Is It True that Nobody Really Knows What to Do to Help Struggling Schools?

Early this week, in a column for the Washington Post, Emma Brown wondered: “What should America do about its worst public schools?” Does anybody know?  Brown notes that not one of the plans states are submitting to the U.S. Department of Education, as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, seems to include a solid plan to help the lowest scoring public schools.

Brown explains: Congress thought it had answers for the problem of low-performing schools when it passed No Child Left Behind in 2001. The bipartisan law, meant to fight what president George W. Bush called ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations,’ laid out consequences for schools that failed to meet escalating performance targets. After a school missed targets for two years, students were allowed to transfer out. After three years, schools had to offer free tutoring. After four and five years, there was a menu of options, from replacing the curriculum to firing staff, reopening as a charter school, or turning over management to state authorities… A decade after the law passed nearly everyone agreed it was broken… Despite some bright spots and success stories, a federal analysis released this year showed that, on average, test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received the money than in those that did not.”

The new version of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), keeps the tests but turns the responsibility for school improvement back to the states. Brown adds: “Many in the education world, from state superintendents to teachers unions, applaud this hands-off trend. Each struggling school faces unique circumstances… and deserves a tailored solution shaped by community input—not a top-down directive from faraway bureaucrats.” But Brown quotes several people who worry that scores are unlikely to rise under the new law—most notably the far-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli, who surmises, “We don’t know what to do about chronically low-performing schools. Nothing has worked consistently and at scale.”

I certainly agree that nothing we’ve tried lately has worked consistently and at scale. The question about whether we know how to support the schools in our poorest communities, however, has been addressed over the years by academic experts and people with a range of experience in the schools that struggle.  It turns out there is widespread consensus about policies we ought to try.  Here are three examples.

First, last November in Lessons from NCLB for the Every Student Succeeds Act, William Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo of the National Education Policy Center examined the new law’s potential to improve schools: “(T)he new law continues to disaggregate data by race and by wealth (and adds new sub-groups) but shows little promise of remedying the systemic under-resourcing of needy students.  Giving the reform policies of high-stakes assessment and privatization the benefit of the most positive research interpretation, the benefits accrued are insufficient to justify their use as comprehensive reform strategies.  Less generous interpretations of the research provide clear warnings of harm. The research evidence over the past 30 years further tells us that unless we address the economic bifurcation in the nation, and the opportunity gaps in the schools, we will not be successful in closing the achievement gap.”  The report continues: “Above all else, each state must ensure that students have adequate opportunities, funding and resources to achieve state goals…  States must shift toward an assistance role and exercise less of a regulatory role… Under ESSA, school performance will now be measured using a system that incorporates one or more non-academic indicators…. These non-academic indicators provide states their strongest new tool for maximizing educational equity and opportunity…. States and districts must collaborate with social service and labor departments to ensure adequate personal, social and economic opportunities.”   Finally Mathis and Trujillo  recommend that any effective school improvement strategy would include, at the very least, early education, an extended school year and day, de-tracking, class size reduction, and school-community partnerships.

Second, just weeks ago, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization spoke for communities of color in a report from a year-long task force that has held a series of hearings across the United States. The specific topic of the NAACP’s report is the organization’s proposed moratorium on new charter schools until significant oversight of these schools is increased. But the NAACP’s task force felt compelled to add recommendations to its report about the urgent need to address generations of underfunding and inequality in the schools located in communities of color: “More equitable and adequate funding for all schools serving students of color. Education funding has been inadequate and unequal for students of color for hundreds of years. The United States has one of the most unequal school funding systems of any country in the industrialized world.  Resources are highly unequal across states, across districts, and across schools, and they have declined in many communities over the last decade.  In 36 states, public school funding has not yet returned to pre-2008 levels—before the great recession, and in many states inner city schools have experienced the deepest cuts.  Federal funds have also declined in real dollar terms for both Title I and for special education expenditures over the last decade.”

The NAACP concludes: “Invest in low-performing schools and schools with significant opportunity to close the achievement gap… To ensure that all students receive a high-quality education, federal, state, and local policies need to sufficiently invest in: (1) incentives that attract and retain fully qualified educators, (2) improvements in instructional quality that include creating challenging and inclusive learning environments; and (3) wraparound  services for young people, including early childhood education, health and mental health services, extended learning time, and social supports.”

Finally, writing a year ago to then-Education Secretary, John B. King about the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Vermont State Board of Education criticized what its members anticipated would be the continuation of too much testing and too many sanctions, without any real effort to address the impact of concentrated poverty on the students in the lowest scoring schools: “(W)e have strong concerns and reservations about ESSA. Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of the schools.  Consequently, the continuation of a test-based, labeling and ‘assistance’ model (broadly seen as punishment) has not only proven ineffective, but has had a corrosive effect on the confidence of the people.  The encouragement of privatization has been harmful to local democracy, has further segregated a too fragmented nation and has diluted rather than focused valuable resources.”

