Washington, D.C. – Only one-third of state education officials say their departments have adequate capacity to help improve low-performing schools as required by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), according to a survey of all 50 states by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).
The study, conducted with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that states—which were already struggling with shrinking budgets—were constrained to design their NCLB support systems around what they thought they could accomplish. This leaves open the question of whether the supports provided were those needed by schools. Research on effective state systems of support was lacking when NCLB was enacted, but as part of this study, AIR shares a research-based framework for state officials and policy analysts for assessing and refining their systems.
The online survey was designed to study states’ capacity to develop and deploy systems of support for schools identified for improvement under NCLB. To provide support commensurate with the challenges facing low-performing schools, state education agencies need adequate capacity – including infrastructure, professional resources and political support.
Respondents were state officials, from all 50 states, with primary responsibility for their state’s system of support for schools and districts identified for improvement. The findings include:
- State officials were more likely to report limitations to their capacity than strengths. Only 16 states gave overall positive responses to questions about their capacity to support low-performing schools.
- State officials generally perceive the expertise within their education agencies to be a strength, but report lower levels of expertise regarding English language learners. More than half of states (31) reported that staff expertise was a strength, however, 19 states reported expertise related to English language learners as a specific constraint to their abilities, and 11 reported similar weaknesses with expertise related to special education.
- Three-quarters of respondents (36 states) indicated that a lack of state funding for school improvement was a constraint, and 27 states reported that a lack of federal funding constrained their capacity as well.
- States with the most capacity limitations have more schools identified for improvement. An average of 19 percent of schools were identified for improvement last year in states with limited capacity, compared with 15 percent in all other states. One state official responded simply, “The problems are many and we are few.”
States are directed to use a percentage of their Title I dollars to fund these school improvement efforts, but state officials report these funds are spread too thinly. One state official noted, “We are a small, minimum-funded state, which means our administration amount is capped and never increases. It is extremely difficult to meet the federal requirements pertaining to the statewide system of support with the minimal amount of funds we receive from the Title I program.”
The survey findings and more are reported in two briefs from AIR – Help Wanted: State Capacity for School Improvement and State Systems of Support Under NCLB: Design Components and Quality Considerations.
State agencies are required under NCLB to “establish a statewide system of intensive and sustained support and improvement for local educational agencies and schools” to include school support teams, distinguished teachers and principals to act as external consultants and other support structures. All states provide some level of support, but they have varying degrees of expertise, capacity, resources and political support.
“As NCLB is being considered for reauthorization, these findings suggest that lawmakers should consider ways to increase state capacity to develop systems of support,” observed Kerstin Le Floch, an AIR principal research analyst and the lead author of both briefs. “High-quality state assistance is an important piece of the school improvement puzzle.”
Adequate capacity implies that state education agencies have resources to provide sufficient staff, generate timely data, deliver professional development, offer grant monies and leverage relevant expertise. Challenges differ from school-to-school, and the education departments need the capacity to deal with each school’s individual needs.
As part of this project, AIR researchers are providing state officials and policy analysts a framework with which to assess and refine current and planned systems. That framework is detailed in the brief, State Systems of Support Under NCLB: Design Components and Quality Considerations, and explains key components of successful systems as well as eight indicators of quality state support (including coherence, comprehensiveness, responsiveness and “prescriptiveness”).