Which school do you want to support?
Experts have struggled for years to find the best strategies to help failing schools. Is it best to provide extra resources and professional help to improve instruction? Do you look to see what is missing in the children’s lives, like pre-school, summer school and after school programs? Can dysfunctional patterns be disrupted with "tough love" measures like replacing all the staff?
The short answer is that there is no magic answer. At the federal level, policies for addressing struggling schools have changed a lot over the last 15 years or so. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was a tough, top-down policy that emphasized negative consequences for very large numbers of schools. "If all of your school's kids can't score better than last year's kids, your school is inadequate! Prepare to be boarded!"
In 2016, congress replaced NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which takes a more humble course.
The ESSA law is far less pushy. It mandates that states 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."
ESSA doesn't clearly specify how states must 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. Money is not magic, but it can buy things that help.
Unfortunately, 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.
Let me put it
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.
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:
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 a persistently underperforming school closes, sometimes a charter school takes its place. 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.
Search all lesson and blog content here.
Not a member? Join now.
or via email
Already Joined Ed100? Sign In.
or via email