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.

Everybody Should Read This New Policy Brief: Lessons from NCLB for ESSA

In the context of President-elect Donald Trump’s promise that his education plan will be based on the ideology of increased privatization, it is refreshing and instructive to read the new research-based (seven and a half pages of footnotes for a 15 page paper) policy brief from the National Education Policy Center on Lessons from NCLB for the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The style is charming and the paper non-technical.  Anybody who cares about the role of the federal government in education ought to read it. It could profitably be the basis of conversation in a community group or a PTA.

Here is how its authors, Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo begin: “If Lyndon Johnson were alive today, he would undoubtedly be discouraged to see what has become of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that he signed into law fifty years ago as part of the War on Poverty… (O)ur lawmakers have largely eroded ESEA’s original intent.  Moving from assistance to ever-increasing regulation…. (a)t each step, our educational policies became more test-based, top-down, prescriptive, narrow and punitive, and federal support to build the most struggling schools’ capacity for improvement faded.”

How does the new version of the federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (passed last December) compare to its No Child Left Behind predecessor?  “(A)t its core, ESSA is still a primarily test-based educational regime. Annual standardized testing in reading and math is still mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Science testing at benchmark levels of schooling remains. The criteria for requiring schools to write improvement plans have been revised, yet standardized test scores continue to comprise the largest share of these criteria. Identification of schools in need of improvement continues to depend mostly on scores, but now also includes one or more other academic and quality indicators. Formerly rigid prescriptions for school reforms have been relegated to districts and states, although the expanded range of potential reforms still encourages and funds charter schools and requires other NCLB-like ‘corrective actions.’  State accountability systems must be federally approved and mechanisms such as turnaround-driven layoffs, conversions to charter schools, and school closures are likely to continue even though they have not been proven to consistently improve schools in struggling communities. Punishments for continued low test-performance persist. The most substantial difference is that the power to decide which test-based consequences for under-performing schools resides once again in the states, not the federal government.”

After an introduction, the short brief is organized into five sections: NCLB and ESSA: Commonalities and Contrasts—First-Order Lessons for ESSA—Lessons for State Accountability Systems—Recommendations for Policymakers and School Practice—and The Moral Imperative: Adequate Inputs and the Opportunity Gap.  Whether you are a parent, a citizen, a teacher, a state policymaker or a member of Congress, there is important information her for you, and the presentation is lucid and non-technical.

Mathis and Trujillo believe the primary lesson from No Child Left Behind is that, “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities…. Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools.”

What about the rationale often used to justify all the testing mandated by No Child Left Behind?  “One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality.  This has not happened.”

The authors refute the idea that high-stakes, test-based accountability improves learning. And they present research to show that the school turnarounds prescribed by NCLB caused “disruption, decreased efficiency, and human capital and organizational commitment losses” instead of helping children.  They reject test-based teacher evaluation, a strategy used by 74% of schools that received School Improvement Grants: “Evaluating teachers by test scores breaks down in several logical and empirical ways.  First, students must be randomly assigned, which is demonstrably not the case in school practice. Some teachers teach remedial classes while others teach advanced placement students.  Further, a given teacher could be (and has been) rated a success in one year and a failure in the next simply based on the students assigned. Second, the error rate inherent in this approach is so high that it simply precludes its use in high-stakes circumstances. Third, there is no general teaching factor that is universally applicable to all cases. This renders the model invalid for general application. Fourth, alternative explanations of gains (or losses) caused by factors outside the teacher’s control have typically not been properly considered. The use of value-added measures provoked the unusual response of a cautionary statement by the American Educational Research Association as well as a warning from the American Statistical Association.”

Recommendations for states?  “Above all else, each state must assure 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.”  “States and districts must collaborate with social service and labor departments to ensure adequate personal, social and economic opportunities.”

And there is one special opportunity afforded by the Every Student Succeeds Act that was absent from No Child Left Behind: “Under ESSA, school performance will now be measured using a system that incorporates one or more non-academic indicators—chosen separately by each state. These non-academic indicators provide states their strongest new tool for maximizing educational equity and opportunity and bringing attention to the nation’s broader educational purposes.”

Here is the moral assessment that concludes this short, readable brief: “The nation has become a majority of minorities and the common good requires all students to be well educated.  Yet, we have embarked on economic and educational paths that systematically privilege only a small percentage of the population. In education, we invest less on children of color and the economically impoverished. At the same time, we support a testing regime that measures wealth rather than provides a rich kaleidoscope of experience and knowledge to all… The greatest conceptual and most damaging mistake of test-based accountability systems has been the pretense that poorly supported schools could systemically overcome the effects of concentrated poverty and racial segregation by rigorous instruction and testing.”