Failing Schools Are Hard to Fix

NCLB lets people know which schools are struggling but offers few solutions on how to raise performance


No Child Left Behind, like the Wizard of Oz, has turned out to be more powerful in shadow than in substance. The law, which mandates that all students become proficient in reading and math by 2014, offers "few real sanctions or penalties, plenty of loopholes, and ample evidence that state and local officials are not taking [the law's] draconian actions and nothing bad is happening to them," says Chester Finn Jr., a former federal education assistant secretary and now president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which researches school reform. Inadequate funding, local politics, and uncertainty over the effectiveness of federal remedies for failing schools have eroded much of the bite the law was intended to have. While the specter of federal intervention has been enough to propel the policy into action so far, many of its critics say that revisions to NCLB should offer genuine guidance and support instead of the threat of reforms that would be difficult or ineffective for the federal government to enforce. Or, as Finn says, "word is apt to get around that the NCLB 'wizard' is actually just a harmless little guy behind the curtain."

To be fair, most schools are not failing. But federal auditors recently found that the number of schools facing federal sanctions is growing. Nationwide, 4,509 schools serving more than 2 million children—or about 8 percent of all federally funded schools—have failed to bring enough students to grade level for four or more years straight, up from 2,790 schools in 2006. Most of these schools are in low-income, racial- and ethnic- minority districts in California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Under the NCLB accountability system, schools in their fourth consecutive year of failure must take at least one "corrective action," such as adopting a new curriculum, replacing some staff, or extending the school year. After six years of failure, schools face restructuring. The options here include handing control over to the state or to a private management company, bringing in an entirely new staff, and opening public charter schools in place of the failing schools.

According to a 2007 Government Accountability Office report, none of these approaches were taken to fix about 40 percent of the 1,635 schools that have reported failure every year through 2005-2006. It suggests what some critics have said for some time: For the most part, state and local districts exploit loopholes in the federal law and employ other remedies, often without knowing how well those changes will work.

Education Secretary Spellings acknowledges that federal sanctions for failing schools may not be robust enough. "We need to know how we are going to address those chronic underperformers. We don't yet," she says. But so far, the threat alone has been enough to influence states to seek their own reforms.

Michigan, for example, has had success turning around some chronically underachieving schools without resorting to school takeovers or mass teacher firings. In Wyoming, Mich., schools that failed to make improvement for five years brought in "turnaround specialists" to work with struggling principals, offered more training to teachers, and made changes to the curriculum to focus more on reading. Tom Reeder, assistant superintendent of schools, says the district contemplated the tough measures prescribed by NCLB, but the state declined to take over failing schools. And because districts can make other major changes in lieu of handing a failing school over to the state, the federal government—which accounts for only nine cents of every dollar spent on education—doesn't crack down.

In the neighboring school district in Grand Rapids, Mich., where a quarter of all students have limited English skills and an additional 20 percent have learning disabilities, Superintendent Bernard Taylor Jr. worries about two schools now in their sixth year of failure. The district has been offering those students free after-school tutoring and the choice to move to the district's better-performing schools. But those two approaches, which are also required by the law, are not yielding good results quickly enough to show up in NCLB testing.