Failing Schools Challenge Accountability Goals

By Caroline Hendrie & Lynn Olson — March 25, 1998 11 min read
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New York

When Thandiwe Peebles came to Intermediate School 193 in the Bronx last March, trash littered the halls, discipline had collapsed, and teachers routinely called in sick on Mondays and Fridays.

The new principal quickly divided the school into academic “houses,” restored discipline, and gave parents a list of curriculum goals and objectives. She personally grades midterm exams to keep tabs on how students are doing.

The 580-student middle school is not out of the woods yet, but it’s a lot better than it was.

“For years, it was like the storming of the Bastille every day,” said Christopher Horan, an 8th grade language arts teacher, who has been here since 1987. “Now, it feels like a school.”

IS 193 is one of a dozen chronically low-performing New York City schools that Chancellor Rudy F. Crew has taken under his wing since 1996 with the mission of improving them or shutting them down.

About This Series

His is one of many attempts by states and districts to identify their worst schools and spend millions of dollars to fix them, based on the recognition that failing schools must not be allowed to languish indefinitely.

But while it’s clear that in many cases such efforts have brought a sense of order and calm, and that test scores are inching up, it is less certain whether such gains will prove to be permanent or deep.

“Nobody really knows how you turn a school around,” said Carol Ascher, a senior research scientist at New York University, who is conducting a study of New York state’s strategy for identifying and intervening in low-performing schools.

“People have an idea of what the components of a successful school are,” she said. “But how you move an unsuccessful school into being successful is not just dropping in the components of a successful school.”

The lack of consensus is reflected in the variety of state and district strategies. In San Diego, schools receive $16,500 and are required to draw up a new plan.

Kentucky sends in a team of distinguished educators to work with a troubled school. Chicago hooks schools up with an outside service provider and assigns a “probation manager” to monitor performance.

‘Very, Very Prescriptive’

New York City’s extremely aggressive design for its most troubled schools represents one end of the continuum. Here, failing schools receive heavy doses of both direction and support.

Most states and districts require educators in low-achieving schools to devise some sort of improvement plan, either by themselves or with outside help. But some argue that if these schools could have planned their way out of failure, they would have done so long ago.

New York state has had a system for monitoring troubled schools since 1989, known as “Schools Under Registration Review.” Revisions in 1996 give schools with the lowest test scores three years to improve or face closure by the state. Districts also must develop plans for how they will support such schools.

In April 1996, Mr. Crew plucked 10 such schools out from under the control of their community school districts, which he said lacked the will or the capacity to assist them. The 1.1 million-student district has 32 subdistricts with jurisdiction over elementary and middle schools. The city’s central board of education governs high schools.

Bypassing the subdistricts, Mr. Crew created a special “chancellor’s district” to provide direct oversight for the 10 schools.

One high school was subsequently closed and reorganized into several smaller schools. And last year, three more schools joined the special district, for a total of 12: six elementary schools and six middle schools.

By most accounts, the schools were a mess, with rundown facilities, a high proportion of uncertified teachers, out-of-date textbooks, bare libraries, and an absence of standard procedures, from policies for discipline to grade-level objectives.

Each school underwent a structured review, based on the widely agreed-upon characteristics of effective schools, that examined their practices in nine areas, including curriculum and instruction, school climate, professional development, and parent involvement.

The schools also were required to adopt specific practices that administrators had identified as successful. Among the elements are a 90-minute period devoted to literacy, strategies for test preparation, a longer school day for the neediest students, prekindergarten wherever possible, an integrated arts program, and an emphasis on involving parents. All of the elementary schools have adopted Success for All, a nationally recognized school reform approach. (“Will Success Spoil Success for All?,” Feb. 4, 1998.)

“These are proven things that work for inner-city schools,” said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the superintendent of the chancellor’s district. But making them work is expensive, and unlike some efforts to reshape failing schools, the chancellor’s district has been able to back its requirements with cash.

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“There is a real serious monetary commitment that has to be made to schools that are low-performing,” Mr. Crew said in a speech earlier this year.

In fiscal years 1997 and 1998, his administration has spent approximately $7.79 million in special allocations for the chancellor’s district. That includes $5.21 million to support the district’s work with low-performing schools throughout the city, $1.75 million for staff development, and $829,219 for libraries, textbooks, and furniture.

Class sizes have dropped to an average of 25. Libraries have new books. Technology has been upgraded. At each school, specialists in literacy, math, and technology help coordinate staff development. Most principals have a mentor. And each school is assigned a liaison from the district office to run interference and monitor performance.

Margaret Hill, principal of the Mother Hale Academy, an elementary school in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the Bronx, said she likes the structure. What’s more, “the level of support is incredible.”

A Firm Hand

Other districts around the country have also taken a firm hand in shaping how low-performing schools should improve. The Miami-Dade County district, for example, created “Operation Safety Net” to assist 45 elementary schools identified by the state as low-performing. Each of the schools adopted the same basal reading textbooks as well as Success for All. And each received a big infusion of technology.

But not everyone thinks so much direction is a good idea. Ms. Ascher of NYU cautions that it could discourage talented, veteran teachers from working in such schools.

