Turnarounds Central Issue Under NCLB

By David J. Hoff — June 19, 2007 7 min read
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For all the debate over the effectiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act, researchers and policymakers say that, despite the law’s flaws, it has successfully identified 1,200 public schools that need help, some of them desperately so.

Now the question is: How can the federal law be changed to make sure such schools get that help?

States “have done a decent job of identifying them,” said Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools, based at Johns Hopkins University. “Now that you’ve identified them, if you don’t make them better, so what?”

As Congress works to reauthorize the 5-year-old education law, researchers and interest groups have put out lists of policy proposals that would expand state officials’ tool kits for intervening in struggling schools, including expanding school choice under the law, pouring extra money into the troubled schools, and finding ways to differentiate interventions depending on schools’ needs.

In the early stages of the reauthorization debate, prescriptions for turning around struggling schools have taken a back seat, though, to issues such as whether to adopt national standards and how to measure students’ academic growth. But many advocates say that turning around poorly performing schools is the most important matter facing Congress.

“At bottom, we need to figure out how to fix these schools,” said Amy Wilkins, the vice president of governmental affairs and communications for the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that pushes for improved educational opportunities for poor and minority students. “That should be the focus of reauthorization.”

Differing Opinions

Since President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind measure, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, in 2002, states have annually tracked whether districts and schools have met annual achievement goals in reading and mathematics. Those goals are meant to ensure that districts and schools are on pace to meet the overall goal that all students be proficient in those subjects by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Troubled Schools

In the 2006-07 school year, nine percent of schools declared to be “in need of improvement” have been in that category for five years or more.


SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center

By the end of the 2005-06 school year, more than 1,200 schools at all grades levels had failed to make adequate yearly progress—AYP—goals for five consecutive years, according to data collected by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center and Education Week. Another 800 schools had not met AYP goals for four straight years, according to U.S. Department of Education estimates.

Those figures may underestimate the problem, said Mr. Balfanz. In his research, Mr. Balfanz has found 2,000 high schools with severe dropout problems. Although those schools constitute just 15 percent of U.S. high schools, half of those who drop out before their senior year attended those schools.

In the 2004-05 school year, Mr. Balfanz said, 40 percent of those high schools met their AYP goals, mostly because their states had set modest achievement goals for the early stages of the NCLB law’s implementation and had easy targets for graduation rates, which also play a role in determining high schools’ AYP status.

“Further down the road, almost all of those dropout factories won’t make AYP,” Mr. Balfanz said.

Whatever the number of schools that have failed to make AYP for five consecutive years is, experts agree action needs to be taken. What that action should be depends on whom one asks.

So far, schools that have reached that stage have taken fairly modest steps, such as changing the curriculum or providing professional development for teachers. (“U.S. Urged to Rethink NCLB ‘Tools’,” Dec. 6, 2006.)

“These are the kinds of actions they should have taken in year one or two,” said Doug Mesecar, the acting assistant secretary for policy, planning, and evaluation at the Education Department. “They’re not doing something of significant scope.”

To increase the pace of change in such schools, the Bush administration is proposing a series of new interventions, focusing primarily on market forces or new governance.

“If you’ve been [failing to meet AYP] five or six years, its time to do something significantly different,” Mr. Mesecar said.

Differing Interventions

The centerpiece of the administration’s plan would be to offer up to $4,500 apiece in vouchers for students attending schools in the so-called restructuring phase—the ones that have failed to make AYP for five consecutive years—to go to private schools.

The Bush plan also would give local officials new governance options, such as allowing them to exceed states’ caps on the number of charter schools or letting a mayor take control of a targeted school. It also would give local officials the authority to ignore provisions of collective bargaining agreements with teachers’ unions and others when the officials design school improvement plans.

Not all supporters of school choice are backing the administration’s private-school-voucher plan. Instead, districts should be required to offer students in restructuring schools the chance to transfer to public schools in neighboring districts, said Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based watchdog group that is a supporter of the law. The NCLB law already allows districts to offer public school choice beyond their boundaries, but few have done so, Ms. Piché said.

Expanding choice among public schools may be easier to accomplish than vouchers. Earlier this month, the House subcommittee that oversees federal education spending declined to provide any money for the voucher plan in its fiscal 2008 spending plan—an early sign that Democrats are likely to use their powers of the majority to block private school choice.

Other parts of the Bush administration’s plan will garner opposition from other quarters. State officials object to the idea of giving local school officials the authority to create charter schools that state law doesn’t already allow them. And teachers’ unions say that a federal law shouldn’t be allowed to override work rules that district officials have agreed to in negotiated contracts.

State and local education leaders, for their part, are looking for more tools and money to help them turn around schools in restructuring.

In their proposed changes to the NCLB law, the Council of Chief State School Officers and other state groups are seeking additional money dedicated to intervening in schools that need restructuring. In a first step toward offering that money, the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee that includes education recommended $500 million for school improvement grants next year, up from $125 million in fiscal 2007.

In its recommendations, the Education Trust suggests that states be allowed to spend up to 20 percent of their federal Title I allocations on school improvement efforts if they match that money with state funds. Current law requires the states to spend 4 percent of their Title I money to intervene in schools that haven’t met AYP goals for five years.

The state chiefs’ council and the Education Trust agree that the intensity of state intervention should depend on the degree of work needed to fix a given school.

If a school failed to make AYP goals for any student subgroup that constituted more than half its enrollment, it would be declared “in need of comprehensive improvement,” under a proposal from the Education Trust. States would need to spend 70 percent of their Title I money for interventions in such schools.

Need for Time

A school that missed its AYP goals for subgroups representing less than half its enrollment wouldn’t need to produce a comprehensive restructuring plan. Its plan would focus on the subgroups struggling to meet their AYP targets.

For local groups, the other ingredient for success may be time.

The NCLB law requires new and more extensive interventions each additional year a school fails to make adequate progress. After the second year of falling short, a district must offer students the opportunity to transfer to another school within the district. After a third year, districts must provide tutoring and other supplemental services.

By the time schools reach the fifth year and are in line for restructuring, none of those programs has had the chance to take hold and deliver improved student achievement, Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, told a House committee earlier this year.

A school should be given three to five years to develop a plan and make sure it takes hold, said Mr. Casserly, whose Washington-based group represents large urban districts.

Mr. Balfanz of Johns Hopkins said such time is vital to make sure that comprehensive interventions get the chance to work.

“They should still be held accountable,” he said of the schools in the early years of comprehensive changes. “If they don’t make it in five years, then you should do something drastic.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as Turnarounds Central Issue Under NCLB


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