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District Accountability: More Bark Than Bite?

Read it here first.<br />
Read it here first.

Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, explains what really happens when schools don’t get better.

Improve your schools, or someone else will. That was supposed to be the bite in the federal No Child Left Behind Act that would leave teeth marks on underperforming school districts, ushering in long-resisted reforms and restructuring in the education systems where they were most needed. As then undersecretary of education Eugene Hickok testified in July 2002 before the House Education and Workforce Committee, months after the bill was signed into law, “Schools and school districts that do not meet these objectives, both for all students and for specific student groups, will be subject to improvement, corrective action, and restructuring aimed at getting them back on track."

These lofty new goals for district accountability have been viewed in some quarters as harsh, overly punitive, and the governmental equivalent of kicking a school system while it is down and struggling to get up. But nearly five years after No Child Left Behind was signed into law, not a single school district has undergone radical restructuring—nor even seen the state take over its individual schools in response to its failure to get the job done itself—as part of corrective actions for districts under the law. To date, NCLB has been relatively toothless in terms of holding districts accountable through the use of strong-arm sanctions. From federal guidelines offering tremendous amounts of wiggle room to states and districts in implementing sanctions to the reality that districts themselves often get the first chance to determine their improvement plans, underperforming districts have encountered little pain under NCLB other than the stigma that comes from being branded failing systems. As Bismarck, North Dakota, superintendent Paul Johnson remarked in 2004 when his district was placed under “program improvement” status for failing to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under the law, “It actually means very little for the school district.... The biggest thing for us is that it’s embarrassing and we’d like to remedy it as quickly as possible.”

To be fair, restructuring was supposed to be the last resort for districts that had failed to make progress after intensifying levels of state and federal interventions. Because some states didn’t begin identifying districts in need of improvement until recently, more radical forms of district restructuring could still loom on the horizon. Nationwide, 1,596 public school districts were identified at some level of “improvement” under the law for the 2005–6 school year, meaning they had failed to show they had made adequate progress on student test scores in 2004–5, according to Consolidated State Performance Reports on file with the U.S. Department of Education. A majority of these districts (1,093) were in their first year of improvement status, and 416 were in their second year; 58 districts were in corrective action; 23 were in their fourth year of improvement status, and 3 were in their fifth year.

Only one state, Maryland, has gone to the extreme measure of rejecting reform plans created by a local district and seeking to seize control of struggling schools as part of corrective actions under NCLB. The political firestorm that erupted in that case, which centered on the Baltimore City Public Schools, ended up exposing the weak position in which many states find themselves when attempting to enforce NCLB at the district level. In fact, the Maryland State Board of Education was at least temporarily thwarted in its bold attempts to require strong corrective actions for a district that had shown both an unwillingness and an inability to correct itself.

How It Plays Out
The U.S. Department of Education makes clear that states and local districts are the agencies tasked with developing appropriate plans and sanctions for individual school districts, and that the federal government does not intend to exert a heavy hand in driving the specifics of any district improvement plan. “State and local recipients are free to implement the LEA [Local Education Agency] and School Improvement requirements based on their own reasonable interpretation of the law,” the federal department declares in its guidance documents for states and districts.

As of October 2006, 24 of the nation’s 36 largest school districts were designated by their states for district improvement for various reasons. Eight districts indicated they had been required to implement a new curriculum, four had seen some funding reduced or deferred, five had undergone some minor forms of restructuring, and two had replaced some district personnel.

What state educational agencies can do to improve schools or districts may be limited by their own state laws. For example, 36 states do not provide for contracting with third parties to operate low-performing schools, 27 do not authorize state takeovers of schools or districts, and 38 have not provided for closing and reopening low-performing schools as charter schools. The tools available as part of the NCLB toolkit simply may not be powerful enough to provide firm standing for some states that choose to get involved in often volatile political situations over local control of schools.

Most states place the responsibility for developing written district improvement plans with the districts themselves, at least at the start. For a variety of reasons, these districts tend to be more willing to select plans that include introducing new curriculum products and professional development programs over more radical forms of restructuring, such as replacing key employees and initiating school or district takeovers.

This decentralized approach, combined with a cafeteria-style selection of sanctions for district restructuring, often leads to what Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy has called “restructuring lite.” In 2006, the CEP found that when school systems in Maryland were forced to take corrective action against persistently failing schools, they tended more often than not to choose the least radical option available to them.

Such a structure places the onus on state education officials to overrule local districts, which they avoid because it is often difficult politically. This allows districts to select noncontroversial reforms. “You see districts submitting plans saying they will now teach math differently,” says former California secretary of education Alan Bersin.

In California, state superintendent of public instruction Jack O’Connell said in 2005 that education officials in Sacramento had made a “conscious decision” not to force restructuring on districts because of their own ambivalence about some of the particulars of NCLB. Instead, the state took on the role of providing advice to districts about restructuring. O’Connell complained that California was simply unable to help what could amount to hundreds of failing school districts at the same time. “What kind of accountability system do you have when most of the school districts need help?” O’Connell said. “Frankly, we don’t have the resources for that.”

