Which school do you want to support?
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.
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.)
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."
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.
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:
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.
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