NCLB Restructuring Found Ineffectual in California

By Linda Jacobson — February 14, 2008 5 min read
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In a report that raises questions about school restructuring under the No Child Left Behind Act, a national research and advocacy group says that few of the hundreds of failing California schools that enter restructuring each year pull their test scores up enough to exit the process.

The Washington-based Center on Education Policy found that in the 2006-07 school year, only 33 schools—or 5 percent of the more than 700 schools that were in restructuring that year—made enough progress to leave what is known as “program improvement.”

The center, which has followed the restructuring process in California since 2004, is also monitoring such efforts in Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, and Ohio.

California, however, provides especially “useful lessons” on restructuring, the authors of the report say, because it has such a large number of schools in that phase—1,013 this school year. It also started implementing its standards-based accountability system earlier than most other states, and it even identified schools for improvement before the NCLB act became law six years ago.

“Federal restructuring strategies have very rarely helped schools improve student achievement enough to make [adequate yearly progress] or exit restructuring,” says the report, released Feb. 8. “Our findings in California point to the need to rethink restructuring across the nation.”

Titled “Managing More Than a Thousand Remodeling Projects,” the report comes as California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell prepares to present the state board of education with more details of a plan to intervene in 98 school districts that are facing sanctions under the law because they have not met student-achievement targets for at least five years.

During his State of the State address in January, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, announced that California would be “the first state to use its powers given to us under this No Child Left Behind Act to turn these districts around.”

He has laid out a “differentiated” approach that ranges from simply revising local-education-agency plans in some districts that came close to meeting their goals to what he called “abolishing” districts in the most extreme cases.

Menu of Options

The federal law seeks to hold schools and districts accountable for their performance by requiring annual student progress on tests of reading and mathematics and providing for a range of consequences for failure to meet achievement targets.

Under the law, schools that enter the restructuring phase have several options available to them, including contracting with an outside organization to run the school, becoming a charter school, replacing the staff, turning operation of the school over to the state, or following “any other major restructuring effort” that is likely to produce significant changes. The remedies for districts are similar.

California schools overwhelmingly are opting for that last choice, the Center on Education Policy study shows. During the 2006-07 school year, 90 percent of the schools in restructuring chose the option of “any other” effort. Such options might include adopting a new curriculum, having teachers reapply for their jobs, or beefing up technology.

Turnaround Progress

Between the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years, the number of schools in restructuring in California increased to 1,013 from 701.

The percentage of suburban schools in restructuring is rising ‐ 35 percent this school year, compared with 26 percent during the 2005-06 school year.

The percentage of schools that leave restructuring is rising slowly‐ from 3 percent in 2005-06 to 5 percent in 2006-07.

No single federal restructuring strategy seems to be more effective than any other at raising student achievement.

Source: Center on Education Policy

At the state school board meeting next month, Mr. O’Connell is expected to provide more details of what he is calling “a system of triage,” which includes first assigning technical-assistance teams to the lowest-performing of the 98 districts.

The state’s involvement would build on some pilot intervention projects already taking place in districts across the state.

Questions about Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plan to step up the restructuring process are numerous, though. Some districts wonder why they are even among those on the list, and others doubt that money will be available to make the plan work when the state is facing a $14 billion deficit for fiscal 2009.

“Who is going to do something, what is it, and who is going to pay for it?” said Merrill Vargo, the executive director of Springboard Schools, a San Francisco-based school improvement organization that has worked with some of the districts on the list.

The governor has said he plans to release $29 million in federal Title I money to help the districts—but until the legislature, which is in a special session, decides how to address the fiscal crisis, lawmakers can’t take action on other issues.

Local educators are hoping the paths chosen by the state for their districts don’t ignore progress already being made.

“We’ve gotten schools out of [program improvement] and we’ve kept schools out of [program improvement],” said Roger Gallizzi, the superintendent of the 22,500-student Palmdale Elementary School District in northern Los Angeles County. “We’ve seen marked improvements in instruction.”

Mr. Gallizzi was one of many superintendents from the 98 districts that recently had the chance to give state board members more of what he termed “qualitative” information about their districts in a series of forums held earlier this month.

His district, he said, has had significant turnover in both administration and the teaching staff. He said he appreciates that the governor’s approach is “not a one-size-fits-all” plan.

“We’re not all in program improvement for the same reasons,” Mr. Gallizzi said.

Hoping for Results

Interviews with district and school administrators conducted for the CEP study showed that most people believed their schools would eventually make their targets for adequate yearly progress, or AYP, a key measure of success under the federal law. Others said that they were using practices that had been successful in similar schools, and that they expected those strategies to help their students as well.

While state officials in California are focusing on restructuring districts, the CEP report offers a few recommendations for how the state could further help schools that have long been at that stage, including providing them with “more guidance on how to actually raise achievement.”

Ms. Vargo said she has found that school officials and teachers have become skilled at analyzing data, but tend to fall down on carrying out their plans.

“The question we ought to worry about,” she said, “is: Does somebody have a plan to help these schools better serve the kids who got up this morning and went to school there?”

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week as NCLB Restructuring Found Ineffectual in California


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