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Hard recovery for failed US schools

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 2007


Something had to change at Sobrante Park. Year after year, the elementary school in the poor flatlands of Oakland failed to meet test-score targets that, under state and federal laws, have consequences attached.

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Sobrante Park overhauled the curriculum, turned over staff, moved the school schedule later, and rolled back bilingual education. After a difficult five years, the school now tests above Oakland's average and has freed itself from government intervention.

Yet Sobrante Park is a rare bright spot in a new and cautionary assessment of how challenging it is to reform public schools under the most sweeping national school reform in decades. A new study of California's public schools found that the number identified as chronically struggling has risen 75 percent in one year. Those schools now account for nearly 8 percent of the state's public schools. Just as noteworthy, most schools who fall into that category have not yet found a way to get out again.

California is a harbinger of the magnified problems that public schools around the country will face as the last phase of the reform timeline outlined by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) kicks in this year.

That is why experts are studying schools like Sobrante Park to understand which reforms work.

Under the mandates of the five-year-old NCLB, low-performing schools undergo a series of interventions. The last phase is "restructuring." After five years of not meeting targets for adequate yearly progress (AYP) on test scores, schools must plan for significant reform and implement it the following year.

But a few states, such as California, put accountability measures into place prior to NCLB. Out of 245 California schools that restructured in 2005-06, just 11 percent met AYP targets, said the new report, released Wednesday by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) in Washington. The center has also studied Michigan, another early adopter of accountability reforms.

"What we're finding is that school districts that implement a variety of changes are more likely to improve their test scores than those that implement only one change, such as changing [a school's] staff," says CEP's president and CEO Jack Jennings. It's good that NCLB is no longer allowing officials to turn a blind eye to low-performing schools, he says, but improving schools "is a very challenging task ... and we should have a little bit of humility when it comes to telling schools how to bring about changes."

NCLB allows several restructuring options: turning the school over to the state or a management company, reopening as a charter, replacing much of the staff, or any other major action that will significantly change school governance.

In California, that last option – "any other" major action – is what 89 percent of schools in restructuring have opted for. The first options are a way for Congress to "sound tough" about reform, Mr. Jennings says, "but when you're running a school, they don't make a lot of sense."

But some others say the "any other" option is too often used as a loophole to avoid significant reforms. As NCLB reauthorization is debated this year, various proposals are on the table for how to make restructuring requirements more effective.