NCLB Law’s Focus Turns to Districts

September 27, 2004 8 min read

More than two years after President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, the far-reaching federal education law is beginning to bear down on school district performance.

After a focus mainly on individual schools, 2004 is the first year that most states are beginning to identify and assist entire districts that are “in need of improvement” for failing to meet systemwide test-score targets for two straight years.

Some districts with a history of low performance had already been designated as needing improvement under the previous reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But this year marks the first time many districts could bump up against the designation under the new law’s more stringent formula, which holds schools and districts accountable for the performance of low-income students, racial and ethnic minorities, and other subgroups.

As states identify struggling systems, the law also dictates that states help them meet their performance targets, which the law calls adequate yearly progress.

For the states that have reported their districts’ AYP status, performance is all over the map. While just 18 of California’s 1,056 districts are listed as needing improvement, nearly one- third of Rhode Island’s 36 districts have been named. Just one of Wyoming’s 48 districts is listed.

Then again, it’s not always easy to spot districts that miss their targets. Sometimes, no school falls short of making adequate progress, but the district fails when categories of student scores are combined.

As for the type of extra help available to districts, that varies as well, because many state programs are still works in progress. Some states are building on existing school assistance efforts, while others have created new levels of services to districts. Still other states are starting from scratch.

“There’s a lot of activity out there,” said Patricia F. Sullivan, a deputy executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. Just about every state education agency, she said, is “digging fairly deep” to rework its assistance to districts and schools.

In addition, states have varying legal authority to intervene in school districts, and officials in many states are grappling with what their proper role should be.

Under the federal law, each district listed by its state as needing improvement must draw up an improvement plan that includes scientifically based research practices and ways of improving student achievement. Such districts must spend 10 percent of their federal Title I money on focused professional development for teachers and other school staff members. (“Data Show Schools Making Progress on Federal Goals,” Sept. 8, 2004.)

Ultimately, districts that fail to improve could face a variety of sanctions, from losing federal dollars to a state takeover.

A Customized Approach

In some ways, Rhode Island is ahead of the curve. It is entering its third year of working primarily with districts rather than individual schools to raise achievement. Eleven of the state’s 36 districts are targeted for improvement under the federal law.

District Disparities

These district-level AYP results for 2004, from a sampling of states that have released the data, show wide-ranging results.

State No. of districts that did not make AYP % of districts that did not make AYP
Alabama 130 100
Arizona1 208 36
Idaho 61 53
Indiana 161 54
Kentucky 67 38
Minnesota 150 36
Nevada 11 65
North Carolina 95 80
Ohio 219 36
Pennsylvania 216 43
Virginia 103 78
Washington 84 28
Wyoming 1 2

NOTE: Most numbers and percentages are based on preliminary data.

1Arizona includes charter schools with district figures.

SOURCE: Education Week Research Center

“What switched was our emphasis on the district as the agent for change, and we were already committed to that when NCLB hit us,” said David V. Abbott, an assistant state education commissioner.

Rhode Island developed seven standards for district performance and established “action teams” to work in each of those areas, such as school leadership. Mr. Abbott said the idea is to help districts focus on a host of problems, and to highlight the types of work that need the most attention.

“We’re trying to be much more diagnostic and make sure we’re not filling you up with medicine you don’t need—and depriving you of treatments and supports that you do,” he said.

The program grew out of financial necessity, Mr. Abbott said.

“Unlike North Carolina [which sends full-time assistance to struggling schools] or Kentucky, which has been able to put master educators on school sites … we knew we would never have that kind of budget,” Mr. Abbott said.

Similarly, Virginia had a number of district-level technical-assistance programs before the federal law came along. The state simply consolidated the programs to comply with the additional demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.

Virginia has listed 103 districts as needing improvement, and their needs vary greatly. “We have one school division that did not make AYP because it missed 15 of the 29 [AYP] objectives,” Mr. Pyle said. “We had 28 that missed one.”

