Carmel Martin is the executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress.
In Kansas City, Kan., a once-struggling public school is undergoing a remarkable transformation. By focusing on retaining effective teachers, giving a dynamic principal operational flexibility and employing data-based decision-making, Emerson Elementary School has seen dramatic improvements in achievement. In 2013, 84 percent of students were proficient in math, compared with 47 percent in 2008. Similarly, in 2013, 71 percent of students were proficient in reading, compared with 39 percent in 2008.
Emerson is one example of many. Across the United States, educators are working tirelessly to turn around low-achieving schools. Many are getting great results.
The success of targeted school turnarounds isn’t just anecdotal; it’s supported by numerous studies. The New York City effort to replace low-performing schools with smaller, more effective ones not only increased graduation and college enrollment rates significantly, but also cost 14 percent to 16 percent less than other options, according to an analysis by the research firm MDRC. A turnaround effort in Houston closed the math achievement gap in three years. A study by the University of Wisconsin found that interventions to encourage data-driven decision-making had positive effects on math and reading comprehension. In 2009, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that federally supported whole-school reforms led to statistically significant improvements at California schools.
Success stories like Emerson’s illustrate that turnarounds are possible, but they require a strategy that builds on research-based best practices. Yet, as Congress debates the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, a bill whose purpose is to fulfill this country’s obligation to provide all students with a high-quality education, virtually no attention is being paid to the role that the federal government has played in helping many schools make such dramatic progress.
What’s worse, just as researchers are making breakthroughs in understanding, Congress is poised to roll back the federal commitment to improving low-performing schools. A reauthorized ESEA should build on the lessons learned over the past 15 years, but the leading House and Senate proposals would do nothing to establish a federal framework or provide dedicated funding for improving underperforming schools.
Meanwhile, millions of students — overwhelmingly low-income, minority and immigrant — languish in failing schools. Today, close to 1,400 U.S. high schools serving 1.4 million students graduate fewer than 60 percent of their students on time.
Many schools across the country fail generation after generation of families and communities, which has disastrous long-term effects on the U.S. economy. A recent analysis by the Center for American Progress found that closing educational gaps between students of color — a disproportionate number of those in low-performing schools — and native-born white children could increase state and local revenue by $88 billion annually.
While federal policy over the past decade has reduced the number of low-performing schools, there are still too many out there. Federal policy needs to keep the pressure on school districts and states to continue the momentum. We have an opportunity to make great strides in improving educational outcomes, but passing a bill that does not include federal guardrails would be a step backward. We cannot afford to relinquish the significant progress that has been made in schools across the country.
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