Hard recovery for failed US schools

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.

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.

The Department of Education (DOE) proposes taking the "any other" option off the table. They would also give superintendents the opportunity to suspend collective-bargaining agreements in order to bring highly qualified staff to troubled schools to target students' needs.

At Sobrante Park, Principal Marco Franco opted for the "any other" option and changed four out of 14 staff members – a smaller percentage than the district wanted. "I knew the staff and I knew I wanted to keep them," Mr. Franco says. "If I lost the proportion the district wanted me to lose, I don't know if we would be in the same place."

Staff changes in Oakland's restructuring efforts are mostly a matter of moving teachers between schools in the district, with principals' hiring options limited by teacher contracts.

CEP found that 30 percent of schools in restructuring in California opted to change their staff, but only 5 percent of these schools went on to meet AYP.

Jennings acknowledges that the research is still too new to draw broad conclusions about what works.

Giving superintendents flexibility to bring better teachers into schools with the highest needs is a good proposal on the part of the DOE, says Amy Wilkins of The Education Trust, a group in Washington, D.C., which advocates for closing achievement gaps. But such moves need to go hand in hand with measuring teachers' effectiveness, she says. "Just getting different faces in the classroom is not the point."

After a year of hearings in communities around the United States, the nonpartisan Commission on No Child Left Behind came out last month with a set of recommendations. On the subject of restructuring, there was agreement that "when a school is struggling consistently, they need to take more aggressive action," says Gary Huggins, the commission's director.

The commission suggests, as does the CEP report, that schools be required to choose a comprehensive set of actions rather than a single intervention. But it also says they should have more time to show results once changes are made.

But it's unfair to mandate restructuring options when "none has any track record of success," says Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing in Cambridge, Mass., which opposes NCLB.

The Oakland Unified School District, run by a state-appointed administrator since 2003 due to financial difficulties, decides case by case how much latitude to give schools in choosing restructuring plans. This year it says it might intervene in 14 schools, possibly closing four.

The plan drawn up by Franco and his staff had many components, but he sums up the philosophy this way: "If something is not working, toss it, man."

That got Franco, a Latino, into hot water with parents when he ended the bilingual program in the upper grades. The complaints tapered off after parents saw test scores improve, he says.

The teachers adopted a more scripted and uniform curriculum, making it easier for them to collaborate and for the principal to evaluate them. The school day was changed to allow teachers time to work with individual students. Franco hired a writing coach and used some money to reopen the school library, which had been converted to storage.

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