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States Cite Capacity Gap in Aid for Schools on NCLB

By Michele McNeil — September 17, 2008 4 min read
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Nearly seven years after the No Child Left Behind Act became law, two-thirds of state education departments report that they don’t have adequate capacity to help low-performing schools, says a study released last week by the American Institutes for Research.

The AIR study reinforces what earlier research and anecdotal evidence from chief state school officers have found: State departments are struggling to meet the technical requirements of the law and to provide help to struggling schools in the face of shrinking budgets and staff limitations.

Strengths and Constraints

Officials in 39 states saw limited staffing as constraining their capacity to support schools labeled as needing improvement.


SOURCE: American Institutes for Research

The federal law, which establishes the goal of making every student proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, relies on states to set up testing and accountability systems and support schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” targets and are labeled as needing improvement.

Money and Expertise

By surveying officials in charge of supporting schools deemed “in need of improvement” under the NCLB law, the Washington-based AIR found that state education agencies are struggling particularly with staff turnover, inadequate technology, and insufficient expertise to deal with English-language learners. States were not identified individually, as the researchers conducted the surveys online and responses were anonymous.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation paid for the study.

On financing, three-quarters of states indicated that state funding for school improvement was a “constraint,” rather than a “strength.” Twenty-seven states said federal funding was a constraint, too. States also reported that they felt greater support from governors than from their legislatures.

“Capacity is not just the number of people or the money you have,” said Kerstin Carlson Le Floch, the lead researcher for the report. “It’s also your expertise, leadership, and political support.”

The report was released in the form of two research briefs, titled “State Systems of Support Under NCLB: Design Components and Quality Considerations” and “Help Wanted: State Capacity for School Improvement.”

The ratio of staff members dedicated to helping schools in need of improvement varied widely among 36 states that provided enough staffing data to be compared.

The AIR researchers found that one-third said they had one staff member for nearly every school identified for improvement, one-third had ratios of one staff member for every two to four schools, and the remaining one-third of states had ratios that exceeded 1-to-6.

The researchers found that states with a greater number of schools needing improvement were most overwhelmed. In the 2006-07 school year, states that indicated they had acute capacity limitations (as defined by the researchers) had 19 percent of their schools in need of improvement; states with more capacity had 15 percent of their schools needing improvement.

But state education agencies shouldn’t bank on getting additional funding and staff, especially in light of current budget constraints, said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. Instead, state schools chiefs need to look within their agencies for fixes.

“If we don’t, then we risk jeopardizing our ability to make good on the promises of the law,” Mr. Wilhoit said.

Systems of Support

Researchers also studied the mechanisms by which state agencies support struggling schools—and found that, as one example, 46 states used outside consultants and organizations in 2008 to help those schools.

The study offers eight indicators of a high-quality support system, which researchers said should offer coherent and not contradictory policies; comprehensive features addressing multiple learning challenges; stability; and the ability to be fine-tuned.

In addition, the support systems should be intensive—both in term of the financial support offered and the number of days of assistance—and prescriptive in offering guidance to schools.

The research is part of a broader study about state efforts to support low-performing high schools, Ms. Le Floch said. The second phase will involve a deeper study and site visits to six states.

Last week’s research comes at a time when a sagging national economy has translated into belt-tightening at some state education agencies, including ongoing cutbacks at the departments in New York, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. (“Hard Times Hit Schools,” Aug. 27, 2008.)

“The states are pivotal actors under NCLB, and the presumption is they will be able to carry out their duties—and the fact of the matter is the states are not in the position of being able to do that,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, which came to similar conclusions as part of a May 2007 report.

“The overriding message,” he said, “is that this is a neglected issue.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as States Cite Capacity Gap in Aid for Schools on NCLB


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