School & District Management

Building Capacity

By Jeff Archer — September 12, 2006 12 min read
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What’s gone around has come around.

After a decade or so spent largely on setting academic standards against which to hold schools accountable, states are themselves being held accountable for helping schools figure out how to meet them.

Leading for Learning
September 13, 2006
About This Report
Building Capacity
New Mexico
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The result is a huge leadership challenge. With few or no added resources, state education agencies are retooling to provide more technical support just as new federal rules are dramatically driving up the number of underperforming schools and districts demanding their assistance.

Echoing the sentiments of many of her counterparts across the country, Yvonne Caamal Canul, who directs the office of school improvement at the Michigan Department of Education, says there’s ample cause for both hope and concern in the situation.

“The good news is that we’re being asked to step up to the plate and take on more authority,” she says. “The bad news is we didn’t hire people over the past 20 years or 15 years to think that way about their work.”

For those reasons, Education Week is focusing on states’ relatively new, but increasingly critical, role in building local capacity to improve instruction for its third annual “Leading for Learning” special report.

State Assistance to Low-Performing Schools and Districts

The charts reflect the number of states that cited each type of assistance in their 2004-05 consolidated performance reports to the U.S. Department of Education, including the District of Columbia. In some cases, state education departments were called or their Web sites reviewed to clarify the reports or fill in missing information.

*Click images to see the full chart.

Ongoing Support

Click to enlarge: Ongoing Support

2 Charts: Reviews and Planning & Training:

Click to enlarge: Reviews and Planning & Training

SOURCE: Education Week

To gauge the demand for that support, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center analyzed data on schools and districts identified for improvement in 2005 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, based on 2004-05 data.

The findings suggest a tall order. Nationwide, 8,446 schools and 1,624 districts that receive federal aid were listed as “in need of improvement” for failing to meet improvement targets at least two years in a row. In addition, 2,399 districts have at least one school in that status. The law says all schools and districts so labeled are entitled to technical support from their states.

But the challenge is anything but uniform. A handful of states account for the bulk of the nation’s schools cited for underperformance. Even within states, those schools are clustered in certain regions and districts.

In addition, Education Week reviewed federal documents in which each state describes its efforts to turn schools and districts around. While those reports may not tell all that states actually are doing in that regard, taken together they do reveal clear trends. States are providing heavy doses of help with improvement planning; emphasizing supporting schools in groups, or entire districts, instead of just individually; providing training in leadership and data analysis; and establishing tiered systems based on level of need.

Profiles in this report highlight the evolving efforts under way in Kentucky, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania to help schools and districts. Other states’ approaches are highlighted in four snapshots of more specific tactics.

Many analysts say that whether these strategies are up to the task may well determine if the goals of the movement to set higher standards are fully realized. For what would it say, they posit, if states can’t help students achieve what the states themselves are asking?

“If the interventions fail, it’s really going to cut to the core of the public’s faith in public education,” says William J. Slotnik, the executive director of the Boston-based Community Training and Assistance Center, which works with states on the issue.

And if that’s not reason enough for states to give more assistance, the No Child Left Behind Act requires it. Signed into law by President Bush in January 2002, the measure says states must have a “system of intensive and sustained support” that at least includes “support teams” to work with schools and districts getting federal Title I aid.

Highest priority for such help is reserved for schools and districts that have reached corrective action. That means that for four or more years in a row, they’ve failed to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, toward the law’s goal of having all students from all backgrounds score at the proficient level or above on their states’ reading and mathematics assessments in grades 3-8—and once during high school—by 2014.

Schools in Need of Improvement for the 2005-06 School Year

During the 2005-06 school year, a total of 8,446 Title I schools nationwide were identified as “in need of improvement” under the No Child Left Behind Act. The identified schools tend to be extremely clustered geographically. In fact, one-quarter of all identified schools in the nation are concentrated within just 25 districts. The number of identified schools meets or exceeds 100 in six districts: Chicago; Detroit; Los Angeles; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; New York City; and Philadelphia.

*Click image to see the complete interactive map.
*Requires Macromedia Flash Player

Click to enlarge: District-Identification Rates Vary

These districts, with the number of schools in need of improvement, account for one-fourth of all schools in such status nationwide.

