Hands raised in classroom

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.

Dashboard-designated

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.”

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  1. Challen Wadalawala 5 months ago5 months ago

    Will children zoned for low performing schools still be able to transfer to a better school, or are they now forced to attend the low performing school?

  2. Dale Sawyers 5 months ago5 months ago

    It's all a scam. I taught at Vista Murrieta High School for 14 years and was told time and time again to simply raise a kid's grade, especially if he or she was a minority student. Also seniors who did not pass my class were shuffled through a one day APEX online class and went on to graduate. When I resisted, I was blackballed and students who could not stop playing with their phones or … Read More

    It’s all a scam. I taught at Vista Murrieta High School for 14 years and was told time and time again to simply raise a kid’s grade, especially if he or she was a minority student. Also seniors who did not pass my class were shuffled through a one day APEX online class and went on to graduate. When I resisted, I was blackballed and students who could not stop playing with their phones or talking were allowed to level one accusation against me after another that was then taken as fact. Grad rate is like 98% while A-G pass rate is just over 50%. . . what does that tell you? Now I teach at private international boarding school in China where admin appreciates high standards and those who have some academic integrity. Sad situation.

  3. Susan Sarti 6 months ago6 months ago

    So the state released the list of 781 schools with low performance. I’d be willing to bet that most of the folks who compiled this information have never spent much time in a public school classroom. I have. 35 years at various grade levels has taught me that we don’t need more useless studies, more assessment, more fanfare, more directives from “above”, whoever that may be. What we need in Education is first of all, … Read More

    So the state released the list of 781 schools with low performance. I’d be willing to bet that most of the folks who compiled this information have never spent much time in a public school classroom.
    I have. 35 years at various grade levels has taught me that we don’t need more useless studies, more assessment, more fanfare, more directives from “above”, whoever that may be.

    What we need in Education is first of all, substantial pay raises for teachers and all classroom support staff including site principals. Then we need nurses, psychologists and librarians. Class size should be no more than 20 students. Year round school with appropriate weeks off would be optimal.
    Whittle down administrators in most district offices, in Sacramento and wherever else they lurk. Most of them aren’t worth their pay. While we’re at it, cut loose their assistants and the assistants of their assistants. And do we really need county superintendents? Seriously?
    Teachers need more money and support at the site level. That’s it. Forget the rest.

  4. ann 6 months ago6 months ago

    "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..." Can anyone recall a principal being released from a persistently low performing school? Please let us know. "... 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." … Read More

    “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…” Can anyone recall a principal being released from a persistently low performing school? Please let us know.

    “… 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.” Fat chance of that happening.

    “What if districts are the problem? …district leadership is weak and lacks the organizational skills and instructional expertise to guide school improvement?” Are these rhetorical questions?

  5. Bill Conrad 6 months ago6 months ago

    Shhhh! Don't tell anyone that we are failing! Shhhh. You reallly have to work hard to get into the red zone on the State Dashboard! I published actual district-level data for all of the Districts in Santa Clara County and things do not look too good for students of color, English Learners, Students with Disability, and Economically Disadvantaged students. I love the solution from the Karen Monroe that we need to take a holistic approach … Read More

    Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone that we are failing! Shhhh.
    You reallly have to work hard to get into the red zone on the State Dashboard!
    I published actual district-level data for all of the Districts in Santa Clara County and things do not look too good for students of color, English Learners, Students with Disability, and Economically Disadvantaged students.

    I love the solution from the Karen Monroe that we need to take a holistic approach to solving the student academic achievement crisis. Maybe she will counsel schools to purchase bean bag chairs for students, teachers, and principals so that they can relax while they sip hot chocolate! No need to stress out or be accountable.

    The only thing that will change things around is to establish rigorous student outcomes, align curricula, and professional practices, and use assessments effectively while monitoring the work and holding everyone accountable. That is the work of schools and school districts! But we are lost in the fog of education where adult comfort supersedes the need for students to achieve academically so they are prepared for college and career. We are about 2.5 generations away from recognizing and acting upon this basic solution.

    It is time to talk with the students at http://sipbigpicture.com as the adults have gone mad!

  6. Nicholas Telford 6 months ago6 months ago

    Do you know if it is possible to get an excel doc with the list of 781 low performing schools?

    Replies

    • Smita Patel 6 months ago6 months ago

      Nicholas,
      You can access the spreadsheet on the California Department of Education’s website here: https://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/sw/t1/csi.asp. It is the first item under Data File, and is entitled 2018–19 ESSA Assistance Status Spreadsheet. To narrow the list down to the 781 schools discussed in the article, filter Column F (Assistance Status) to display only “CSI Low Perform” and “CSI Grad.”

  7. Martha McNicholas 6 months ago6 months ago

    This “list” of 781 schools is so quietly released that you can’t find it. The CDE link takes you to a spreadsheet of almost 10,000 schools. I guess that’s total transparency.

    Replies

    • Smita Patel 6 months ago6 months ago

      Martha,
      To narrow the list down to the 781 schools discussed in the article, filter Column F (Assistance Status) to display only “CSI Low Perform” and “CSI Grad.”