No Child’s lesson: We don’t know how to fix schools

Achievement gaps are closing at a glacial rate.

No Child Left Behind “forced states to identify schools that were failing according to scores on standardized tests,” writes Libby Nelson on Vox. But we don’t know how to fix low-performing schools.

NCLB set in place restructuring options for schools that failed to show progress year after year.

Research in North Carolina by Thomas Ahn and Jacob Vigdor found that the most effective interventions were at opposite ends of the spectrum: Schools that had missed the progress goal for only one year and weren’t yet facing consequences improved. So did schools that faced the biggest consequence, a total restructuring.

But everything in between — transfers, tutoring, a new curriculum or hiring consultants, threatening to restructure — didn’t help much.

The next steps — the various “corrective actions” ranging from firing staff to hiring consultants — were equally ineffective, Ahn and Vigdor found. It wasn’t until schools had to hire new leadership that schools made meaningful change.

Research shows that “No Child Left Behind improved fourth-grade and eighth-grade math test scores, but didn’t do as much for reading abilities,” writes Nelson. Black and low-income students gained the most.

But achievement gaps remain large, according to Sean Reardon at Stanford. “Comparing the magnitude of these effects is akin to comparing the speed of different glaciers,” he wrote. “Some are retreating, some advancing, but none so fast that one would notice a meaningful difference except over a span of decades (or centuries).”

What’s missing?

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Illinois sets lower standards for blacks, Latinos

Under a No Child Left Behind waiver, Illinois schools will set lower standards for blacks, Latinos, low-income students and other groups, reports the Chicago Tribune.

For example, while 85 percent of white third- through eighth-grade students will be expected to pass state tests by 2019, the goal is 73 percent for Latinos and 70 percent for black students.

NCLB calls for 100 percent of students to pass reading and math exams this school year. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. “By 2013, almost 85 percent of Illinois schools had received failing labels, including many of the state’s premier high schools,” reports the Tribune.

Since Congress has failed to update the law, the Education Department has given most state waivers. Illinois isn’t the first to set different standards for different student groups.

The lowest 15 percent of struggling schools in Illinois will be targeted for state attention. The six-year goal is to halve the percentage of students and groups who fail reading and math exams.

 Each year, groups will have goals for improving that push them toward their 2019 target. Because groups start at different places, their final targets will be different too. For example, state data provided to the federal government shows the percent of students passing exams in 2019 would range from about 52 to 92 percent, depending on test, grade and student group.

For all students combined, the passing rate would be about 76 to 79 percent in 2019 — lower than the now-infamous 100 percent requirement.

Illinois also will use “supergroups,” lumping together black, Latino and Native American students in the same group rather than looking at their achievement separately.  The Campaign for High School Equity, a coalition of civil rights and education advocacy groups, said supergroups undercut accountability. “This eliminates one of the most important civil rights victories in education law, and returns us to a time where states may not be responsive to the needs of underserved students.”

Under the state’s new policy, districts won’t have to offer tutoring — or transfers — to students in repeatedly failing schools.

Each school will have different achievement goals, so it will be harder for parents to compare schools’ achievement results.

Jobs, jobs, jobs — and school choice

In an acceptance speech devoted to jobs, family, jobs and jobs, Mitt Romney promised to “give our fellow citizens the skills they need for the jobs of today and the careers of tomorrow” by promoting school choice. ” Every parent should have a choice, and every child should have a chance.”

Earlier, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s speech was all about education.

We say that every child in America has an equal opportunity. Tell that to a kid in whose classroom learning isn’t respected.

Tell that to a parent stuck in a school where there is no leadership. Tell that to a young, talented teacher who just got laid off because she didn’t have tenure.

The sad truth is that equality of opportunity doesn’t exist in many of our schools. We give some kids a chance, but not all.

That failure is the great moral and economic issue of our time. And it’s hurting all of America.

Bush also called for school choice.

Go down any supermarket aisle – you’ll find an incredible selection of milk.

You can get whole milk, 2% milk, low-fat milk or skim milk. Organic milk, and milk with extra Vitamin D.

There’s flavored milk– chocolate, strawberry or vanilla – and it doesn’t even taste like milk.

They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk.

Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools?

Condi Rice, another choice supporter, said the “crisis in K-12 education” is a “threat to the very fabric of who we are” in her convention speech. Otherwise education was barely mentioned.

Here’s Romney’s education web page and the Hechinger Report‘s analysis of what would happen to education under Romney or Obama.

Louisiana OKs parent trigger

Louisiana’s state board of education has approved a parent trigger option. However the state — not the parents — would decide who runs the school, reports the Advocate. If a school earns a D or F grade for three years in a row, a majority of parents will be able to trigger a state takeover. Currently, the state gives D and F schools four years to improve. Nearly one out of five public schools in Louisiana meets the takeover criteria, according to the state education department.

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors endorsed the parent trigger idea with big-city Democratic mayors leading the charge.

What’s in a word?

What’s In A Word? asks Eduwonk.

