A shortening list of failing schools
States gauge progress of Bush's education reforms - and debate what it really shows.
In New Jersey and South Carolina, big drops in the number of failing schools are being celebrated as evidence of improved educational systems.Skip to next paragraph
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In both Boston and Chicago, the entire school district has been placed on a "need of improvement" list - setting up a clash with the federal government over special tutoring.
Florida and California are somewhere in between: They've seen modest jumps in test scores, but view the improvements as just the calm before the storm.
As the latest report cards on schools and districts trickle out, they're giving the public a snapshot not only of the nation's education system but also of the successes and failures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President Bush's landmark 2001 education law. So far this year, the results have been better than many critics expected: Student achievement is up, and the lists of schools on state watch lists because of poor academic performance are getting shorter in nearly every state.
None of this means the nation's public schools have suddenly become Harvards without the ivy. Some analysts, in fact, warn that the trend may be deceptive: The shorter watch lists, for instance, may have more to do with bureaucratic changes than academic gains. And next year, the target achievement levels students need to reach under NCLB will jump in many states.
But others see the gains as an important sign that educators and administrators are focusing their attention where they need to. At the least, defenders of No Child Left Behind say, the dire predictions of critics about large numbers of failing schools as a result of the law have not come true.
More important, they see NCLB as responsible for an important culture shift in the nation's public schools, toward a reliance on hard numbers that offer a precise yardstick of how schools are doing.
"I know lots of folks out there are impatient with all the testing, but it is the barometer by which you can help students if you use it correctly," says Kathy Christie, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, Colo.
About 22 percent of schools nationwide failed to make their federally mandated performance targets this year and thus were put on a watch list, down from about 35 percent last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. An analysis by the National Education Association shows that of the 41 states that have reported results so far, 32 are doing better than last year.
Some of the improvement had to do with greater familiarity with the law - schools making sure everyone gets tested, for instance. The Department of Education also tweaked some rules to grant more flexibility and allowed 35 states to change their accountability plans, in most cases taking more schools off the list. And the NEA points out that while the number of schools not meeting their goals for one year dropped, the number of schools not meeting those goals for two or more years - when sanctions start to kick in - went up in 40 of 47 states.
The changed rules are almost certainly the reason Delaware, for instance, dropped from a 56 percent failure rate to 26 percent, or why Pennsylvania's dropped from 37 percent to 19 percent. A Philadelphia Inquirer study found that without the rules changes, the number of schools not meeting their targets would actually have increased slightly.
But most people acknowledge that achievement did improve. Even more notable, an analysis by the Education Trust, a nonpartisan group in Washington, showed that achievement gaps between different income and racial groups are starting to narrow.
"There is now a broad consensus that closing achievement gaps is the top priority for public education," says Ross Wiener, the group's policy director.