Staying behind

When schools fail to improve, year after year, the ultimate sanction is restructuring, notes Nelson Smith of Alliance for Public Charter Schools in a Wall St. Journal op-ed. But, usually, little changes.

The act’s coup de grâce, after years of failure, is to require “restructuring” a dysfunctional school from scratch, through state takeover, contracting-out, or re-opening as a public charter school. But its impact has been stifled by legislative language allowing “any other” step as well. Districts and states have opted to switch principals, give pep talks and hire “turnaround specialists” instead of coming to terms with intractable failure.

Indeed, according to a recent analysis by SRI International for the U.S. Department of Education, only one of 12 states with Title I schools identified for restructuring as of 2004 had reopened a school as a public charter; one turned over operations to the state; two states replaced school staff and eight took no action.

In California, schools placed in “program improvement” rarely improve enough to get off the list, reports the San Francisco Chronicle, citing a Center on Education Policy study.

The architects of the federal No Child Left Behind Act hoped that showering schools with extra money and expert advice over several years would make them succeed.

But a new study released today shows that only 10 out of hundreds of low-scoring California schools facing severe consequences under No Child Left Behind have improved enough to get off of a state watch list this year …

CEP advocates letting schools that show some improvement off the list, even if they fail to meet NCLB goals.

During the first three years of the program, schools get extra money for teacher training, tutoring and help for everything from computers to testing. Schools exit the program by making adequate yearly progress two years in a row.

But if they can’t, they have to undergo “restructuring” in the fourth and fifth years. Federal law offers five options: reopening as a charter school, replacing teachers and the principal, hiring an outside agency to run the school, being taken over by the state, or “any other major restructuring.”

The California Department of Education has refused to take over any schools, saying it is too poor and overworked for the job.

Sobrante Park Elementary in Oakland is one of the few schools that worked its way off the list.

The school changed its schedule so that students can get classroom tutoring early in the morning while they still feel fresh. It also eliminated instruction in languages other than English, and asked all teachers to take a more positive approach to teaching phonics-based reading.

The principal says the reforms started six years ago and took time to show results.

Update: The Christian Science Monitor gives a bit more detail on the turnaround.

About Joanne


  1. The Christian Science monitor had a very simular story on the same subject. Sobrante Park has made great gains, but for some reason they are afraid to tell us exactly how.

    The CS monitor did give us one hint. The school adopted a “scripted curriculum”.

  2. wayne martin says:

    > The CS monitor did give us one hint. The school
    > adopted a “scripted curriculum”.

    From the CS Monitor article on the definition of “scripted curriculum:

    The teachers adopted a more scripted and uniform curriculum, making it easier for them to collaborate and for the principal to evaluate them.

  3. There’s nothing unique about Sobrante Park. There’s an elementary school about three miles from here that, over a space of two year, vaulted to the top of the district.

    They had a new, hard-nosed principal who made it clear to the sh*t-heel teachers that she was going to make their lives intolerable so they might as well put in for a transfer now, endeared herself to the remaining teachers by cutting out a bunch of paperwork requirements, excusing them from worthless professional development classes, hopped on the facilities people to fix stuff and took delivery of the allotment of textbooks and supplies earmarked for the school but collecting dust in the district warehouse.

    The first year scores were up significantly over the previous year and the second year scores put the school on par with the best in the district and right up there with the higher-scoring suburban schools. The third year about half the teachers were pink-slipped because the district in general was so lousy that it had to close a bunch of schools. All the low-seniority teachers in the elementary school were bumped by higher-seniority teachers from the schools that were being closed. Sic transit gloria mundi.

    It’s easy to recreate this little miracle. All you need is a principal who’s smart, tough, untiring, confident and lucky. Hell, there’s got to zillions of them, right?

  4. Having a charismatic principal certainly played a huge role, but I think that swapping after school tutoring for before school tutoring was a brilliant idea. Perhaps it’s changes like this that can help make tutoring services more effective in helping children do better in school.

    Linda Durbin, M.S.Ed, M.S. Human Services Counseling

  5. Andy Freeman says:

    Ah yes, the efficiencies of a large district.

  6. Linda, the principal’s the person who’s in a position to arrange for after school tutoring, to oversee the efficacy of the tutors as well as to take all the actions I related in my little story.

    The more authority the principal has in the running of a school, provided the authority is matched by responsibility, the more likely good things are to happen.