Low-Performing Schools Are Left to Languish by Districts and States, Watchdog Finds

By Alyson Klein — February 23, 2024 11 min read
A group of silhouettes looks across a grid with a public school on the other side.
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Nearly a decade ago, Congress handed states and districts near-autonomy to fix their worst-performing schools in the ways they saw fit.

Now, many of those schools appear to have been left to languish in the academic doldrums, without clear improvement strategies to use or dedicated resources to execute turnarounds.

Fewer than half of district plans for improving the bottom 5 percent of schools in each state dubbed “drop-out factories”—high schools where fewer than two-thirds of students graduate—meet bare minimum federal requirements, even though they received their state’s seal of approval, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm.

The state of school improvement is just dismal.

In many cases, low-performing schools did not receive any more funding per pupil to implement turnaround plans, according to a separate analysis by All4Ed, an equity-focused research and advocacy organization.

“The state of school improvement is just dismal,” said Anne Hyslop, the director of policy development at All4Ed. States are “saying these schools need support and then just dropping the ball.”

The Every Students Succeeds Act, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, leaves school improvement largely up to states and districts, instead of choosing from off-the-shelf, federally prescribed interventions.

One exception: States must identify their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and high schools with high dropout rates for what the law calls “comprehensive school improvement,” or “CSI” for short. ESSA charges districts with crafting plans to get those schools back on track, monitored by the state.

ESSA also calls for action in schools that are performing well overall, but where a particular group of historically marginalized students—say, English learners, students in special education, or poor children—are struggling. The GAO analysis did not look at the state of improvement plans in those schools.

States and districts are ‘unable to thoughtfully plan’ school improvement

Instead, it examined a sample of state-approved improvement plans for seriously foundering schools to see how they handled three basic requirements outlined in the law: completing a needs assessment, identifying resource inequities, and pinpointing evidence-backed strategies to help students advance.

In the majority of cases, the GAO found, district plans, even those that received state approval, weren’t clearing those bars.

Less than half of plans—42 percent—addressed all three elements. Almost a third—30 percent—contained two elements, and over a quarter—28 percent—included just one, or no elements.

In some cases, even when plans addressed a requirement, their contents didn’t meet the mark.

Nearly 1 in 5 plans the GAO examined listed interventions “shown to be ineffective by high-quality studies” reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse, even though ESSA calls for strategies to be backed by evidence. (The Education Department’s What Works Clearinghouse reviews research and summarizes findings on different education programs and practices.)

Others included approaches inappropriate for the population they targeted. For instance, one school’s plan committed to using a reading intervention with kindergartners, even though that program had only been shown to work for older students, the GAO reported.

The GAO considered only whether school improvement plans met ESSA’s baseline criteria for school improvement plans. It did not examine how well schools have implemented those plans, or whether student achievement has increased at the schools.

But, given that most plans were missing at least one basic element, it seems unlikely that foundering schools are receiving significant support, said Nicholas Munyan-Penney, the assistant director of P-12 policy at the Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization that works on behalf of disadvantaged students.

“Based on what we’re seeing here, that [states and districts] are not able to thoughtfully and thoroughly plan for improvement, it’s unlikely that they’re actually doing the types of improvement activities that we would like to see in these schools,” Munyan-Penney said.

State leaders are doing their best to navigate school improvement at a difficult time, advocates for state chiefs say.

“The GAO report underscores the challenges around [ESSA] implementation and the realities of COVID-19 pandemic disruptions to our schools,” said Melissa McGrath, chief of staff at the Council of Chief State School Officers. “We know education leaders across the country are committed to supporting all students, especially those most in need.”

Money may not be reaching low-performing schools

Other research questions whether the lowest-performing schools are getting the resources they need to implement robust turnaround plans.

ESSA requires states to set aside 7 percent of Title I funding for school improvement. But it’s unclear if that money is always making it to schools’ coffers, All4Ed found in a separate analysis.

That report examined funding in schools flagged as among the bottom 5 percent of performers across nine states, as well as those where a historically marginalized group was underperforming. It compared how much those schools spent per pupil, both when they were identified as needing improvement, and the following year, when they were supposed to be implementing an improvement plan.

In every state but one, at least a quarter of schools identified for improvement actually spent less per pupil after they were flagged as needing extra support, rather than more. And those drops were not trivial, especially when schools spent less from federal sources and state and local ones. In those schools, the average decrease in spending ranged from $705 to $2,819 per pupil, All4Ed found. In most states, the drop neared or exceeded $1,000 per student, the nonprofit reported.

Since the report considered per-pupil funding, the differential can’t be explained by enrollment declines, Hyslop added.

“If you believe that schools need additional resources to implement evidence-based interventions, they can’t just do that with the existing resources they already have,” much less a funding cut, Hyslop said.

Leaders turn to social media—not the feds—for help in finding ways to fix low-performing schools

All4Ed’s analysis jibes with another GAO finding: Schools in comprehensive improvement tended to have a higher student-to-teacher ratio than other public schools, including other schools that receive federal Title I funding to educate students in poverty, suggesting that these low-performing schools have larger class sizes.