Chicago gives its low-achieving schools more choice. In 1996-97, administrators placed 109 schools—about one-fourth of all those in the district—on probation because fewer than 15 percent of their students were reading at or above grade level.

The district helps pay for the schools to select from an approved list of partners such as universities and nonprofit organizations that can help them with curriculum, instruction, and testing.

Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, says intervention should occur in stages, with more structure provided over time if schools fail to improve. Low-performing schools also need many forms of assistance from many sources, he argues. “The last thing you want is for struggling schools to have a menu only of what the central office can offer,” he said.

Changing Staff

One of the most contentious issues in efforts to turn around troubled schools is whether to replace the teachers and administrators in them.

In New York, the chancellor’s district may replace up to half the teachers in a school, under an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s American Federation of Teachers affiliate. All the new teachers must be certified, and they are selected by a personnel committee that includes two union representatives.

Other districts, notably San Francisco, practice large-scale overhauls of a school’s staff, known as “reconstitution.” But a recent trend—often prompted by opposition from teachers’ unions—is to intervene before such drastic action is necessary.

Tom Mooney, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and the chairman of an aft task force on redesigning schools, says union-district partnerships are crucial if teachers are to buy in to the procedures. In both Miami and New York, the unions have played a central role in crafting the intervention policy.

The issue of replacing faculty members is a tricky one for another reason: Administrators want the authority to clean house, but replacing bad teachers with inexperienced ones has its own problems.

Most schools in the chancellor’s district have a high proportion of rookie teachers who are charged with turning around some of the most troubled schools in the system.

In retrospect, Ms. Byrd-Bennett questions whether that was a good idea. “I would really rethink this if I had to do this again,” she said. “I think for schools that are this fragile, this needy, the culture shock is not always healthy.”

The Mother Hale Academy, for instance, started the 1996-97 school year with 28 first-year teachers out of a staff of 50. At the end of the year, 14 of the 28 left.

Few states or districts have provided incentives for the best educators to work in the toughest schools. More often, the stigma attached to schools labeled as failing, and the risk of losing one’s job, have discouraged people from applying.

Help or Hindrance?

In New York City, the district has taken responsibility for fixing struggling schools, but is doing so under the watchful eye of the state education department. Such an approach acknowledges that states often lack the expertise or the manpower to help poorly performing schools directly.

Yet often, districts themselves are perceived as a factor in the downward spiral. “A district can go through a series of superintendents,” said Ms. Peebles, IS 193’s principal. “And as the superintendents change, things at the school may or may not change.”

Kentucky essentially bypasses local districts. The state identifies which schools are low-performing, trains and assigns distinguished educators to work in them, and monitors the results.

But Robert Lumsden, an associate commissioner of education in Kentucky, said that in retrospect, it might have helped to clarify the role of districts. “For a school to grow continuously,” he said, “it’s going to take an alignment of all the resources in a district.”

In New York, many of the schools in the chancellor’s district aren’t eager to return to the community districts that allowed them to deteriorate in the first place.

“We don’t want to leave,” said Stuart Auerbach, a dean at IS 193 and the school’s UFT representative, who was initially skeptical of Mr. Crew’s initiative. “We’re out of the politics of District 12, the corruption and lack of services.”

Despite such reservations, Ms. Byrd-Bennett anticipates that by the 1999-2000 school year, all the schools will be returned to their districts, although with a lot of shared responsibility initially. “The goal of the chancellor’s district is to put itself out of business,” she said.

Is It Working?

The real test will come later this year, when the state determines whether schools in the chancellor’s district have improved enough to come off the Schools Under Registration Review list or should be shut down. To date, two schools have met their improvement targets and are no longer under registration review, although they remain in the chancellor’s district.

Reading scores on state tests rose last year among SURR schools in New York City. But compared with other SURR schools, those in the chancellor’s district made the smallest gains.

Ms. Byrd-Bennett argues that comparing the chancellor’s district with other subdistricts, which have a range of high- and low-performing schools, is unfair. “These were the schools that had the greatest upheaval and the farthest to go,” she said.

Across the country, an increasing number of low-performing schools are improving enough to come off watch lists—although it’s not clear what combination of factors is causing the change. In Kentucky, all but 17 of the original 53 schools identified as “in decline” in 1994 have met their benchmarks.

Houston identified 68 low-performing schools in 1992-93, the first year of its accountability system. Now, it has none. In Miami-Dade County, the list of critically low-performing schools is down to 11.

But while the results are encouraging, few are ready to declare victory. For one thing, the standards to get off most lists remain low. In addition, while some schools have improved substantially, others have merely squeaked by.

Policymakers worry that such schools will slide back once a different group of students is tested.

In Chicago, a majority of schools on probation saw an increase in reading and math scores last spring. The process is working, said Michael K. Klonsky, the director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “But there’s a debate about what working means,” he added. “Getting less than a quarter of the kids reading at or above grade level is not anything to write home about.”

And in some cases, Ms. Byrd-Bennett admitted, no amount of outside assistance can help. Some schools simply have to be shut down and started anew. “Some kitchens,” she said, “have to be totally destroyed and reconfigured, not just remodeled.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 1998 edition of Education Week as Failing Schools Challenge Accountability Goals


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