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Helping Hands

What can states really do to help their lowest- performing public schools improve?

That's a question policymakers have been asking for a long time, and it was the focus of a National Governors Association forum on Oct. 22 at the National Press Club in Washington. Governors, state superintendents, and others who work on state education policy are facing the question more than ever, because the federal No Child Left Behind Act now requires every school to improve test scores, provide highly qualified teachers, and more.

Harvard University education professor Richard F. Elmore told the 150 people at the forum that the struggling schools he's studied are rarely full of incompetent or lazy educators. Usually, the staff is working hard, just not very well, he said.

Monitoring real improvement in schools requires a way of thinking about the task that differs from what the federal law employs, he argued. "We're way overinvested in testing and assessment," he said, "and way underinvested in professional development."

James Lytle, the superintendent of the Trenton, N.J., schools, wondered how states and districts can move beyond immediate fixes that may raise test scores only in the short term. "When things begin to flatten out, now what do we do?" he asked.

Mississippi state schools chief Henry L. Johnson said his state doesn't have enough employees or money to provide the direct, full-time help for struggling schools that some states can provide.

Sue Carnell, the education adviser to Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, said her state's program for assisting in low-performing schools has suffered budget cuts that have forced the strategy down from the state to the county level.

Michael Wang, the education adviser to Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican, said that money isn't the problem. But he agreed states must invest more people and attention to build "capacity" toward long-term school improvement. "If you don't put any fuel in the engine, you ain't going anywhere," he said.

One discussion focused on how the public views the varieties of schools failing to meet parts of the No Child Left Behind Act. When three out of four New Jersey high schools recently failed to meet test-score goals under the federal law, the reaction was merely a "great shrug across the state," said Mr. Lytle, suggesting that the public isn't focused yet on school improvement.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 23, Issue 9, Page 19

Published in Print: October 29, 2003, as State Journal

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