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Low-Performing Schools Lack Help, Study Says

By Lynn Olson — February 14, 2001 5 min read

Schools identified as low-performing under the federal Title I program are unlikely to get the help they need, a report concludes, despite a legal requirement that states and districts provide them with assistance.

For More Information

Read “The First Annual School Improvement Report: Executive Order on Actions To Turn Around Low-Performing Schools.” (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The first of what is to be an annual report on actions to turn around low- performing schools was completed during the waning days of the Clinton administration and released to Congress late last month. It underscores calls by President Bush and legislators to increase the federal funding available to help such schools.

Under the Title I program for disadvantaged youngsters, states and districts are required to hold Title I schools accountable for the performance of their students, based largely on test scores. Schools that fail to meet targets for “adequate yearly progress” are to be identified as “needing improvement” and receive help.

But the report, by the Department of Education’s planning and evaluation service, found that fewer than half (47 percent) the principals in schools identified as “needing improvement” in 1998- 99 received additional technical aid or professional development as a result of that designation.

States’ and districts’ failure to provide extra help occurred, the report notes, despite the fact that many of the schools lack the capacity to get better by themselves. According to the study, almost half the Title I schools identified as low-performing have student enrollments that are 75 percent or more minority and eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. In contrast, only 20 percent of all Title I schools have such a high concentration of poor and minority students. Typically, the report says, low-performing schools also lack access to such critical educational resources as a high- quality teaching staff.

The analysis is based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Schools, conducted by the Education Department. It found that schools are more likely to receive assistance the longer they have been identified as low-performing. Even so, 38 percent of the principals in schools needing improvement for four or more years, and 70 percent of the principals in schools that had been identified as needing improvement for three years, reported they hadn’t received any help.

Equally troubling, almost one-fourth of the principals in low-performing schools reported that they did not take any additional steps to improve their schools. And 31 percent of the principals in such schools did not know what their districts considered to be “adequate yearly progress,” the criteria that schools must meet to move out of the category.

The Education Department is scheduled to rule this spring on whether states’ accountability systems under Title I meet program requirements. In a letter sent to state superintendents of education in mid-January, prior to Mr. Bush’s inauguration, Education Department officials indicated that, in the future, department reviews of federal programs would focus specifically on compliance issues related to turning around low-performing schools. It remains to be seen whether that policy will continue under the new administration.

A ‘Logical’ Next Step

The report argues that a federal focus on helping low-performing schools is a “logical and necessary extension” of the government’s long-standing role in helping to educate disadvantaged students.

The department produced the report in response to an executive order from President Clinton last May that the government step up its efforts to assist states and districts in improving such schools. In fiscal 2000 and 2001, Congress responded to Mr. Clinton’s request by providing $134 million and $225 million, respectively, to help districts carry out improvement plans for Title I schools needing improvement.

Mr. Bush also has proposed that federal money be available to states and districts to augment their efforts to help low- performing schools, but he has not yet provided any details. A proposal by a group of congressional Democrats, known as the “Three R’s,” would require states to set aside 2.5 percent of their Title I aid to help such schools.

But the report points out that while research on what makes schools effective is “plentiful and largely in agreement,” research on the process of turning a low-performing school into an effective one is “much less plentiful and more difficult to interpret.” The federal government knows much more about state systems for identifying low-performing schools than about what states are doing to help them, it says.

According to the study, many states and districts lack the capacity to help all the schools they’ve identified as needing improvement. California, for example, designated more than 3,000 schools as underperforming in 1999-2000, but included only 430 of them in the first year of its “immediate intervention/underperforming schools program.”

In contrast, other states appear to identify for improvement only the number of schools for which they have resources available.

‘Unworkable’

The report reiterates earlier findings that more than half the states now have two systems for identifying low- performing schools: one for Title I schools and one for other schools. (“States Lagging Behind on Title I Rules, Ed. Dept. Says,” Jan. 31, 2001.)

Such “dual” accountability systems are “fundamentally unworkable,” the report argues, because they cause confusion about the number and nature of the criteria for identifying low-performing schools within a state.

In fact, the report notes, the flexibility permitted states under the law in defining “adequate yearly progress” and in designing their accountability systems has resulted in wide variations in the numbers and percentages of low- performing schools across states.

“Schools with comparable levels of student performance could easily be identified as in need of improvement in one state, but not in another,” the report warns, making it “virtually impossible” for the federal department to draw any firm conclusions about the national picture.

Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the Title I law this year. As it does so, the report advises, “it will be important to find the right balance between continued flexibility for states in this area, and the need to create a more uniform basis for accountability in federal education programs.”

As the centerpiece of his education agenda, Mr. Bush has proposed annual testing in reading and math for 3rd through 8th graders in Title I schools, in order to increase accountability.

Despite the wide variation across states, the report cautions against making any abrupt changes in the law. “To force them to do so through major changes in Title I legislation might well mean that states take several steps backward on accountability, ... failing to hold schools seriously accountable for results for another five years.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Low-Performing Schools Lack Help, Study Says

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