligible for professional help, extra money, or both.

In Illinois’ Madison district, the two failing schools received help throughout the school year from a state-trained teacher and from $120,000 in state school improvement funds. The district used the money for tutoring, new summer school classes, and other programs. Though the state help seemed to pay off--Madison Middle School's scores improved enough to move off the 1998 list, and Madison High School almost made it--the superintendent says the improvements were of the district's making, not the state's.

"The state help didn't have much of an impact," Allison says. "Don't get me wrong, having some extra help and money was nice, but what we're reaping now is the result of what we've been doing for a few years here."

To Allison, success is setting high standards and having ample resources to meet them. Madison is one of the state's poorest districts, and he had initially asked the state for $7 million in improvement funds, knowing, he says, that he'd never get near that amount. But state officials say that meeting minimum state standards is not so costly an endeavor.

"Our goal is to provide enough support to ensure that students are meeting the standards, and that doesn't require millions of dollars," Poggi of the state education department says. "It would be wonderful if every school in the state could have beautiful school buildings, great field trips, and Olympic-size swimming pools," she adds. "But we obviously have limited resources."


That sort of back and forth between state and local officials over the bottom line is typical.

Since low-performing schools are most typically low-wealth schools, teachers and leaders at such schools tend to fend off the blame associated with making the state list with statistics about the needs of their students and their inability to meet them.

But armed with case studies from a host of high-poverty schools that succeed despite outmoded technology or run-down buildings, many experts argue that money has less to do with achievement than many educators believe.

Poverty "is not an absolute predictor of performance. Really exceptional schools in poor neighborhoods prove this," Hill of the University of Washington says. "These schools have a strong focus on academics. The whole school is organized around academic achievement." And data are analyzed so that efforts are concentrated in areas of academic need.

"My own belief is that it's not always about basic resources," adds Brown of the state chiefs' council. "Failing schools are almost always spending money poorly, and it's often a matter of states' helping to reallocate the resources that a school already has."

But others, pointing to persistent inequalities between rich and poor schools and districts, are wary of that argument.

At the state level, intervention strategies may seem ample, those observers say, but for schools themselves, a year or less of state assistance and oversight may do little to turn around years, even decades, of failure.

"Failing schools are underresourced schools," says Carol Ascher, a senior researcher with the Institute for Education and Social Policy. "And while states have been doing more to assist these schools, in most cases these efforts are irrational, erratic, and fall short." States, she adds, "are doing some dramatic things, but they're not doing careful things."

In a report released last summer, Ascher, Fruchter, and their fellow NYU researcher Ken Ikeda examined New York state's efforts to intervene in failing schools. They concluded that, although the Empire State's effort is considered more comprehensive than most, with ample state staffing for oversight and training and plenty of improvement funds, it still falls short of what schools need.

In addition to providing generous funding and technical support to failing schools, Ascher and others say, states should see to it that those schools are staffed with highly skilled teachers and leaders. And, since failing schools are often in clusters, states should make sure that students don't simply go from one failing school to another as they move through their educations.

"Before anything else, I think the school's teaching force needs to be stabilized," Ascher adds. From there, she says, states, districts, and teachers' unions should work together to come up with high-quality professional development for teachers that will work to improve student achievement over the long haul.

Teacher groups, which have been criticized in some quarters for opposing the use of state lists of failing schools, have increasingly been weighing in on how to raise achievement in such schools.

"There's an understanding that if you want to turn these schools around, everybody has to be on the same side and ready to carry a lot of water," says Ruth Wattenberg, the director of education issues for the American Federation of Teachers. She cites several local affiliates, including those in Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles, that are working with local officials to devise strategies to improve achievement at low-performing schools. "These schools need proven programs and a real commitment on behalf of the staff," she says.

Some experts, meanwhile, still contend that failing schools, and especially chronic failures, can't really be remade by a state or anyone else unless the effort to do so is radical.

"Everyone's trying to come up with ways to create for kids a good school from a bad one by limited means--some money, a little training, some oversight," Hill says. But limited change, the University of Washington researcher argues, yields limited results: A failing school may improve just enough to move off a state list, but not much more.

More extreme makeovers bring better results over time, Hill asserts.

"It is possible to build from these schools a new school that works," he says. But "they need a new group of people to come in and lead with a newly defined purpose and an extreme focus on instruction, determination, and discipline."

Vol. 18, Issue 17, Page 37-40

Published in Print: January 11, 1999, as What To Do When All Else Fails
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