Two years after Congress scrapped federal formulas for fixing troubled schools, states for the most part are producing only the vaguest of plans to address persistent educational failure.
So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have submitted proposals for holding schools accountable under the 2015 law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. With few exceptions, the blueprints offer none of the detailed prescriptions for intervention, such as mass teacher firings or charter-school conversions, that were once standard elements of school reform.
Many in the education world, from state superintendents to teachers unions, applaud this hands-off trend. Each struggling school faces unique circumstances, in their view, and deserves a tailored solution shaped by community input — not a top-down directive from faraway bureaucrats.
But others fear a lack of clear road maps from states is a sign that meaningful change remains unlikely in schools that most need it.
“We don’t know what to do about chronically low-performing schools. Nothing has worked consistently and at scale,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “I suspect we’ll see most states and districts just go through the motions.”
On Aug. 1, Delaware became the first state to win federal approval for its plan, even though — according to independent experts — its school turnaround proposals are hazy and unlikely to make a significant difference. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos endorsed the plan, saying she hoped it would “give the students, families and educators in the state a strong foundation for a great education.” DeVos and President Trump are pushing for far more local control of education, a shift from the stance of their recent predecessors in both parties.
Congress thought it had answers for the problem of low-performing schools when it passed No Child Left Behind in 2001. The bipartisan law, meant to fight what President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” laid out consequences for schools that failed to meet escalating performance targets.
After a school missed targets for two years, students were allowed to transfer out. After three years, schools had to offer free tutoring. After four and five years, there was a menu of options, from replacing the curriculum to firing staff, reopening as a charter school or turning over management to state authorities.
The schools subject to sanctions were not only those with low overall performance, but also those with generally high achievement but poor outcomes among minorities, such as blacks, Latinos, students with disabilities or those from low-income families.
A decade after the law passed, nearly everyone agreed it was broken. Half of the 100,000 public schools were missing performance targets, overwhelming the capacity of states and districts to help those with the most profound need for change. In many places, schools widely acknowledged to be failing were allowed to continue plodding along.
Declaring that the nation had an obligation to do better, President Barack Obama devoted billions of dollars to a push to turn around the bottom 5 percent of schools. To get the money, schools had to agree to one of the Obama administration’s favored four strategies — closing, reopening as a charter, firing staff or transforming school culture.
Despite some bright spots and success stories, a federal analysis released this year showed that, on average, test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received the money than in those that did not.
Those failures helped spur a bipartisan push for a new era of state and local control over education.
Under the 2015 law, states must continue administering standardized tests in grades three through eight and once in high school, and they must continue reporting how groups of students fare on those tests. But they have far more latitude to decide just about everything else about how they judge the success of schools and what they do about those that fail — including not just those with low overall performance, but also those where minority groups are lagging far behind.
“This is a real opportunity for states to get out of a one-size-fits-all intervention strategy,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “It’s still too early in the process to know if we’re going to be successful.”
Civil rights advocates have raised concerns not only about the support states plan to provide poorly performing schools, but also how they identify those schools in the first place. Liz King, an education policy expert with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said she worries that states are designing rating systems that will overlook the failures of schools where average student performance is high, but certain groups — such as students with disabilities or English language learners — trail far behind.
Of the 17 accountability plans submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, an independent review found only two — from Tennessee and New Mexico — adequately addressed how to help low-performing schools. The review was conducted by Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington consulting group, and the Collaborative for Student Success, an advocacy group that has championed high standards and strong accountability.
Tennessee, building on its efforts to turn around troubled schools over the past several years, has laid out a set of options that vary depending on how long and how much the school has struggled.
The worst-off schools will be taken over by the state and managed by a charter school operator, while less-needy schools could become a part of a district’s “innovation zone,” which allows schools to extend classroom time, pay teachers more and give principals more autonomy in an effort to improve achievement.
But many other states say little more than they plan to conduct a needs assessment in troubled schools and then craft an improvement plan. It’s unclear what such improvement plans might entail, or what will happen if they don’t work.
“That doesn’t inspire confidence,” said Dale Chu, an education expert who participated in the independent review. The failure, he said, “could continue in perpetuity.”
Delaware wants to assess each school and write tailored improvement plans for each. But it’s not clear what will be in those plans. Susan Bunting, Delaware’s education chief, said officials are sensitive to the fact that schools in inner-city Wilmington face different challenges than those in impoverished rural hamlets.
“We know that our schools all have unique needs,” Bunting said.
A group of four outside experts who reviewed plans for the Education Department wrote that Delaware’s plans for struggling schools “do not appear as if they would likely be sufficient to dramatically improve student performance.”
Three of those experts concluded that Delaware’s proposal for intervening in weak schools did not meet legal requirements. DeVos — who has promised deference to states — disagreed.
She will consider the other 16 plans in coming weeks. The District’s plan calls for soliciting proposals for change in cases of chronic school failure, and parents would be asked to help choose the plan that best fits the school’s needs.
The remaining 34 states — including Maryland and Virginia — are expected to turn in plans next month.
John King Jr., who was Obama’s second education secretary and now heads the advocacy group Education Trust, said the question of what to do with troubled schools deserves more attention from states and the Trump administration.
King said he hopes states will draw on promising strategies for school improvement, such as looking for ways to boost socioeconomic diversity. And he hopes they will learn from places that have managed to succeed in the hard work of school turnaround. King cited Lawrence, Mass., where schools have made tremendous gains since they were placed in state receivership six years ago.
“I certainly worry that there may be folks who are using the rhetoric of local control as an excuse for inaction in schools that are struggling or schools that have groups of students that are struggling,” he said. “The law rightly requires action in those schools ... and it will still be the responsibility of the Education Department to ensure that states follow the law.”