For example, only one of 19 schools in Rockingham County missed its test-score targets, but the entire 10,900-student district, which surrounds the city of Harrisonburg, failed to make AYP.

District Superintendent John H. Kidd explained that the lone school failed to meet one AYP target: reading scores for special education students. The district missed AYP for another single category: combined reading scores for students from low-income families.

One of the federal law’s finer points is that while an individual school may lack a sufficient number of students from a particular subgroup to be counted for AYP determinations, totals from those schools can be added together and counted in assessing the district.

Mr. Kidd said that district leaders across the state are mostly content with the level of state assistance, such as principal-coaches, their schools receive. He added, however, that increased state funding to help provide assistance for struggling students and more guidance on the use of Title I money are also needed.

Shifting Gears

The federal law is forcing California to identify districts that need academic improvement, even though the state has worked for years at rescuing individual schools.

“We’re taking that school intervention work and essentially elevating it” to the district level, said Wendy Harris, California’s assistant superintendent for school improvement.

The Golden State works through 58 county education offices, which form local assistance teams of retired educators and others who work with schools and districts. Some private contractors also help districts, Ms. Harris said.

California’s 18 districts identified as needing improvement—some of which are appealing those designations—have varied needs.

Since the district-assistance teams began working with districts this summer, they have learned that helping districts is far different from helping individual schools, Ms. Harris said.

Many California districts in need of improvement are small or high-school-only districts.

Ohio also has been working with districts for some time, but like many other states, it has reorganized its school improvement efforts because of the federal law to give each district its own prescription for its particular problems.

‘Following Through’

School-level technical assistance doesn’t mean much if the districts that operate the schools don’t improve, said Mitchell D. Chester, Ohio’s assistant state superintendent for policy and accountability.

“We’ve felt that the best chance for schools to improve is if their districts are working with them,” he said. Forty-nine districts in Ohio are listed as needing improvement, and most are on the state’s emergency watch list.

Districts with schools identified as needing improvement get the first priority in Ohio for attention from state improvement teams. Twelve school improvement teams work in various regions of the state. They’re based at Ohio’s intermediate educational agencies, including county service centers.

“We do try to customize, and that’s part of the reason we went to the school improvement teams,” Mr. Chester said. “In one district, it may be special education that’s the challenge. … In another district, it may be that the math program is really stuck in the mud.”

Ohio’s eight large urban districts—including Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus—are working directly with the state on grant proposals and other efforts toward raising student achievement, he said.

Officials in some states limited by manpower and budgets say they’re doing what they can to help districts improve.

Indiana has formed a senior technical-assistance team within its state education agency to consult with districts and schools deemed in need of improvement under the federal law. The team works with districts to help schools that need to raise test scores.

“We’ve got like 12 people. They can’t possibly do everything, everywhere,” said Suellen K. Reed, the elected Republican state superintendent in Indiana.

But the members of the team visit schools and districts to consult with district leaders, Ms. Reed said. She hopes that the state agency will make “sure that we’re following through” on services that offer practical help that districts really need, she said.

Carina Wong, the assessment and accountability director for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said her state isn’t “putting a heavy hand” on the 216 districts identified for improvement.

Pennsylvania may put together a special effort, though, to help districts struggling the most, many of which the state had identified as “empowerment districts.”

“Districts want to say, ‘We missed our special education [target]; how can you help us?’” Ms. Wong said, but the state does not have enough resources to help them all.

Others have more work to do.

Idaho continues to focus most of its attention on schools, not districts, in need of improvement, said Allison Westfall, a spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Education. The state, which has a strong tradition of local control, is still unfolding its school improvement program.

“We’re really starting from scratch,” Ms. Westfall said. “Since we’re starting from the beginning, the focus is on the schools.”

Senior Editor Lynn Olson contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2004 edition of Education Week as NCLB Law’s Focus Turns To Districts


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