Keep the Federal Role in Low Performing Schools

Keep the Federal Role in Low Performing Schools
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This photo taken Feb. 27, 2014 shows children getting off a bus in front of what was formerly Kenilworth Elementary School and now the headquarters for the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI), which provides after-school programming, in the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood of Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

RCEd Commentary

Admitting you have a problem isn’t the same as solving it. 

There’s a lot of talk in Congress about scaling back the federal role in K-12 education to simply requiring testing and transparency with the results.  Leading lawmakers want the feds out of the business of requiring states and districts to intervene in the lowest-performing schools, and they definitely do not want the feds telling them how to do it.

It’s an important debate that could affect millions of students trapped in schools that aren’t working. The discussion could benefit from a little history.

As a Democrat who worked in the Obama administration and a Republican who worked in a red state, we come to the issue from opposite ends of the political spectrum. One of us typically looks to government to regulate while one of us mostly hopes it will go away.

But when it comes to students stuck in under-performing schools year after year we both need to check our ideological baggage at the door. While it’s true that many school fixes handed down from the top stumble in implementation, it’s also true that states and districts are rarely willing to make the tough decisions that most benefit kids at risk.

In 1999, Louisiana adopted a rigorous accountability system that set new expectations for all students, a protocol to categorize schools, aligned tests, and a “reconstitution” requirement. While the new system improved overall achievement, it had little impact on chronically low achieving schools. Year after year, most of the bottom of the barrel remained at the bottom, in both relative and absolute terms.

It wasn’t until 2005 that the state got serious about low performing schools, focusing on New Orleans with the Recovery School District.  Starting fresh with new schools and new staff was an extreme measure for a city reeling from Hurricane Katrina but the academic results are beyond debate: student academic achievement and graduation rates rose dramatically.

Meanwhile, Congress passed No Child Left Behind, which required a series of actions when schools and districts fell short of their performance targets. They included letting students transfer to a different school, tutoring, and interventions in the schools if there was chronic failure for five years.

Under NCLB, many states took the easy path. Given a menu of interventions that included school closings, charter conversions, turnarounds (replacing school leadership and a significant share of the staff) or some undefined “other,” overwhelming majorities chose “other.”  The results were what you would expect: not much change and not much progress.

Through its School Improvement Grants Program the Obama administration put some teeth into the interventions by adding more specifics, such as replacing the principal and in the more aggressive models, replacing teachers.  They also provided as much as $6 million per school over three years.

In the first SIG cohort of about 850 schools nationwide, about 74 percent again chose the least aggressive approach, replacing only the principals but not the teachers.  Just a handful of districts closed schools. The rest were charter conversions or turnarounds.

Nationally, about two-thirds of SIG schools showed improvements within a year, one in four schools made double digit gains in math, and one in five made double digit gains in reading. A second cohort of about 500 schools had roughly similar results.  In both cohorts, about a third stayed the same or got worse, but we should remember that these schools, by definition, were furthest behind and stagnating for years.

So there are a couple of big takeaways. First, let’s be honest and recognize that states and districts overwhelmingly choose the easy path even though more aggressive changes tend to have larger impact. If you want real results for the federal investment you are making, you need to be specific about expectations.

Second, to quickly make a meaningful difference in a school, it takes resources. We have to give teachers and principals a fighting chance to improve and that requires money for training, support and other essential investments.

Lastly, you can’t give up.  President George W. Bush said it well. Our federal policy should eschew the soft bigotry of low expectations.  Fiscal conservatives should be serious about enforcing this policy with real results for the taxpayer dollar. Flexibility is certainly needed but without accountability, the money is wasted.

Republicans may not like the federal government dictating solutions from Washington and Democrats may not like pressuring their political allies, but our core responsibility is to protect kids. Congress should keep mandated interventions for a share of our lowest-performing schools and fund the program.  The alternative is to write off these kids.


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