Rebecca Wolf DiBiase
Education Commission of the States
As explained above in "The two faces of No Child Left Behind," the No Child Left Behind Act is undoubtedly a "behaviorist" law. It pushes institutions (state departments of education, school districts, and schools) and people (superintendents, principals, teachers, and students) to do things differently through some use of carrots (praise for a job well done) and, especially, sticks (public shaming and sanctions for schools "in need of improvement"). Its theory of action is that local educators will do whatever it takes to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps in order to avoid painful measures meted out by Washington. But in order for this theory to work, someone must "pull the trigger" on schools that consistently underperform. NCLB requires schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) six years running to face severe consequences, called "restructuring." And the local school districts are the trigger-pulling enforcers. So how is the theory working out in practice? According to this policy brief from the Education Commission of the States (ECS), few actors are showing much interest in playing tough. The feds have provided little to no guidance on restructuring, indicating a lack of seriousness on their part. The states have largely taken a hands-off approach, often in line with their respect for "local control." And the districts most often choose mild interventions, such as technical assistance, rather than strong ones, such as turning failing schools into charter schools. More-specific findings include:
- State involvement in the restructuring process varies. Ten of 13 states surveyed collect restructuring plans from local districts, but only 7 of these have a formal process for approving these plans.
- Most districts opt for "mild" or moderate" restructuring options (as defined by Ronald Brady in his Fordham monograph, Can Failing Schools be Fixed?). The restructuring options under the law include reopening the school as a charter school; replacing all or most of the staff; contracting with a private entity to run the school; turning it over to the state; or "any other major restructuring of the school's governance arrangement." Not surprisingly, most districts have chosen the open-ended fifth option.
- Districts that have attempted to replace an entire school's staff or to turn schools into charters have "found themselves in the midst of difficult political battles."
- Nevertheless, some districts have used successfully the provisions to remove staff members who otherwise would have been difficult to fire.
- Delays in state determinations of whether schools met AYP have made implementation of the restructuring provision difficult.
The report also includes a useful summary of how each of the 13 states approach implementing the provision. It's worth checking out; surf to it here.