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How Many Failing Schools Can Be Saved?

Emelyn Rodriguez is senior editor of the California Journal

It’s August 2002 and 430 of the state’s lowest-ranked schools are facing judgment day because they have failed to meet their goals for student achievement. But the state cannot deliver on its pledge to sanction the schools, because it lacks the money and the qualified staff to do so.

This unlikely but entirely possible scenario is one that the state is betting against. When Gov. Gray Davis, lawmakers and education officials created the program to help the state’s most troubled and least effective schools, they, in essence, designed a system that could function properly only if the vast majority of these “low-performing” schools would be successfully reformed.

“The whole idea of the program is not to wind up under state control,” says state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who believes that the mere threat of takeover is enough to force schools to improve. “There aren’t enough principals and superintendents waiting in the wings or [the] resources to take over all the schools if most don’t get better.”

Davis’ former interim secretary of education, John Mockler, says, “If all 400 schools didn’t meet their target, we’d be in difficult circumstances.”

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The state runs the risk of undercutting its entire education reform effort if it can’t deliver on its ultimate sanction. This is but one in a series of hedged bets that the state has taken in launching the pioneering program.

The Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program is part of a sweeping package of school reforms rushed through a special legislative session convened at the beginning of Davis’ term. The $96-million program targets schools that perform below the 50th percentile in the state’s achievement test. Its goal is to provide resources and incentives to jump-start a school’s remedial efforts.

Improvements are measured through the state’s Academic Performance Index, which many education experts criticize as too heavily focused on standardized testing. The index ranks the state’s 8,000 schools exclusively through the Stanford 9 exam, which measures proficiency in areas like reading and math. In future years, the state plans to add other factors to the rankings. Schools failing to meet their goals face a range of interventions from their local districts and, ultimately, from the state. Sanctions include staff reassignment, school reorganization, or even closure.

State education officials concede that the program is not perfect but say it’s a good start. “There are no guarantees,” says Mockler.

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In its second year, the low-performing-schools program shows promise. About 40% of participating schools boosted test scores and doubled their goals for student achievement this past year.

Should a school fail to reach its goals or make some reasonable progress within the program’s three-year deadline, the state would step in as a last resort, venturing into uncharted territory.

Nationally, a number of states have taken over school districts, and many others have threatened action, but no state has ever taken over an individual school. In fact, takeovers are rare because results are mixed, at best, and for the most part fail to produce consistent and dramatic improvements in student performance.

In California, before the 1999 school accountability act was passed, laws generally allowed state intervention in schools only in cases of bankruptcy. The state has restored financial health to districts such as West Contra Costa (formerly Richmond), which regained local control after 18 months, and Coachella Valley, which took four and a half years. The 1993 state takeover of the Compton Unified School District, for financial and academic problems, has produced mixed results. From 1993-97, the district had five different administrators. In recent years, student test scores have shown improvement, but remain among the state’s lowest.

Takeovers have not only been long and controversial but also costly. Yet, California education officials contend that money would likely not be a significant barrier to a state takeover since many troubled schools already get adequate federal and state funding.

To be sure, there is honest disagreement over the amount of money and resources needed to take control of and improve failing schools. Teachers and some education experts believe that underlying causes for low student achievement, such as teacher quality, cannot be improved without a significant investment in things like higher pay and staff development.

What’s clear, however, is that the state is betting that its low-performing schools program can improve most of the schools that volunteer or are selected to participate. It is also counting on the costs to be minimal, on the unwavering accuracy of standardized tests and on the proficiency of outside experts. And if it is forced to take over a school, the state is wagering it can produce better results than the mixed record that such efforts have yielded in school districts across the country.

Experts warn that these implicit expectations present a gamble that can undermine the state’s efforts to fix failing schools. “In order for a program to succeed, sanctions need to be real, and they need to have a target audience,” says Lisa Snell, education and child welfare program director with the Reason Public Policy Institute, a national nonprofit research group that has studied school accountability systems around the country. “Otherwise, it takes away from the incentive.”

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Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Assn., worries that the program will not produce desired results because of limited resources. “I’m just afraid they will put together a program that will just raise expectations and not produce results, because it’s not well thought out and it’s done on the cheap.”

Even Eastin, who calls the program “a real good start,” believes additional resources and safeguards are needed. She points out that the system lacks “evaluations of the evaluators” to ensure that outside experts helping schools are qualified and proficient.

“Suppose a school hired in good faith a company, and the people turned out to be overstretched, underqualified or not very good,” she said. “The firm could not deliver what it promised, and the school is heading up the tributary in which it is held accountable to the state.”

In the end, things may work out as the state has hoped. The threats of takeovers may never come to pass. The gamble may pay off. After all, the schools currently participating in the program have volunteered and most appear ready, willing and able to improve.

But the real test is years down the line. Things may be quite different when the state finds itself short on volunteers, and it is forced to assign more hard-case schools to the program. With stakes so high, the state can’t afford to take any chances. All steps must be taken to ensure every possibility of success. After all, a lot is riding on this bet: the hopes of many of the state’s public school children, whose very futures depend on it. *


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