September 4, 2008

Troubled Schools Could Get More Reform Options

By Timothy Puko; Karen Roebuck

Pennsylvania's education secretary wants schools to know that when their leaders fail, a state takeover is still an option.

"There are a couple of blinking lights that are blinking very brightly. There are a couple of districts that have given me enough concern," state Secretary of Education Gerald L. Zahorchak said. "We're real serious right now. So it won't take a lot of time."

Across the country, educators and policy-makers are trying to determine how to give teeth to the No Child Left Behind Act. State takeovers and privatization are two of several specifically prescribed options for the worst-rated schools under the law, but school administrators most often use the law's freedoms to implement more gradual reforms.

Pennsylvania leaders say that has meant improved curriculum and better leadership at troubled schools statewide. But others across the country, including federal policy-makers, are worrying that the law's freedoms just give failing schools a loophole to keep doing what they want without consequences.

"They were given discretion to use their best judgment, and some are using it as a trap door to avoid taking action," said Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group. "The flaw in NCLB is that it identifies the flaws in schools and then says, 'Go fix yourself.' If they knew how to do better, they would."

U.S. Department of Education officials agree and want to close the hole without minimizing the flexibility of local schools, deputy assistant secretary Amanda Farris said. The department is using a pilot plan this year to figure out how to add more reform options for schools in "Corrective Action 2."

That is the worst of six classifications under No Child Left Behind, and schools and districts only enter it after five years of poor test scores. The number of Pennsylvania districts in that group is growing, with seven districts gaining that status this year. Zahorchak said none of the three Allegheny County districts in that status -- Woodland Hills, Duquesne and Pittsburgh -- are in imminent danger of a takeover under No Child Left Behind.

There also are 12 individual schools in Allegheny County in Corrective Action 2, and they must commit to restructuring.

That requires one of five options: closing schools to make them charter schools, contracting private managers, hiring a turnaround expert, accepting state takeovers or, simply, "other."

Chicago and Washington have closed dozens of schools -- 23 in D.C. last year alone -- and sent the students to better-performing schools or reopened schools with wholesale changes of administrations and faculties, Wilkins said. Newark, N.J., and Los Angeles districts have closed numerous schools and reopened them as charters.

Only 5 percent of restructuring schools have been taken over by the state, according to a survey released last year by the Government Accountability Office.

Pennsylvania is one of three states with a reputation for aggressive takeovers, Wilkins said. State officials still run four districts -- Duquesne, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Chester-Upland - - having previously used state legislation, not No Child Left Behind, to assume control because of financial and academic problems there.

About 40 percent of schools use the "other" option, according to the GAO report. The same report also showed that a third of schools that went into Corrective Action in 2005-06 made no new changes.

Two Pittsburgh city high schools are in Corrective Action 2 for the first time, and the district as a whole is in its second year at that status. The district, with state approval, is concentrating on reforms implemented three years ago when Superintendent Mark Roosevelt came on board.

Pittsburgh students did show broad improvement on state tests last year, but the district's status grew worse by the federal measure. The poor performance of certain small student groups, primarily special education students, mitigates the district's other gains under the standard called "adequate yearly progress" or "AYP." In turn, Roosevelt said he pays limited attention to the measure.

"We could have made a lot less progress in terms of helping kids, and still made AYP. It's a quirky process," Roosevelt said. "We do pay attention to that because it is the law of the land, but it is not our primary driving vehicle. It's the Yugo we keep out in our garage."

People debate whether this works. Zahorchak supports the flexibility, touting it as "differentiated response," and the state oversees all planning, often providing resources such as experienced school administrators.

States need federal standards to be flexible in order to improve, said Jack Jennings, CEO of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy.

The center's research on restructuring in California, Maryland and Michigan found that schools showing the most improvement used several different reform techniques. Pennsylvania is starting to see improvements at some of its most troubled districts through the broad-based reforms, Zahorchak said.

"We've learned a lot, done a lot," he said, "but the wheel is spinning in the right direction."

Timothy Puko can be reached at [email protected] Karen Roebuck can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7939.

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