Up for Vote #2: Lessons Learned From Research and Practice in SIG Schools

This is the second blog in the Up for Vote series focused on much needed Congressional action to reauthorize the framework legislation for federal education policy. Our recommendations are based on AIR’s years of research and direct work with states and districts to improve the quality of schooling. In this blog, we focus on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and ways to improve our lowest-performing schools. Next up: Federal Student Aid data and HEA.

Successive federal efforts to tackle the entrenched challenges of persistently low-performing schools have fallen far short of their goal. Some of these efforts—Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (1998) and the No Child Left Behind Act (2002), which included School Improvement Grants later expanded under ARRA (2009)—have yielded pockets of success. But widespread, dramatic gains among the nation’s worst performing schools have not materialized – yet.

As Congress begins to draft the next iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it should pay careful attention to research results and lessons learned from the field that may point the way to improving the schools that often serve our most vulnerable children. Reflecting on AIR’s work in both research and in-school technical assistance, we offer three ways ESEA can build capacity in low-performing schools.

1. Improve human capital management. A school’s primary assets are the knowledge, skills, dedication, and commitment of the adults who serve the students. Decades of research have documented the critical role of strong leadership and highly skilled teachers on school improvement and student achievement. Yet, research also shows that schools with higher percentages of low-income and minority students are more likely to be staffed by the least experienced, less qualified teachers and principals.

NCLB and SIG sought to remedy this by mandating that teachers demonstrate they are “highly qualified” and requiring that SIG schools replace their principals and, in some cases, replace half of the teachers. But there were unintended consequences—among them, high turnover rates among SIG educators and administrators and the placement of underqualified, unmotivated principals in these very challenging schools.

In the next round of reauthorization, policymakers should build on the work of districts that have boosted achievement through a strategy of developing strong human capital systems. These systems focus on hiring teachers with the right skills and dispositions, placing these teachers in the schools that need them most, and supporting teachers’ professional learning.

A revised ESEA should:

  • ensure that the strongest teachers are in the lowest-performing schools;
  • ensure that experienced, well-trained principals are matched with low-performing schools; and
  • protect the lowest-performing schools from becoming the schools of last resort for underperforming teachers and administrators who are “involuntarily transferred” from other schools.

2. Make districts part of the solution. The health of schools—and their prospects for sustainable improvement—are inextricably linked with the capacity of their school districts. There are compelling examples of coordinated, coherent district supports for low-performing schools. But sadly, there are cases of districts that simply do not work in the best interests of these schools. Lawmakers should seek to identify and support districts with longtime low-performing schools. The new ESEA should:

  • create incentives for districts to engage in system-wide school improvement efforts;
  • Identify the key capacities districts need to bring system-wide reform; and
  • empower states to intervene if low-capacity districts are holding back their struggling schools.

3. Eliminate piecemeal attempts. A remarkably consistent finding in research and our experience in the field supporting low-performing schools is the lack of coherence in their improvement efforts. School improvement plans are too often composed of multiple, disconnected, and often short-lived activities billed as the solution to their academic challenges. This constant churn of disjointed improvement efforts builds cynicism and initiative fatigue among teachers, principals, students and parents while failing to make a difference in student achievement. The new ESEA should require that School Improvement Plans go beyond simple compliance documents and:

  • include clearly articulated theories of action that explain how the proposed improvement initiatives will work together to make improvements;
  • be based on a needs assessment that identifies the root causes of low student performance; and
  • are implemented in sequential steps based on evidence of best practices and the priorities of the needs assessment.

We know that chronically low-performing schools can improve; we have sufficient proof-of-concept cases to convince us of this. Researchers have documented case studies of schools that turn around a history of low performance. Educators and practitioners know from their own experiences that a history of low performance is not a life sentence. Crafting a policy that strengthens failing schools and breaks their cycle of low performance calls for a balance of flexibility and accountability. Armed with this knowledge, Congress can lead the way with a new ESEA and show that we have not given up on our neediest schools.

Kerstin Carlson Le Floch is a managing researcher and Catherine Barbour is a principal technical assistance consultant at AIR.