You Earned a Ticket!

Which school do you want to support?

Lesson 7.9

Consequences:
Intervening When Schools Fail

If a school is failing, call in the cavalry!

hero image

Image: Troopers of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment charge the field of Battle at the National Training Center Fort Irwin Calif. Image adapted courtesy of Dan Carbone via cavhooah.com
This lesson was updated April 26, 2017.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to set grade-level proficiency standards in math and language arts. Like its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), it requires states to assess student learning against these standards annually for certain grades. But there are many important differences in the ESSA law.

Under the No Child Left Behind act, schools were expected to improve student test scores each year by a specified amount for each student subgroup. If they did not, they were deemed to have failed to make "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP). Schools that did not redeem themselves within five years, under NCLB, were required to be closed or deeply restructured. By 2010 hundreds of schools in California, and dozens of districts, were operating under NCLB sanctions, or slated for them. Eventually the automatically rising bar became meaningless as it floated beyond the reach of nine out of ten high-poverty schools in the state.

What are Waivers in education policy?

There was broad agreement that the NCLB targets were not working, but congress, gridlocked, was unable to agree on a bill to change the law. To make the best of the situation, the Department of Education negotiated waivers (effectively, a change in the rules) for all but five states including California.

The terms of the waivers were designed to provide "air cover" for specific policy changes, some of them controversial. For example, California Governor Jerry Brown refused to sign the waiver because it required that test scores play a role in teacher evaluation, a policy he opposed. (Los Angeles Unified, which is bigger than most states, banded together with several other districts to negotiate a state-like waiver and accept the funding.)

How is ESSA different from No Child Left Behind?

The ESSA law is far less pushy. It mandates that states must intervene in persistently struggling schools, but in much fewer numbers and with much less specific requirements than NCLB did. Under ESSA, states are required to identify and take action in the five percent of high-poverty schools they deem most in need of some kind of intervention or support. The method of identification is left to the states, but must include student test scores, and cannot be less frequent than every three years. The three-year requirement matches well with the multi-year approach used in the California School Dashboard. In contrast to the sometimes-harsh remedies that NCLB required for persistently low-performing schools, ESSA leaves states a lot of leeway. It requires "comprehensive, locally-determined, evidence-based intervention."

Send in the Cavalry!

ESSA doesn't clearly specify the actions states must take to intervene in persistently low-performing schools and districts. There are good reasons for this mushiness, starting with a tough reality: turning struggling schools around is really, really hard.

Unfortunately, turning struggling schools around turns out to be really, really hard.

Because California public education funding is so far below national norms, most policy analysts conclude that school turnarounds are even harder in California than they are elsewhere. But money is not magic. It can buy things that might be helpful, but there is no clear formula for which combination of investments and changes are effective to improve a struggling school. Many school reform advocates believe that turnaround efforts are so likely to fail that students are better served by having their school closed. In a study of 2,000 low-performing schools, analyst David Struit concluded that dysfunctional schools are impervious to repair -- effectively immortal.

Call in
the cavalry!
We need
an intervention.
Let me put it
tactfully...
our school
is in detention

Closing a school is traumatic. Even when a school is ineffective or scary, it is still a vital part of a community. In every school where results are objectively terrible, there are students, parents and teachers working passionately to make it different. No one ever likes to have some know-it-all bureaucrat shut you down because some know-it-all researcher says fixing it is too hard.

Past School "Turnaround" Policies

That school turnarounds are hard is not sufficient reason to give up trying. Both California and the federal government have invested in many efforts. Here are a few of them:

  • California's HPSGP and II/USP programs (never mind what they stand for, they didn't produce any breakthroughs).
  • California’s Quality Education Investment Act of 2006 (QEIA) provided roughly $1,000 per student in additional funding for a period of seven years, mostly for class size reduction, with strong union support. An independent evaluation showed that it produced negligible results. An evaluation funded by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) concluded that the effect of QEIA was modest primarily because districts failed to find and hire "exemplary administrators".
  • In 2010, congress directed billions of stimulus dollars toward School Improvement Grants. These grants were awarded to schools that were chronically low-performing, and were conditional upon adoption of one of four strategic options, all of them intentionally disruptive. A small slice of the funds was directed toward analysis, to inspect which interventions worked and which did not, but the conclusions of this analysis are bland and shed little light on what actually works. It seems obvious that strong leadership is essential, but it is less obvious what strong leadership means in practical terms that can be copied by people of ordinary ability.
  • In 2013 California's legislature created a new agency to provide some guidance in school and district improvement efforts: the California Collaborative for Education Excellence (CCEE). In 2015 veteran school leader Carl Cohn assumed leadership of this organization, and in 2017 the CCEE played a central role in the rollout of the California School Dashboard.

The persistence of low-performing schools has been one of the forces behind the growth of charter schools. When parents are choosing a school for their kids, a new school may offer better odds of turning out well than an established school with problems.

The lack of successful turnaround policy examples is discouraging, but perhaps not surprising. From businesses to organizations to marriages, it is really hard to make changes that stick when human relationships, habits and expectations are involved.

Functioning schools are all alike; malfunctioning ones struggle each in their own way.

Turnaround reformers continue to search, gathering evidence to understand promising practices that work under various circumstances. The core problem may be a variant of the Anna Karenina principle: Functioning schools are all alike; malfunctioning ones struggle each in their own way.

Each school operates within its own unique community context, with a set of educators, parents, and students who are distinct in their abilities and motivations. Strategies that work in one place can be ineffective in another.

One overarching conclusion is certain: there is no cavalry at the ready to come to the rescue of struggling schools. Creating strong schools requires getting many things right at the same time. Above all, it requires rare leadership, hard work, and strategic use of adequate resources.

This lesson was extensively updated April 26, 2017.
Removed detail about NCLB and old turnaround policies. Updated to ESSA. Added CCEE.

Review

If the students of a high-poverty school in California have very low test scores for several consecutive years, which of the following is true?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder August 23, 2015 at 6:47 pm
California's latest foray into school turnarounds is the new California Collaborative for Education Excellence, headed by veteran school leader Carl Cohn: http://edsource.org/2015/carl-cohn-to-direct-new-school-improvement-agency/84200
user avatar
digalamedabg April 14, 2015 at 9:26 pm
We completely turned around a local elementary school through lots of community building. It takes lots of work, dedication and getting your neighbors involved. When one generation of involved parents left and there was not another to take its place, the effect could be seen very quickly.
user avatar
woodmiddleschoolpta April 2, 2015 at 4:26 pm
We turned our Middle School around successfully. It took neighborhood investment and engagement. Only if your district vows to support it's neighborhood schools, only if the families refuse to take flight to the charters, can you turn the school around. It was hard work, and took a lot of advocacy, but maintaining neighborhood schools in our culturally and economically diverse community was ultimately so worth it.
user avatar
cnuptac March 26, 2015 at 11:27 am
If the Feds want no child left behind then they need to help fund a few programs.
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