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Lesson 7.9

When Schools Fail:
Interventions and Consequences

If a school is failing, call in the cavalry!

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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.

How is ESSA different from No Child Left Behind?

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. In 2019, California identified 781 lowest-performing schools in compliance with this requirement.

The three-year cycle of ESSA 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" but does not mandate specific actions.

Send in the Cavalry? Maybe.

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.

Call in
the cavalry!

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.

School “Turnaround” Policy Attempts

HPSGP and II/USP programs (California specific)

Never mind what they stand for- they didn’t produce any major breakthroughs.

Quality Education Investment Act (California specific)

In 2006, QEIA provided about an additional $1,000 per student for a period of seven years- mostly for class size reduction. The act received strong union support. However, while many schools reported improved school climate and culture, test results barely budged. (In fairness, note that this study coincided with the Great Recession, which created some difficult headwinds.)

School Improvement Grants (Nationwide)

In 2010, Congress directed billions of stimulus dollars to these grants. Grants were awarded to chronically low-performing schools, and depended 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 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.

Turnaround efforts today

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. School boards very rarely choose to close a school in response to a pattern of bad results — it seems like giving up. The charter law allows parents and teachers to propose an alternative. 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 chronic problems.

The Anna Karenina principle

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.


Which ONE of the following is TRUE if a high-poverty school in California is academically low-performing?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 11, 2024 at 9:56 am
In 2024 the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) examined whether selected states are living up to their obligation (under the federal ESSA law) to identify the 5% of schools that are "lowest performing" and take effective action to improve them. Short answer: no, they aren't. California was not among the states examined. See EdWeek (Subscription required.)
user avatar
Jeff Camp February 27, 2019 at 9:38 pm
School districts must certify annually that they are fiscally sound. This review process is a key function of County Offices of Education. When districts aren't in solid condition, they obtain help (and a kick in the pants if needed) from FCMAT, a state service with expertise in school system finance. This fiscal review is increasingly overlapping with the role of County Offices of Education in review of LCAPs.
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:
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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