For all these reasons, on the very topic of ESSA’s potential for improving schools, this blog surmised last Friday that in a climate of tax cutting and austerity budgeting at the federal level and in many states, we won’t see much school improvement under ESSA. Across the states, schools are unequally funded, with struggling rural and urban schools overwhelmed as well by student poverty that is being exacerbated by budget cuts to the health and social service programs needed by the same students who attend the poorest schools. No Child Left Behind never delivered the necessary resources to jump-start school improvement nor has Congress attached significant resources to ESSA. And Trump’s budget proposal does not increase the Title I formula, the one federal funding stream designed to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty.

It turns out that the problem of struggling public schools is not really the lack of knowledge about what to do to begin helping the teachers and students in these schools. Our society instead has a moral problem: widespread lack of public will in the United States to help children trapped by concentrated poverty. We refuse to invest in the services that would enrich the lives of our poorest children and support their public schools. We keep talking instead about a far cheaper strategy: creating private lifeboats to help a few children escape.

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8 thoughts on “Is It True that Nobody Really Knows What to Do to Help Struggling Schools?

  1. Mike Petrilli needs to leave the confines of his Bethesda area home and it’s walled off rich, public schools. He needs to travel outside the confines of his ivory tower to see how the rest of the world lives. Mike Petrilli needs to shut his mouth about what needs to be done for those poor children that he doesn’t want his own children to associate with. Petrilli has advocated for testing, charters, top down mandates, more administration without any results and yet he won’t concede that what he has done is wrong. Reformers in general will NEVER concede they have been wrong. Sure, lots of money has been thrown at education, but it never seems to make it to “ground zero”….the schools. Plenty of money thrown at new fangled ideas, common core curriculum in a box, testing and administration at the top end only to still have struggling schools, based on bad data from really bad tests. How about Petrilli advocate for more guidance counselors, teachers and para’s, school nurses and librarians, smaller class sizes and buildings that are safe for children play and learn. Nope, he and all the other reformers won’t advocate for anything that works because that would make their own high paying jobs obsolete. Reformers know how to fix struggling schools….they just don’t want to fix struggling schools. It’s called keeping the cash flowing into the pockets of the rich.

    • More of this!
      Never trust a person to solve a problem when their paychecks stop if the problem is solved.
      Mike Petrelli and Campbell Brown and Bill Gates and every other huckster in the “reform” community who rail about teacher accountability and the power of data and the importance of evidence are hypocrites of the highest order. They need to be called out at every chance for their parade of abject failures. They are not only shameless losers but have exerted an negative influence on public education through the bogus use of standards and testing gone wild.
      Their use of tests as academic death traps will leave them all on the very dark side of history.
      Thank you Lisa.

    • Meh, Petrilli LIKES his public private school full of well-off kids. He LIKES his bubble. I’ve invited him multiple times to come see our 50+% FARMS school in Rockville not 10 miles from his house and *crickets* of course. He moved out of culturally rich and diverse-in-all-ways Takoma Park so he could live in that Bethesda bubble, if my memory serves.

      Must be nice making 6 figures talking down to real teachers and promoting silver bullets all the while having no clue what one is talking about. And yes, I’m bitter, as one of the former minions forced to do the bidding of folks like him when school districts are stuck enacting policy forced on them by folks whose ear Petrilli and his ilk have. As a real classroom teacher, I have none of the influence OR the wealth but much more of the workload – and certainly not the well-off school even though we’re in the same school system.

    • Yes, exactly, Lisa.
      If there were sufficient services in poorer schools (and I’m not talking about only urban inner-city schools, there are plenty of very rural
      schools suffering, as well), we could begin to address their huge number of problems.
      I would also include before and after school programs. Nutritional support (free breakfast and lunch at the least, plus both school and meal programs during summer vacations) for kids whose families don’t have enough food in the house. You’re not going to learn well
      if you’re hungry.
      And on and on and on.
      But no, you are unfortunately correct. We cannot expect any kind of meaningful changes because what is happening now shovels more and more money to the consultants, but also to the test makers, the educational computer and software makers, the companies who are either running charter schools or providing services to so-called non-profit charters.
      It’s all about the Benjamins and I am and sick and tired of people who want to make a profit on the backs of our children. It’s immoral.
      (And while we’re at it, we really, really need to
      address poverty in this country and really do
      something profound to address it.)

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  3. Pingback: Is It True that Nobody Really Knows What to Do to Help Struggling Schools? | IEA Voice

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