Without fanfare or advance notice, the California Department of Education released the list of the state’s poorest-performing schools last week for the first time in four years.
The 781 schools include 481 out of about 6,600 schools getting Title I federal aid for low-income students and 300 high schools where fewer than two-thirds of students graduate. Under a federal education law that requires states to identify the lowest performing schools, districts with these schools will get a modicum of federal aid — about $150,000 per school per year — along with the obligation to figure out how to make the schools better. Only this time there will be fewer dictates from Washington and less interference from Sacramento.
Their new-found autonomy has left some school leaders optimistic but also uncertain over what to do next. Some student advocacy groups, meanwhile, are ambivalent. They are supportive of the reasoning behind more flexibility but skeptical it will be effective.
“There is sense of confusion,” said Alameda County Superintendent Karen Monroe. “The new system is imperfect and incomplete.” But she said if it encourages a more “holistic” approach to school reform than in the past, “then I have to believe we will be better off.”
“The big question mark is whether the new theory of action will lead to improvement for students. That remains to be seen,” said Efrain Mercado, director of education for the advocacy organization Children Now. “We know that the heavy-handed (approach) didn’t work. With a softer touch, the onus shifts to districts and schools.”
The state’s decision to quietly publish the names is an attempt to encourage a patient process of “continuous improvement” without the stigma of being labeled a bad school. It reflects California’s new locally driven but unproven strategy of changing student performance through collaboration, not by decree, as well as Congress’ shift away from federally dictated solutions when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015.
Parents no longer will get letters telling them their school is on the School Improvement list and giving them the right to transfer to a better performing school. Districts will no longer be handed a limited menu of options to turn a low-performing school around, like becoming a charter school, replacing the principal or firing half the staff. And teachers and principals will no longer face moving “adequate yearly progress” targets of higher test scores to exit from federal sanctions, hardening their resentment that Congress was making an already difficult challenge impossible.
These were the hallmarks of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which members of Congress came to recognize wasn’t working but took years to agree on how to replace it.
Like NCLB, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states identify and set performance goals for the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools getting Title I money and for the lowest-performing student groups within schools. But it requires that states measure schools by more than test scores alone and gives flexibility about what to measure, how to help schools improve and calls for stronger sanctions if schools fail to show progress. The State Board of Education, in designing the state’s plan, went one step further and put districts in charge of fixing their own troubled schools.
The state used the California School Dashboard to identify the lowest-performing schools, just as it has for the lowest-performing districts. The multi-colored dashboard rates achievement on a range of indicators, including test scores and graduation, suspension and chronic absenteeism rates. All schools with all red indicators, designating the lowest of five rankings, or a combination of red and orange, the second-lowest, were designated to receive support.
The 481 schools make up 7 percent of Title I schools — about 150 more than the 5 percent that must be identified under federal law. Increasing the number of schools will cut into each school’s share of the $130 million in California’s Title I funding mandated for school improvement.
Of the 481 schools, 34 are charter schools and the rest are district schools or those run by county departments of education. The list includes 182 elementary, 120 middle and 38 traditional high schools.
Alternative and continuation high schools, county community schools and court schools comprise most of the low-performing high schools on the list. They also are the bulk of the 300 schools named because of low graduation rates. These schools, serving expelled and incarcerated youths, transient students and those at risk of dropping out, were excluded from the accountability system under the No Child Left Behind Act, but now they will get more attention and resources. Online schools make up many of the 91 charter schools designated for low graduation rates.
Most of the listed 481 low-performing schools should not have been a surprise; 83 percent are in districts that separately were identified under the state’s accountability system for comprehensive assistance for districtwide low-performing student groups.
In many cases, the students are clustered in schools in low-income neighborhoods. In Vallejo Unified, which has several low-performing subgroups districtwide, about a third of its 22 schools are on the list; a quarter of Oakland Unified’s 87 schools will get comprehensive support. The 47 Los Angeles Unified schools on the list comprise 6.5 percent of the district’s 723 schools.
In the state plan for federal compliance, the State Board of Education decided the district offices should take the lead role in school improvement, not just for the dashboard-defined lowest-achieving schools but also for schools with big gaps in achievement among student groups. Board members agreed with critics who said that Congress made a mistake with No Child Left Behind in assuming states could bypass districts and deal with failing schools in isolation.
“Prior laws often overlooked the important role that a district has to support schools,” said David Sapp, deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for the state board. There was often “tension and misalignment” between improvement initiatives that districts wanted and what the federal or state governments required, he said.
Treating individual schools also ignores conditions and personnel decisions that affect all schools. In their work with districts, county offices of education do “root-cause” analyses that look beyond low dashboard scores to teacher turnover patterns, labor management issues and principals’ experience, said El Dorado County Superintendent Ed Manansala, who is president of the organization representing the state’s 58 counties, the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. “That’s why coherent work with districts and schools becomes important.”
Valerie Cuevas, a board member of the West Contra County Unified School District, which has 11 schools on the list, agreed that changes in staffing patterns that individual schools can’t control “are part of the solution” and said she hopes teachers will show flexibility around contractual restrictions affecting individual school sites. Teachers should be part of the process under local control and their participation “can be empowering,” she said.
What if districts are the problem?
But what if district leadership is weak and lacks the organizational skills and instructional expertise to guide school improvement? The state’s minimal plan for complying with ESSA imposes minimal county monitoring and few requirements on districts. Parent notification that a school is among the lowest performing, key to No Child Left Behind, is not required. A district must list the schools by name in a new summary portion of its annual planning document, the Local Control and Accountability Plan. It must also state a district’s strategies for improvement in those schools and how it will monitor progress.
A county office of education, which must approve a district’s LCAP every year, can intervene only if a designated school has shown no progress. Unlike NCLB, in many cases that may not be very hard: Raising the rating on one or two dashboard indicators from red or orange to yellow, the middle color, would exit schools from support status.
“Giving a school four years to meet the criteria to exit comprehensive status never felt strong to us. There are lots of practical oversight questions,” including how to engage parents, said Carrie Hahnel, interim co-executive director of Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
The state board assumes that leaders in districts designated for intensive assistance will apply the training they are learning from county offices to school improvement and their work with parents and the community through the LCAP.
Juan Cruz, superintendent of the Franklin-McKinley School District, a 10,000-student K-8 district in San Jose with one of its 16 schools on the lowest-achievement list, said it’s too soon to see how the new process will work for McKinley Elementary, which faced earlier sanctions under NCLB. Its predominately Hispanic students live in one of San Jose’s poorest neighborhoods.
But Cruz, a former high school principal of a school under NCLB’s School Improvement program, said he can sense a difference. “I’m optimistic. NCLB felt like you were being crushed; this feels less punitive. There’s an opportunity to rally behind a school with underserved students.”