Although the federal government generally leaves it up to the states to deal with underperforming districts under the law, it will step in if states appear to be excessively dragging their feet. In California’s case, the U.S. Department of Education eventually raised concerns that the state was letting too many districts off the hook from having to make improvements by using the weakest forms of measuring overall district AYP. During the 2004–5 school year, for example, the state identified only 14 school districts for program improvement status, which in California involves entering an assistance program that provides additional resources and state support, followed by eventual financial penalties if districts fail to improve.

Ray Simon, an assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Education, argued that 310 school districts in the state should have been identified as program improvement districts under the state’s AYP formula. A compromise between state and federal officials in the spring of 2005 eventually reduced that figure to 184.19. (In the summer of 2005, an additional 7 districts were identified as needing improvement.)

Advocacy groups like Education Trust West have argued that ambivalence at the state level in California with regard to NCLB sends a message to districts that there is plenty of wiggle room in how seriously they should take the law, and comments from district leaders often make clear that they have very little respect for the law or its consequences.

Some superintendents, for example, upon having their districts placed under improvement status, have issued statements in the press suggesting the problem isn’t with their districts, but with the law itself. Los Angeles superintendent Roy Romer was blunt about his displeasure with being identified as the head of a failing district despite what he said was considerable academic progress. “We have been moving the ball down the court faster than most schools in California,” Romer said in 2005. “People should be applauding that and assisting us, not saying, ‘We’re going to cut your legs off.’ They ought to give us assistance to improve. This redefinition is just not helpful.”

Another frequent response of school districts is to downplay the improvement status by saying their failure to make AYP is limited to small subgroups of students. “Despite the fact that 96.9 percent of Cherokee schools met NCLB accountability goals, the district is labeled as ‘Not making adequate yearly progress,’” argued Cherokee County (GA) Schools spokesman Mike McGowan in 2006, after limited English proficient students scored low on state exams. “That’s borderline preposterous.”

Support, not Sanctions
A widely accepted belief at the state level holds that major reform of districts is a different ball of wax from reforming individual schools. “It’s more difficult for a district to make adequate yearly progress than it is for a building,” notes Mary Alice Galloway, a state education official in Michigan.

The tendency to support stability in previously unstable schools and school systems can steer restructuring plans away from any housecleaning of administrators who are deemed responsible. Instead, several state-level administrators note, plans tend to be heavy on supports (new curriculum products and professional development) that can be added to what districts are already trying to do, rather than merely taking away employees who have been involved in previous reform attempts. While NCLB may assume a glass-half-empty approach (replace the people who are responsible), many educators take a glass-
half-full approach (these guys are trying hard to make it work, and they just need more support).

One argument often raised against intentionally disruptive restructuring plans for districts is that harsh sanctions and pressure are simply ineffective methods of assisting struggling, undersupported schools. A 2004 report by the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing argued, for example, that the experiences of first-generation accountability systems (those put in place as part of the standards movement but before passage of NCLB in 2002) suggested that low-performing schools and districts were best served not by pressure and sanctions on administrators, but by reform programs with a heavy emphasis on student support and intervention.

There is even some early anecdotal evidence that the latter approach has worked in some places. In the 2002–3 school year, for example, six of the seven Kansas districts that were placed under improvement status made adequate progress and were removed.

Because the interventions under NCLB are progressively more severe, a district that ends up facing corrective action typically has already undergone some degree of mandated district-wide reform, including school-specific personnel changes, in an attempt to avoid getting blacklisted as failing.

What it all means
The U.S. Department of Education, while establishing the overarching goals and regulations for districts under NCLB, has made the deliberate decision that it is generally up to states to make the law happen. “Our guiding principle in implementing No Child Left Behind is to regulate only when it is absolutely necessary, because non-regulatory guidance tends to provide states and local educational agencies with greater flexibility,” former undersecretary of education Eugene Hickok testified before a congressional committee in July 2002. As long as the responsibility is on the states, it is at the state level where the will to shake up long-failing districts will succeed or fail.

While the law hasn’t shown sharp teeth in general, there are cases in which state educational agencies have used it to create pressure that enhances their ability to push districts toward reform.

Michigan is widely regarded as having seized upon the potential within the law to creatively prod districts to implement proven strategies for reform even before they find themselves in improvement status. The state has played hardball with districts in terms of dealing with its struggling schools under NCLB. As a result, 41 of the state’s 69 schools that had been forced to undergo restructuring by 2004 chose to replace their principals or other school staff as part of their plans. About 20 schools chose to hire outside turnaround specialists or coaches to work directly with school districts on launching improvement plans.

All of this restructuring within the schools has taken place without having yet to rely on interventions associated with “improvement district” status—that is, Michigan has been working to put the teeth in early interventions with “improvement schools” that are designed to help districts overall in the end.

Controlling the money may also be the one way the federal government can exercise its clout in applying pressure to districts resistant to more painful forms of restructuring. Where state laws prevent district takeovers or other forms of heavy-handed action by the state, the continued threat of reduced federal funding may be the easiest means of rendering the political climate conducive to pushing for the changes in state law necessary to bolster the position of state educational agencies. The political tendency to support local control of schools might have to rub up against the political tendency to favor maintaining federal funding.

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