States plug away with NCLB
MONTREAL — Over the past decade, school districts have been experimenting with hard-nosed reforms similar to those in President Bush's No Child Left Behind education law and getting mixed results, according to research presented Tuesday.
The findings by two University of California researchers suggest that reforms such as restaffing, closing and taking over low-performing schools may not always deliver better results for students than more low-key solutions.
Under NCLB, schools that don't improve reading and math test scores over five consecutive years face the threat of a number of stiff penalties, generally chosen by state officials. The sanctions include state takeover, replacing principals and teachers, handing the school over to a for-profit company or reopening it as a charter school.
The study, presented at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting here, found that most of these changes haven't proved any better than other ideas.
Researchers looked at seven states and two urban school districts that for years have been trying the methods that NCLB adopted in 2002. They found that results decidedly were mixed. For instance, many schools in California that were restaffed showed up again on low-performing lists; in Maryland, it actually made problems worse. In New York, about 50 schools were restaffed, but only about half showed enough progress to get off "needs improvement" lists.
Experiments in handing over schools to for-profit educational management organizations, or EMOs, showed that bringing in these companies often is no more effective than having district personnel stay in control. The same goes for charter schools and state takeovers.
WHAT'S AT STAKE
Under No Child Left Behind:
If a school's reading and math scores don't improve over three consecutive years, students are given the option to transfer to a better-performing public school.
After four years, they're entitled to free after-school tutoring.
In the fifth year, the school is placed in "corrective action," with the state allowed to replace principals and staff. State officials also may close the school, take it over, hand it over to a for-profit operator or turn it into a charter school.
A similar study conducted in 2003 by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation found that no "intervention strategy" succeeded more than half the time, and that one of the most reliable ways to improve schools was to ensure that they have well-trained, experienced principals.
Heinrich Mintrop of the University of California-Berkeley, a co-author of the new study, says putting public pressure on schools to improve makes sense.
"I think that a certain degree of pressure is really needed," he says. "But when you actually look at the sanctions or the corrective action that we have on the books ... none of them have really proven to be universally effective. They work under certain circumstances, and they don't work under other circumstances."
He and co-author Tina Trujillo of the University of California-Los Angeles also say many states shy away from extensive overhauls because they're politically unpopular.
Kerri Briggs, a senior policy adviser at the Department of Education, hasn't seen the research but welcomes the findings. She hopes they will help states make intelligent decisions about what to do with chronically underperforming schools. "I don't think anybody would say it's easy reform, but it's certainly necessary."
Ross Wiener, policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington advocacy group for low-income and minority students, says states retain "tremendous discretion" in choosing how they step in.
"It seems to me the most important thing is that we not lose hope on turning around persistently low-performing schools," he says. "To the extent that initial interventions are not successful, it's the responsibility of education leaders to try a new approach."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES