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Proposed Grants for Improvement Highlight Key New Role for States

By Jeff Archer — February 17, 2006 5 min read

In an otherwise lean White House spending plan for schools unveiled this month, state education leaders scored at least one small victory.

President Bush’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year includes a first: school improvement grants to help state education departments turn around schools and districts identified as needing improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act.

While calling the $200 million proposal inadequate, some observers say they are encouraged by the recognition that state agencies are struggling as they assume new roles in giving technical assistance at a time when the number of low-performing schools is on the rise.

“For the first time, the president has put this on the radar screen,” said Scott J. Frein, the legislative coordinator for the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington. “So we’re supportive of that, and we’re going to be working with members of Congress and their staffs to get the appropriation.”

While most attention has centered on the sanctions for low- performing schools called for in the 4-year-old federal education law, it also requires states to establish systems to bolster improvement at the local level, including support teams that can diagnose and address problems in schools and districts.

States Lend a Hand

A 2004 survey of 36 state education departments that reported giving technical assistance to low-performing schools found those agencies were offering a range of support. The most common help was with improvement planning.

*Click image to enlarge

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SOURCE: Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy

When Congress passed the law in 2001, it authorized $500 million in federal spending for special grants to help states do so, but no such money has yet been appropriated. Holly A. Kuzmich, the deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Education, said last week that the time is now right.

“The first few years were really about implementing No Child Left Behind, and putting assessments in place, and laying the groundwork,” Ms. Kuzmich said. “Now that schools are being identified, districts and states are having to step in and help them make real improvement.”

Nationwide, more than 9,000 schools were designated as “in need of improvement,” in the 2004-05 school year, meaning they missed their states’ academic-performance targets two years in a row, according to the Education Department. That’s up from fewer than 6,000 schools the year before. The increase is due largely to the ratcheting-up of achievement goals.

Varied Approaches

States have taken varied approaches to helping those schools. Washington state’s education department trains “school improvement facilitators,” who spend three years working with low-performing schools to help them restructure based on research showing how effective schools operate.

The Massachusetts education department has assigned 15 “school support specialists” to 12 districts. Each specialist is trained by the state in using data to analyze a school’s weaknesses and plan for improvement.

Last fall, Virginia policymakers revised their state’s intervention process for low-performing schools to go beyond providing help in school improvement planning to deploying education department personnel and contractors to help schools make changes.

Despite such efforts, few states can meet the need for such assistance, said S. Paul Reville, a former member of the Massachusetts state board of education and a key figure in that state’s push to establish high standards for student achievement.

Hands-on support for schools not only is costly, but also represents a kind of work not historically done by the state agencies, which have focused on standards setting and compliance monitoring, he noted. And yet, many state education departments’ budgets have been cut recently.

“States typically lack both the quantity and quality of personnel necessary to do this kind of work,” he said. “It’s a triage process, and many of our states are having to focus on the most egregiously underperforming schools.”

Mr. Reville is the president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, a Cambridge, Mass.-based think tank that has studied the issue. Last year, the center reported that the Massachusetts education department would need $14.35 million in additional funding to effectively support the state’s low-achieving schools.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that states, in addition to assisting schools, must intervene in whole districts that consistently fail to make adequate progress under the No Child Left Behind law.

Flexibility Debated

Few state education leaders think the Bush administration’s proposed $200 million grant program would provide enough to turn around all the schools and districts identified as needing help, particularly given that the president’s fiscal 2007 budget plan would cut overall discretionary spending by the Education Department. (“President’s Budget Would Cut Education Spending,” Feb. 15, 2006.)

Some education groups also question a related proposal in the budget that would give state education agencies more control over the 4 percent of their federal Title I aid that they already can reserve for improvement efforts.

State education departments now must send 95 percent of that money directly on to districts; President Bush’s proposal would allow the agencies to keep 100 percent of it for state-level school improvement activities. Some district leaders say that amounts to building state capacity at the expense of local capacity.

John F. Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, adds that other limitations on how states can use Title I money effectively mean few have 4 percent to work with. “The Bush Administration has identified the right issue, namely that states need more capacity and more staff in going in to help more schools improve,” he said. “But the solution they’re providing isn’t going to work.”

Others are more upbeat. Mitchell D. Chester, the associate superintendent for policy and accountability at the Ohio education department, said the nod to state-led improvement efforts under No Child Left Behind is positive.

“When the law was first passed, I don’t think the U.S. Department of Education paid a lot of attention to the new responsibilities that states face,” he said. “My sense is the department is more sensitive to that.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Proposed Grants for Improvement Highlight Key New Role for States

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