More than any other provision of the Harkin-Enzi ESEA bill (synopsis here), the rollback of federal accountability for student performance in schools and districts (no more AYP and targets for student achievement, no strict consequences for schools that fail to make AYP) has gotten the most attention over the last two days. Civil rights’ groups hate it, teachers’ unions are okay with it, and I imagine states and districts are pretty thrilled. Instead of a federally-designed system, states will be able to create their own school accountability plan, so they’ll have much more control over what measures of achievement are included, what performance targets students must meet for a school to be “continually improving,” what designations schools could receive, and what interventions should be implemented in schools based on their designation.
The Harkin-Enzi bill, however, does specify 3 categories of schools that must be included in each state’s accountability system:
- Blue Ribbon Schools – to recognize 5% of schools that have high levels of student achievement or have made impressive gains in the number of students ‘on track’ to be college- and career-ready or graduating from high school;
- Persistently Low-Achieving Schools – to identify 5% of schools that have low levels of student performance or growth or have low graduation rates; and
- Achievement Gap Schools – to identify 5% of schools that have the largest achievement gaps between student subgroups or that have low achievement or low graduation rates (in other words, schools that have no gaps because they are 100% minority could still be designated based on low student performance).
My colleague Sarah is going to give you a rundown of the provisions for Persistently Low-Achieving (PLA) Schools in the ESEA reauthorization bill later, so I want to instead focus on the Achievement Gap (AG) designation. After taking this bill to bed with me the last two nights, I was still puzzled by the language on Achievement Gap schools. Breaking down the numbers helped me realize why.
1) The Harkin-Enzi bill spends 1,907 words to describe PLA schools – how they’re identified, what they’re required to do, how long they’re required to do it, how states and districts will support them, and consequences for what happens if they don’t improve. In contrast, the bill uses only 271 words to say (or not say) all of these things about AG schools. That’s just 1 word shy of the Gettysburg Address. I’m all for more brevity in a bill that’s over 860 pages long, but this seems to imply that closing achievement gaps is somehow simpler than improving student achievement and graduation rates. Considering we’ve been struggling with achievement gaps between students since… forever, I doubt there’s an easy fix out there.
2) For its PLA schools, districts will choose from a series of 6 options – similar to those in the SIG program – to improve their students’ academic achievement, college and career readiness, and graduation rates. For its AG schools, districts have no guidance. Rather, they will implement a “measurable correction plan.” That’s it? For an issue that was at the heart of NCLB and that has been a focus of policymakers for decades, it seems like the bill would have more than 3 words to say about how districts and schools should go about closing achievement gaps and the kinds of supports and resources schools will need.
3) PLA schools will have 5 years to implement a school improvement strategy of their choice. If they are still identified as a persistently-low achiever after that, the school gets another five years… but the school must either close or choose the “restart” strategy where they reopen as a charter school, a magnet school, or some “other” innovative school model. There are no consequences for districts if schools don’t improve enough after five years. The bottom line: consequences for failing to improve as a PLA school fall on the school, and schools get a second chance.
Contrast that with AG schools: they only have 3 years to improve and close achievement gaps that have existed since we began measuring them. And consequences for failure? After three years, if the same schools are identified, the entire district is penalized, not the school. That district will lose priority or competitive preference status when it applies for grants under any part of ESEA – including the Teacher Incentive Fund, Race to the Top, Promise Neighborhoods, the College Pathways Program, i3, and the Charter Schools Program. So if when 1 of New York City’s 1,700 schools continues to have large achievement gaps, the entire district could lose out on funding for other key school programs. This creates incentives for districts and states to game the system and avoid designating the same schools after three years.
1,907 words vs. 271 words. 6 options vs. 3 words. 5 years vs. 3 years.
If I were a school leader, I’d much rather be classified as Persistently Low-Achieving than as an Achievement Gap School. Your reaction here should be: huh? Persistently Low-Achieving sounds like the harsher label of the two. But not in reality. There is less guidance for how AG Schools will be improved and less time to make these improvements, with tougher consequences if improvement doesn’t happen.
Senators on the HELP Committee: instead of creating two classes of low-performing schools – one with a coherent improvement strategy and one without – why not just identify 10% of schools as Persistently Low-Achieving and broaden the definition to include schools with large achievement gaps?