Chicago 341 Memphis, Tenn. 57
New York City 241 Denver 54
Los Angeles 205 Oakland, Calif. 51
Philadelphia 109 Broward County, Fla. 46
Detroit 105 Columbus, Ohio 45
Miami-Dade County, Fla. 100 San Bernardino City, Calif. 44
District of Columbia 82 Minneapolis 43
Hillsborough County, Fla. 71 Duval County, Fla. 41
Boston 67 Hawaii 41
Orleans Parish, La. 65 San Diego 40
Palm Beach County, Fla. 62 Newark, N.J. 40
Fresno, Calif. 60 Jefferson County, Ky. 39
Baltimore, Md. 57 Kansas City, Mo. 39

SOURCE: EPE Research Center

Under the law, schools in corrective action face such consequences as having staff members replaced or new curricula imposed. Districts with the label may be put in state receivership or even abolished.

Given that the federal law is now in its fifth year, the full effect of the designation is just beginning to dawn. According to the data compiled for this report, 2,721 Title I schools in the United States had reached corrective action by the 2005-06 school year—the latest for which data were available—as had 80 districts.

More schools could be in the pipeline. The analysis tallied 2,990 schools, and 469 districts, that missed AYP three years in a row. Then there’s the 2,735 schools and 1,075 districts “in need of improvement” for not making AYP two years running.

“The numbers are becoming staggering,” says Paul Koehler, the director of the Phoenix-based Southwest Comprehensive Center, which gets federal money to assist state education agencies. “States are building their school improvement systems while each year more schools are being identified.”

While states on average were found to have 16 percent of their Title I schools cited as needing improvement, in Alabama, Alaska, California, the District of Columbia, and Florida it was more than 30 percent. Meanwhile, in Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming, fewer than 2 percent of all Title I schools were so listed.

That’s due in part to differences in state standards, tests, and accountability systems. Some states also had certain accountability rules in place before NCLB, and so are further along. But most states were found to have more schools potentially one year away from corrective action than they already had in that status.

To put the looming demand on state education departments in terms of student needs, the EPE Research Center combined the federal data on schools’ performance status with data on schools’ student populations and other characteristics.

The bottom line: Together, all the Title I schools in the country listed as needing improvement under the law in 2005 served a total of some 5.8 million students, of whom 66 percent lived in poverty, and 75 percent were members of ethnic and racial minorities.

Further analysis of the combined databases showed the schools those students attended were disproportionately located in certain areas within their states. While 2,399 U.S. districts had at least one Title I school identified for improvement, 25 individual districts accounted for a quarter of all such schools nationwide.

Given the numbers, state education agencies can ill afford to do business as usual, says G. Thomas Houlihan, who stepped down last month as the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, a Washington group representing commissioners and superintendents of education. Merely monitoring for compliance, he says, won’t turn schools around.

“NCLB has highlighted the fact that the system of education must change in this country, and that states are going to be the primary and immediate focus point for leading that,” Houlihan says. “I don’t think anyone in this country understands the enormous sea change we’re talking about.”

Clues about how states are trying to reach so many schools were found in Education Week’s review of the consolidated performance reports that they submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, indicating measures they’re taking to address the needs of schools and districts identified as needing help under NCLB.

The most common assistance is with planning. Forty-seven states cited providing some form of guidance on drafting improvement plans. In 29 states, the process involved visits by outside evaluators, while 13 described outside reviews based on documentation, and 17 mentioned self-reviews.

Many states described improvement planning as a way to organize the work of local leaders. Massachusetts, for example, has a highly detailed process, called “performance-improvement mapping,” aimed at prodding schools to better use data to zero in on problems and evaluate their strategies.

“In many of our schools, our observation is not that they need a different program, it’s that they need to stop doing some of the multiple, sometimes randomly selected, initiatives they have,” says Julianne Dow, the state’s associate commissioner for accountability and targeted assistance.

Schools and Districts in Early Stages

A total of 8,446 (or 16 percent) of Title I schools nationwide have been identified as “in need of improvement” under the No Child Left Behind law. More than two-thirds of those schools are within their first two years of school improvement. Fewer than one in five identified schools have reached the “restructuring” phase (year four of improvement and beyond).


About 12 percent of districts with Title I schools nationwide have been identified as “in need of improvement” under NCLB. The vast majority (95 percent) of these districts are within their first two years of school improvement.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center

Similar skills often were cited as the focus of professional development for educators in low-performing schools. Leadership training was referenced by 17 states, and 15 states mentioned providing training on data analysis. Nineteen states said they offer professional development on content areas, such as literacy.

As for more ongoing support, states tend toward a light touch. Thirty-two states said they provided assistance from off site, such as by a team of specialists based at the education department.

Meanwhile, on-site coaching of staffs at individual schools by master educators was reported by 14 states, including Kentucky and North and South Carolina, which have some of the oldest such initiatives. And 17 states described the coaching of groups of schools, or whole districts, although many made clear they were only doing so for the most persistently low-performing sites.

