7.6 School Interventions
The federal No Child Left Behind act (NCLB, also known by its old moniker, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA) required states to set standards for grade-level proficiency in each subject. It required states to assess student learning against these standards annually and to take corrective action if these standards were not met by the subgroups in a school over a sustained period. Schools that did not redeem themselves within five years, under federal law, were required to be closed or deeply restructured. Districts themselves are theoretically subject to similar accountability and sanctions. These are noble concepts – especially if the corrective actions are helpful.
Unfortunately, it is not at all clear how to help. Schools that are dysfunctional generally stay that way. By 2010 hundreds of schools in California, and dozens of districts, were operating under sanctions, or slated for them. However, the state had not developed effective strategies to intervene. The largest school intervention programs in the state, HPSGP and II/USP (never mind what they stand for), brought additional resources to struggling schools – but were deemed ineffective by independent reviews.
School turnarounds in California may require a dramatic infusion of resources. California’s largest-ever test of this school turnaround theory is the Quality Education Investment Act of 2006 (QEIA). This legislation, which settled a budget dispute between the California Teachers Association and Governor Schwarzenegger, provided roughly $1,000 per student in additional funding for a period of seven years to low-performing schools. The act required that the bulk of the money be spent on class size reduction. As of 2010, initial indications suggested that QEIA may have contributed to gains in student achievement.
Some successful leaders of high-poverty schools and districts cried foul when QEIA was created. Is it appropriate to add resources to a school when it fails, they ask, only to remove those supports when it succeeds?
In 2008, the report of the Education Excellence Committee recommended a small investment in the opposite approach: award additional funds to programs that show results.
In 2010, congress directed billions of stimulus dollars toward School Improvement Grants. These grants were awarded to schools that were chronically low-performing, and were conditional upon adoption of one of a short menu of strategic options, all of them intentionally disruptive.
So far, it appears there may be no magic bullet to turn around a failing school. Still, it is unacceptable to leave them as they are. Turnaround reformers are working to develop the art of discerning promising beginnings from more of the same.