School & District Management

Duncan’s Alarm on ‘Failing’ Schools Raises Eyebrows

By Michele McNeil — March 11, 2011 5 min read
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Education policy experts are questioning the strategy and data behind U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s announcement that the wide majority of schools could be labeled as “failing” this year under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Duncan this week ramped up his push for Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of which is NCLB, telling Congress that 82 percent of the nation’s schools may not make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, this year, according to U.S. Department of Education estimates.

In testimony March 9 before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, the education secretary said: “The consequences under the current law are very clear: States and districts all across America may have to intervene in more and more schools each year, implementing the exact same interventions regardless of schools’ individual needs.”

He was referring specifically to an escalating set of sanctions schools face for failing to meet AYP, which is the cornerstone of NCLB. The law sets annual performance targets for students or for smaller subgroups, such as English-language learners, and aims to make all students 100 percent proficient in reading and math by 2014.

But as that deadline nears, more schools are failing to hit performance targets, and the department’s estimate serves to quantify something experts have acknowledged before: that achieving proficiency in math and language arts for every American student by 2014 is unrealistic. Changing that goal, and AYP, is at the heart of the Obama administration’s plan for reauthorizing ESEA.

The Education Department’s 82 percent failure estimate is based on best-case assumptions that all schools will improve at the rate of the top-performing quartile of schools. To come up with that estimate, the department used four years worth of AYP data, from the 2006-07 through the 2009-10 school years.

Statisticians examined the amount of gain on state reading and math tests and used that gain to build projections that were compared against the states’ annual performance targets. The department took into account highly technical parts of the law, such as safe harbor (which offers an escape hatch for schools that see a 10 percent decline in the number of students who aren’t proficient in any given year).

Skeptical Response

The department’s data didn’t spark much interest among members of the House education committee—no one asked questions about it at the hearing where Mr. Duncan unveiled the estimate.

But reaction outside the Capitol was swift, and often critical.

Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, in Washington, which tracks schools’ AYP progress, said he doesn’t believe the 82 percent failure number is accurate, especially since it is more than a doubling of the number of schools that failed to make AYP in 2009-10. “I hope they’re right,” said Mr. Jennings, who urged the department to put out a technical paper explaining its calculations. “They’re dealing with their credibility.”

At best, the number is highly misleading, said Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee. He said that not making ayp during one particular year does not mean a school is “failing,” a word that NCLB doesn’t use. NCLB sanctions don’t kick in until schools fail to make AYP for two consecutive years.

“I think they’re going to regret this,” Mr. Barone said. “While I understand their frustration in trying to pass the law, I think it’s only going to hurt them. They’re creating an atmosphere of fear.”

Both DFER and the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of disadvantaged students, disagree with the department’s methodology.

Sandy Kress, a lawyer in Austin, Texas, and a former White House aide who played a key role in working with Congress to craft NCLB, pointed out that there might be a good reason the number is so high: States insisted on working their way slowly towards the 100 percent proficiency goal at first, then raising expectations much faster once 2014 neared—akin to a balloon payment on a loan.

“States said they needed time to get reforms under way,” said Mr. Kress, who said that Secretary Duncan was trying to create “a little bit of panic.”

Andrew J. Rotherham, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting firm in Washington, said Mr. Duncan’s testimony will likely only contribute to the confusion over the law’s AYP requirements. “It’s not especially responsible rhetoric,” he said.

In response, Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the Education Department, said: “Debates about methodology are beside the point. Everyone knew this day [was] coming, and now it is upon us, and we need to have an open, honest debate about the consequences of a law that labels four out of five schools as failing. That is all we are trying to do. It’s not about scare tactics. It’s about telling the truth.”

Other groups pointed out that the larger message carried throughout Mr. Duncan’s testimony is important. Even though AYP is a complex issue, “this measure shows how the accountability system does not work. It’s very easy to wrap your head around that 82 percent of our schools might be labeled as failing,” said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators.

Relaxing Sanctions

Mr. Duncan has already relaxed some of the sanctions for schools not making AYP, such as allowing districts to do their own tutoring (rather than using an outside provider), and allowing tutoring to be provided before schools have to offer to send students to higher-performing schools (the choice provision).

The Obama administration’s blueprint for ESEA renewal calls for pushing back the 2014 deadline for 100percent proficiency and replacing that goal with new standards aimed at getting students ready for college or the workforce by 2020.

Under the blueprint, states would be given more leeway to intervene in most districts and schools that are making modest gains. But the bottom 5 percent of schools in each state would have to follow one of four turnaround models that are tied to the federal School Improvement Grants program, which include closing the school and sending students to higher-achieving schools, and “restarting” the school by turning it over to a charter-management organization.

Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Duncan’s Alarm on ‘Failing’ Schools Raises Eyebrows


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