The fact that more states aren’t sending coaches to each low-performing school is in part a matter of resources. But many state education leaders also say they’re learning that the best way to achieve sustained improvement of schools is to work through districts.

“If you don’t get the district on board, they can inadvertently set up barriers to the reform that’s going on, and schools also need certain supports and structures to move forward,” says Nancy Stark, the manager of school improvement and literacy for the Connecticut Department of Education.

Another common strategy is to involve third parties. Nineteen states described the use of external providers, such as private consultants. Seven states pointed to specific improvement models, including America’s Choice, an approach to whole-school change designed by a private group in Washington.

District-Identification Rates Vary

Although 12 percent of districts with Title I schools nationwide have been identified as “in need of improvement” under the No Child Left Behind law, rates differ dramatically from state to state. In six states, a majority of districts have been labeled as needing improvement, while in eight states none has been identified.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: District-Identification Rates Vary

SOURCE: EPE Research Center

Fourteen states cited making use of their systems of regional service centers, many of which are giving more targeted help than in the past. The Ohio Department of Education, for instance, has tapped its centers to form 12 support teams to work with schools and districts in different parts of the state.

Finally, seven states described networks of schools and local leaders they had created to share best practices.

Richard Laine, the education director at the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, agreed states have broader influence by acting as conveners and brokers.

“We need to think of the state agency not as a physical building, but figure out how we as a state agency can help coordinate the state capacity to be more helpful for districts and schools,” says Mr. Laine, whose foundation underwrites this report and other leadership coverage in Education Week.

But even with such efforts, few state leaders say they have the wherewithal to meet the growing need. Many are beefing up their technical assistance without new dollars. State agencies also tend to pay less than many districts do, making it hard to recruit the new talent they require.

In addition, many experts say that there’s a dearth of research on how to turn around large numbers of schools at the same time, and that even less is known about how to improve whole districts in ways that can be sustained.

School Improvement Status Strongly Tied to Poverty

On average, 16 percent of all Title I schools nationwide are identified as “in need of improvement” under the federal NCLB law. However, the identification rate is more than twice as high for schools with the highest poverty levels and for schools where more than 90 percent of students are members of racial and ethnic minority groups.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: School Improvement Status Strongly Tied to Poverty

NOTE: Poverty is measured as the percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

SOURCE: EPE Research Center

A poll released this past March by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, showed leaders of 26 state education agencies felt they lacked “sufficient in-house expertise” to help schools and districts identified for improvement under the No Child Left Behind law. Another 16 had concerns about meeting future demand.

“For the better part of a decade now, many state education agencies have been cutting back in personnel and funding, and the federal government hasn’t made up the difference,” says Jack Jennings, the former Democratic congressional aide who is the center’s president.

Federal guidelines set aside 4 percent of Title I money for school improvement activities. At the current $12 billion allocation for Title I, the main federal program for disadvantaged schoolchildren, that equals about $500 million.

But because 95 percent must go to schools and districts, just $25 million is left for 50 state agencies to work with, at most. Other federal budget rules bar states from reserving money for school improvement efforts if doing so would mean districts get less Title I aid than in the previous year. As a result, many state departments say they’re unable to set aside the 4 percent.

See Also

View the accompanying

State Case Studies

States also are having a hard time allocating money for the work. In Massachusetts, the state board of education this year called for $25 million for new school improvement efforts led by the education department. But lawmakers approved $5 million, essentially level-funding such activities.

“In most state legislatures, the idea of building the bureaucracy with further investment is an unpopular one,” says S. Paul Reville, the president of the Boston-based Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, which has studied the issue in the Bay State and elsewhere.

There are some bright spots. New Mexico put $8.4 million this year toward school improvement after previously relying only on federal money. Pennsylvania wrote into law a year-old state education department program that places distinguished educators in struggling districts. (New Mexico and Pennsylvania, this report.)

At the federal level, the Bush administration has proposed, for the first time, allotting $200 million for grants to state education agencies to use in providing technical assistance to low-performing schools and districts. An agreement on federal spending for fiscal 2007 is expected to emerge from Capitol Hill after the November elections.

In such actions, state agencies see some recognition of the new responsibility they bear in ensuring high-quality schooling for all children. How far that acknowledgment grows remains to be seen. Houlihan, the former head of the state chiefs’ group, says the stakes are too high for him not to be hopeful.

“I really believe that while this is a very, very difficult and tricky time for state education agencies in our country, I also think it’s a huge opportunity,” he says. “If we can get enough of the expertise and enough of the resources, states will figure this out.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Building Capacity


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