. . .  if you were to substitute “needs improvement” for every instance where the word “failing” is used in the public conversation to describe school accountability efforts wouldn’t the dialogue sound a lot different?  Eg – “Under No Child Left Behind 48 percent of schools have been identified as failing” or “Under No Child Left Behind 48 percent of schools have been identified as needing improvement” are two very different things in practice and also sound different.

Federal law doesn’t refer to “failing schools,” Eduwonk points out. The official phrase is “needs improvement.”

82% school ‘failure’ rate? Not yet

Arguing that No Child Left Behind is “broken,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that 82 percent of schools could be labeled “failing” this year. So far, most states are reporting much lower failure rates, reports Politics K-12.

Under NCLB, states decide what constitutes “proficient” performance and how quickly schools must move toward 100 percent proficiency in 2014. High failure rates may reflect high standards. On the flip side, states where most schools make Adequate Yearly Progress may be setting the bar low.

Wisconsin reports that only 11 percent of schools are failing to make AYP; Rhode Island and South Dakota report 20 percent. Texas is at 34 percent and New Jersey at 50 percent. On the high side, Florida (89 percent) and New Mexico (87 percent) beat Duncan’s predictions with Missouri (81.9 percent) just behind.

Some of the big states — California, New York and Illinois — haven’t reported yet, so the final numbers could move up.

California: Higher scores, more failing schools

State tests scores are up for California schools, but more schools are failing to meet federal proficiency goals, notes California Watch.

While the state accountability system credits school for improving, No Child Left Behind wants students to reach proficiency, which the state defines at a relatively high level. California’s “basic” would be “proficient” in many states.

The targets vary depending on the grade level. For example, for elementary and middle schools and districts to avoid being labeled as failing, 68.5 percent of students will have to score at a proficient level in math during the current (2010-11) school year; 79 percent will have to be proficient in 2011-12; 89.5 percent will have to be proficient in 2012-13; and 100 percent will have to be proficient in 2013-14.

Statewide, a third of districts are in “program improvement,” reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Only 40 percent of elementary schools and 26 percent of middle schools made Uncle Sam’s goal. Not all high school scores have been released, pending 2010 graduation rates, which are expected to be compiled in November.

By California’s standards, so many more schools are meeting the Academic Performance Index goal of 800 that Superintendent Jack O’Connell is talking about raising the goal.

What's the role for parents, community input?

In a speech delivered to the NAACP last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will “require parent and community input” in turning around persistently low-performing schools. That means “notification, outreach, public input, and honest, open discussion about the right option for each community.”

Can communities and parents help turn around schools? National Journal’s Education Experts discuss  the appropriate way to structure parental and community involvement.

You can’t get meaningful community input by mandating it, responds Chad Wick of KnowledgeWorks.

Requiring “honest, open discussion” is a return to federal micromanagement, writes Rick Hess.

Turnaround and down the drain

School turnarounds rarely work, writes Andy Smarick on Education Gadfly. homas B. Fordham Institute – The Education Gadfly. We don’t know how to transform very low-performing schools and we don’t have enough good people to throw at the job. Nevertheless, the federal government is putting billions of dollars into the School Improvement Fund in hopes of transforming 5,000 failing schools in five years.

. . . while the verbiage is new, many of the details are remarkably similar to tactics tried in the past — replacing staff, improving professional development, providing more site-based control, changing curriculum, etc. In many ways the total package is eerily reminiscent of the interventions under NCLB’s corrective action and restructuring.

Under NCLB, districts avoided controversial strategies, instead going for  “meek interventions, like professional development or turnaround specialists,” Smarick writes. The new plan “will allow lukewarm reforms to pass for meaningful change.”

We should all pause to consider that, if the administration gets its way with the 2011 budget — meaning another $900 million for turnarounds — the federal government, in just a few years, will have invested approximately $5 billion in an area with consistently poor results via previously ineffectual strategies. If we include the significant portion of RTTT funding that will be used for the same purposes (such efforts make up one of four program priorities) the figure swells to over $6 billion.

Education Week has more on the turnaround plans.

Update:  Four percent of students pass state exams. Attendance averages 54 percent. Forty-one percent earn a diploma. Chicago’s Marshall High has been “on the district’s probation list for as long as some freshmen have been alive,”  reports the New York Times. Now it’s slated for a turnaround. That will mean “building improvements” and “new textbooks, technology and supplies.” Plus the new curriculum will be replaced with a newer curriculum. The new principal may be replaced with a newer principal.

Any student reading below a sixth-grade level would be placed in an intensive reading program. Community organizations would be invited to help with mentoring, counseling and other needs.

Current teachers could reapply for their jobs, a mechanism for removing ineffective teachers. At other turnarounds, 15 percent to 20 percent of staff members return, Mr. Fraynd said. All staff members would undergo training, including three weeks of instruction on a new discipline program designed to help students understand how they have misbehaved rather than being purely punitive.

Can this school be saved? It doesn’t seem likely, even if they’ve finally figured out that semi-literate students need an intensive reading class.