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.

New Education Law Returns Education Policy to States, Ignores Equity as Federal Priority

Yesterday the Senate passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, the newest example of pretending that reality will match a bill title’s rhetoric.  We have turned the corner from the negative No Child Left Behind to the positive Every Student Succeeds, but what Congress just passed will definitely not ensure that every student succeeds.

The new law passed after years’ and years’ of trying (Reauthorizations were attempted without any consensus reached in 2007, 2010, and 2013.) leaves the machinery of test-and-punish pretty much in place. The bill keeps the testing, and it says that states must do something to “turnaround” the bottom-scoring schools.  What to do is left up to the states. One positive is that there is no longer a federal mandate to rank and rate teachers using students’ test scores.

Last week after the House vote to affirm the Every Child Succeeds Act, Jeff Bryant at the Educational Opportunity Network wrote, Go Ahead, Pass Every Student Succeeds Act, But Don’t Celebrate It.  That sums things up pretty well.

Here is a very quick, broad-stroke summary of what this over-a-thousand-page bill will do.  In it Congress mandates that schools test students in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  States are still required to disaggregate the data and rate and rank schools based on students’ test scores.  States are required to consider other factors beyond test scores in their ratings, but test scores must remain the most important factor.  States are required to identify the lowest-scoring 5 percent of schools or those that don’t graduate more than 2/3 of their students and to intervene in some way they choose.  States must continue to adopt high standards, but the U.S. Secretary of Education cannot play a role in determining those standards.  In fact the law bars the Secretary of Education not only from suggesting standards but also from prescribing assessments, accountability and improvement. And states must address in a very proactive way any schools or school districts that don’t improve after four years.

The No Child Left Behind punishments that have already been swept under the carpet by the waivers Arne Duncan’s Department has been providing since 2011—the provision that some Title I funds be diverted to helping  students in “failing” schools transfer out—the provision that some Title I funds be used for Supplemental Education Services (tutoring by private providers)—and the Adequate Yearly Progress provision that schools must raise test scores higher every year until in 2014, when all students are proficient—all those things will now disappear entirely.  Until now those widely discredited policies have been operating only in the handful of states without the waivers.  In fact, with the new law, the waivers themselves will be moot on August 1, 2016.

Probably the most positive thing about the new law is that it decouples—in federal law—the evaluation and rating and ranking of teachers from the performance of their students as measured by standardized tests.  Arne Duncan’s Department of Education made the states use, as a condition for applying for a No Child Left Behind waiver, students’ test scores as a significant part of teachers’ evaluations.  States can continue to depend on standardized test scores as what many of us believe is a flawed measure of teacher quality, but the federal government isn’t any longer going to force them to do so.

Here is the comment of Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania school teacher and blogger: “The ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) doesn’t settle anything. It doesn’t solve anything.  Every argument and battle… will still be fought—the difference is that now those arguments will be held in state capitols instead of Washington, D.C.”

Congress, through conference committee negotiations, did abandon one terrible provision that the House had threatened in the version it passed last July: Title I Portability.  This is the idea that each poor child could carry a little Title I voucher to any school district to which the child moved.  Many of us had opposed Title I Portability because it would likely have watered down what Congress intended back in 1965— the targeting of Title I to school districts serving the highest number or highest concentration of very poor children.  Thankfully this is not in the bill that passed Congress yesterday.

The tragedy of the Every Student Succeeds Act is what Congress left out.  Title I, the centerpiece of the original 1965, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was designed as Lyndon Johnson’s compensatory education program, intended to help equalize resources for school districts, because school districts that serve children living in poverty also tend to lack local property wealth that can be taxed. In the bill that passed yesterday, Congress failed to address opportunity by significantly expanding Title I.  Congress ignored its own 2013, Equity and Excellence Commission that concluded:

“The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

School funding formulas across the states persistently ignore shocking inequality in the capacities of local school districts to raise revenue.  Wealthy suburbs provide the latest in offerings and equipment and staff-student ratios, while city school districts cannot afford enough college counselors to assist students who desperately need guidance about post-secondary options.  It is a sad reflection on our democracy that, in this most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress neglected to address educational equity in the one federal law that was intended by its 1965 sponsors for that very purpose.