U.S. Urged to Rethink NCLB ‘Tools’

By Lynn Olson — December 05, 2006 8 min read
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With more U.S. public schools entering the restructuring phase under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, experts convened here last week agreed that the remedies for schools and districts that don’t meet their achievement targets have so far had more bark than bite.

The papers from the conference, “Fixing Failing Schools: Is the NCLB Toolkit Working?,” are posted by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

The conference was based on a set of papers that included reviews of NCLB implementation in California, Colorado, Michigan, and New Jersey, as well as in three rural Kentucky districts and 36 big-city districts nationwide. Those analyses found that states and districts appear more inclined to offer technical assistance, professional development, and additional planning to troubled schools than to impose tougher sanctions.

Participants in the meeting ascribed that pattern—which many of them see as a problem—partly to weak enforcement by the U.S. Department of Education. An equally large factor, many said, are shortcomings of the nearly 5-year-old federal law itself. At the same time, some noted, there’s little evidence to suggest that some of the more stringent measures that the law authorizes for troubled schools actually raise student achievement.

“How do we know if any of these tools in the toolkit are the right tools?” said Diane Ravitch, a former assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush who is a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “We might in fact be barking up the wrong tree.”

The critique comes at a crucial juncture, as more schools are facing a requirement to restructure under the federal law, which is up for reauthorization in 2007. The threat of high-stakes consequences for schools and districts that do not perform adequately is a cornerstone of the legislation.

Turnaround Tactics

A survey of 36 urban districts on their interventions in underperforming schools found the largest numbers had offered assistance and training, while lagging districts most often got new curricula.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge

SOURCE: Council of the Great City Schools

“To be sure, there have been mistakes,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, referring to enforcement. But while earlier and more aggressive actions by the federal department might have helped “at the margins,” said Mr. Petrilli, who served as an associate assistant deputy secretary in the department’s office of innovation and improvement under the current President Bush, they “wouldn’t have changed the basic story line.”

That story line includes relatively few students who have chosen to switch schools or avail themselves of free tutoring under the law, and a tendency among states and districts to avoid the act’s harshest penalties for schools that consistently fail to improve. Those realities were front and center at last week’s conference, which was co-sponsored by the Fordham Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, think tanks that are both based here in the nation’s capital.

A ‘Gentler’ Approach

Under the federal law—an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the linchpin of President Bush’s education agenda—schools that receive federal Title I anti-poverty money and that fail to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for two years in a row must offer students the chance to switch to another public school. Low-income students in such schools that miss their targets for a third year can enroll in free tutoring from a public or private provider.

Title I schools that have not made AYP for four years straight must take at least one of the following corrective actions: replace relevant staff members, implement a new curriculum, decrease management authority, appoint an outside adviser, extend the school day or year, or reorganize.

A school not making AYP for five straight years is placed in “restructuring.” Options include turning the school into a charter school, replacing all or most of its staff, turning its management over to the state or to a private management company, or “any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms.”

Among 36 urban districts responding to a survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, three reported reopening schools in “corrective action” or “restructuring” as public charter schools; one reported contracting with a private entity to run schools; one reported turning schools over to the state; and 10 reported replacing all or most of a school’s staff.

Instead, many of the papers found, districts are undertaking mild or moderate interventions, such as extending the school day or year, providing help with data analysis and planning, or appointing an outside expert to advise the school. The law’s many and varied options permit them to do so.

One problem, Mr. Petrilli said, is that some of the more aggressive NCLB sanctions may conflict with state law or with employees’ collective bargaining rights, which are protected by the statute. Others at the gathering suggested that states and districts want to avoid animosity, and see support rather than coercion as the best road to school improvement.

“Some of this may be simple pain avoidance,” wrote Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group that represents 66 large urban districts, in one of the papers, and “some of it may be reluctance born of political experience.” Many of the cities don’t use tougher sanctions because they haven’t proved effective at raising student achievement, he noted.

In fact, David N. Plank and Christopher Dunbar Jr., two professors of educational administration at Michigan State University, found that their state’s “gentler” approach may be working. Preliminary evidence suggests many of the state’s most troubled schools have made AYP for two consecutive years and reset the sanctions clock to zero. Perhaps, they suggested, the spotlight that the federal law shines on school performance, coupled with the “threat of sanctions,” is enough to persuade schools to improve.

Underused Options

The studies also reiterated concerns about the law’s school choice and tutoring provisions for students in schools failing to make AYP. Nationwide, less than 1 percent of students opt to transfer out of schools identified for improvement, and only about 17 percent of eligible students take advantage of free tutoring, the Department of Education has reported. Conference papers on individual states and districts reported equally low, or even smaller, numbers.

“NCLB choice is clearly at risk of becoming irrelevant to student achievement statewide,” Julian R. Betts, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, wrote about NCLB implementation in California. “The reason is simple: Nobody is participating.”

The studies’ authors pointed to a number of contributing factors, including jargon-filled and overly long letters to inform families about their options, notices that come too late in the year for families to exercise choice, limited options in small and rural districts, and conflicting state and federal accountability systems that send families mixed signals about the quality of their schools.

Districts also lack incentives to carry out the provisions aggressively, some conference participants said, because the law permits them to use unexpended money set aside for choice and tutoring for other purposes.

“One strategy that the department has still not adopted is getting tough with wayward states and districts when it came to choice and tutoring,” argued Mr. Petrilli of Fordham. But since many districts are living up to the letter, if not the spirit, of the law, the department may not have legal grounds to take strong action, he added. Mr. Petrilli also questioned whether the federal government can “force fundamental reforms on districts that don’t support them.”

Alan D. Bersin, California’s secretary of education and a former superintendent of the San Diego school district, worried that if people start to see that the law has no teeth, they may stop believing in it altogether.

Fixes Offered

Conference participants suggested a number of options to strengthen the law’s accountability provisions. They include giving the job of informing parents about their options to entities other than school districts, not allowing districts to use leftover money from choice and tutoring for anything else, and giving districts clearer authority to override local collective bargaining agreements in order to restructure schools.

Another step discussed was either eliminating the law’s “any other major restructuring” option or at least ensuring that its use yields real governance changes.

Jay P. Greene, the head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, suggested that the Education Department set up an audit unit to randomly test schools and districts for their compliance. “Spot-checking for proper implementation and actually sanctioning schools for noncompliance” could greatly improve the law’s effectiveness, he said.

But he and others also argued for expanding the availability of good choices for students and their families. Rather than mandating school choice, Mr. Petrilli recommended, the federal government could offer grants to localities willing to embrace it. Charter school grants, especially, should be redesigned to focus chiefly on expanding the supply of high-quality schools of choice in communities that lack them, he wrote.

Mr. Petrilli also suggested that the law give incentives to districts to intervene aggressively in failing schools, including extra money, regulatory relief, or dropping the “needs improvement” label as soon as a school is restructured.

“What these papers suggest is that the remedy provisions really require some rigorous, realistic rethinking,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy at the AEI.

But Marshall S. Smith, the director of education programs at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, based in Menlo Park, Calif., and a former acting deputy secretary of education under President Clinton, suggested that the greater need is to think differently by refocusing the law more squarely on instruction and learning as well as on positive incentives for improvement.

“We want to climb out of the box,” he said at the conference. “And don’t settle for small effects.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as U.S. Urged To Rethink NCLB ‘Tools’

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