On average, CSI schools had 18.5 students per teacher in the 2019-20 school year, while the average was 17.5 students per teacher in all public schools that year.

Interviews the GAO conducted with seven leaders of CSI schools and ten district leaders as part of its analysis revealed confusion and a lack of understanding of how to handle the various requirements for school improvement plans, pointing to a lack of state and district support for such a substantial undertaking.

One school official told the agency that he conducted a “quick internet search to understand what a resource inequity was in order to complete” his school’s improvement plan.

Two district officials said language in ESSA explaining what qualifies as an evidence-based intervention “can be hard to understand, making it difficult to determine whether an intervention meets those standards,” GAO reported.

All seven school officials the GAO spoke to were unaware that the U.S. Department of Education has a “What Works Clearinghouse,” which could be used as a resource for finding evidence-backed strategies.

Instead, two school officials said they have “often turned to alternative, informal means of selecting interventions, including asking for word-of-mouth recommendations from colleagues or posting in informal social media groups,” the GAO reported.

Others paid consultants or vendors for help in finding improvement strategies.

The lack of know-how is particularly problematic, given that low-performing schools didn’t “become that way in isolation. Many CSI schools sit within a dysfunctional system,” said Carlas McCauley, the associate dean for research at Howard University’s school of education, and a former education department official who led federal school improvement efforts.

“At the local level, we need to move away from the idea that this is a school problem. The district has to be in the role of creating the conditions for the school to be successful,” including making sure there is a strong principal in place who can hire and support experienced, effective teachers, McCauley said.

Turnarounds take ‘political will and political courage’

Students in the schools flagged for comprehensive improvement tend to serve some of the poorest student populations.

In more than half of these low-performing schools—almost 60 percent—nearly every student qualifies for free-or reduced-price lunch. That’s a rate 1.5 times greater than all Title I schools, and more than twice as high as all public schools, according to the GAO.

And these schools are far more likely to serve a predominantly Black population than other Title I schools. Nearly one in five CSI schools—19 percent—have a student population that is at least 75 percent Black, compared to 7 percent of Title I schools, and 5 percent of all public schools.

To be sure, there are some success stories with districts in the driver’s seat on school improvement.

In the 2017-18 school year, North Carolina’s Union County school district employed a battery of evidence-based strategies—including intensive tutoring, Saturday classes, an emphasis on building a positive culture, and extra mental supports—to move four elementary schools off the state’s list of low performers and make significant progress in two others.

Then the pandemic hit. Performance fell at all six schools, putting them back in the bottom 5 percent. Seven other Union County schools also joined the list.

The district went back to its turnaround playbook and has been able to move eight of those 13 schools out of CSI status, said Andrew Houlihan, the district’s superintendent.

Given “how challenging school turnaround and school improvement can be, it does require some political courage and political will to make some really tough decisions,” Houlihan said. “And everyone has a different political context. One of the pieces that we’ve been successful with is getting the support of the larger community on why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

He credits his board of education with supporting his plans to direct additional resources to these struggling schools, located in some of the district’s highest poverty areas. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has also bolstered Union County’s approach, even holding its tutoring program up as a model for others in the state.

Andrew Houlihan, left, is the superintendent in Union County and developed a high-dosage tutoring strategy to combat student learning loss. Pictured here on Dec. 16, 2021 as he talks with Porter Ridge High School students Eriana Tucker and Lillie Curtis following lunch in the cafeteria.

‘We still don’t talk about what it takes to improve these schools’

While the track record of school improvement under ESSA appears grim, earlier attempts at turning around low-performing schools were also largely unsuccessful.

The Obama administration poured more than $7 billion into the School Improvement Grant program, which required schools to choose from a menu of federally mandated strategies. Those strategies included merit pay for teachers and increased instructional time, removing the principal and half the staff, turning the school into a charter, or closing it altogether.

Individual schools saw positive results, particularly in states with a sophisticated approach to turnarounds.

But nationally, the SIG program—which effectively ended with ESSA’s passage—had no significant impact on math and reading scores or high school graduation, according to an analysis released in 2017 by the Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department’s research arm.

The GAO suggested that—instead of allowing states to choose which school improvement plans it examines for quality control—the U.S. Department of Education should independently select plans in its regular reviews of states’ ESSA implementation.

In response, the department said its current “monitoring had adequately identified areas of non-compliance,” with the law, but added that it will adopt the GAO’s recommendation beginning this spring.

Experts see GAO’s proposed fix as insufficient.

There needs to also be an intensive focus around making sure states, districts, and schools get the technical assistance they need to help low-performing schools—not just on monitoring for compliance with the law, McCauley said.

“I was very surprised that GAO didn’t talk about capacity building,” McCauley said. “My fear in the recommendation around monitoring is that it [misses] a lot because we still don’t talk about what it takes to improve those schools.”

The Biden administration committed last month to releasing school improvement guidance on evidence-based practices, a step experts say is sorely needed.

“I feel like, generally speaking, [states and districts] want to do the right things by students, but often feel like they don’t have the resources, capacity, and knowledge to do the work that they need to do to support school improvement,” Munyan-Penney said.


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