(21) 2010

I wanted to go back to the future for a moment and tell you about a conversation that I had last week with an urban school district superintendent. His district is located in California. I was meeting with him to talk about a plan for reaching academic growth targets set by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and to support the district's overall reform efforts.

First, a few NCLB reference terms. Program Improvement (PI) is used to describe schools that have not met one or more academic targets for two consecutive years. Targets are set for overall student achievement and for children who belong to specific subgroups. The PI designation forces districts to make targeted efforts to turnaround failing schools or face consequences that may include school reconstitution or in extreme cases, state takeover of the entire district. A school's individual Academic Performance Index (API) is a score (ranging from 200-1000) used to rank and compare schools across districts and the country. A score of 800 or more means you are generally safe. A Similar Schools Ranking compares schools with similar demographic characteristics.

This is how our conversation went:

The Super (waving his arms in front of himself in a slow Tai Chi, swirling motion): Now Sabine, I want you to picture our district. (pause) Now, picture it as if all our schools are in Program Improvement - because that's how I see it.

Me (What was I thinking, but didn't say aloud): Huh? Not all your schools are in PI, actually only four out of the thirty schools in the district are designated PI. But I replied only with an, "OK...."

The Super: Look, I don't worry about API scores. We can't keep up with the national standards. I look at our Similar Schools Ranking. That's where I want to see progress.

Me (Again, what was I thinking, but didn't say aloud): Are you actually serious? You, the superintendent, the leader of this entire HUGE school district is telling me not to worry about students making any real academic growth. You just want to look a little better than all of the other crappy schools and districts that you are grouped with! You cannot be serious! I continued not to say anything. There's really no point arguing with a superintendent, so I said, "OK."

Here's my take on the current implementation of NCLB in the U.S.:

NCLB was created with good intentions. It does focus attention on students who have historically been underserved. It created a framework for defining basic minimum academic standards in each grade level. I don't have a problem with the annual testing. I'm not a fan of using standardized tests as the sole measure of skill or ability, but they do provide a snapshot of students at a point in time.

What concerns me about NCLB, is that it requires the leaders of failing districts to fix things, to fix themselves, usually without outside assistance. This is like asking a dysfunctional family to just snap out of it. The lack of funding for NCLB is an obstacle, but frankly, if you are a district in trouble, it's safe to say that you are probably also having issues managing your resources. I'm just not sure pouring more money into the mix is a wise idea.

The bottom line here is that we are left with district administrators - like the Superintendent here - who are under a tremendous amount of pressure to get out of the hole. They're stressed out, their jobs (and mortgages) are on the line and they're looking for a quick fix. In order to get Language Arts and Math scores up (two subjects more heavily weighted), some elementary schools have had to forsake Science, Art, Music and Social Studies. The instruction of state standards are broken down into unrelated "capsules" of information. Teachers are sometimes even forced to teach directly from 'scripts' so that instruction is uniform across the district. One teacher colleague describes her elementary school as a former Soviet state where the principal comes on the loudspeaker and gives inspirational speeches at times during the course of day on how her students WILL meet the standards and how they WILL NOT continue to be a FAILING school.

As we think about the latest federal legislation designed to support low performing schools such as Race to the Top, let's just ask ourselves, whose standards are we racing toward? When we consider the School Improvement Grants (SIG) that are currently being offered to persistently low performing schools throughout the country (up to $2 million per year per school), you have to evaluate the wisdom of handing large sums of money to districts with "persistently low performing" systems of management.

A penny for your thoughts?

Image credit: from the motion picture, Back to the Future, 1985 & 1989


  1. From a country boy's perspective, first, poorly performing school systems are usually a reflection of their leadership. Thus problems will be difficult to fix without cleaning house. Secondly, unfunded mandates are either unconstitutional or should be. Simplistic thinking, I realize, but I've never seen a reason to think otherwise.

  2. Oh....so many, MANY thoughts....

    first, the response of the superintendent is the problem I have with BOTH NCLB and Race to the Top. They encourage Soviet-like behavior - comparison to inferiors instead of striving towards those who are better, and the tendency to see all students as the same (like cogs in a machine, also a Soviet tendency). I believe that Race to the Top will do nothing except further punish schools that are already fighting from behind due to socio-economic status or other factors.

    I do not like standardized tests, I believe that they reward test-taking skills instead of creative thinking and analysis and I think they have been created by niche companies whose goal is not to improve education but rather to sell states on the idea that the only way to measure student achievement is through the use of a test that applies to all students.

    I do, however, think there does need to be a measure of accountability for teachers, and I most definitely agree with you that throwing good money after bad is NOT going to fix ANYTHING. I do not agree that money is the thing that makes one district better than another. I think that we have fallen into the "trap" of capitalism that states that the greatest motivator is money, and I don't agree with that.

    This is something that has been discussed quite a bit on the blog "An Urban Teacher's Education" which is written by a friend of mine.

  3. AMEN!! To so much of that!

    If I had a dollar for every time in my short educational career I was asked to make things 'look' like something rather than actually be something, I could retire.

    There are so many problems colliding at this point I'm not even sure where to begin and how not to make this comment 4083432098092834 pages long.

    Not only does the system fail to address inequity in it's reality, but I also think the American people are confused about what they want from their schools and teachers. "Raise my kid, but don't make him/her accountable--- have high expectations, but ALWAYS make them feel good--- don't make them feel different in any way, yet nourish their individuality--- be a professional, yet be compensated like a calling...." I could go on forever.

  4. @all Well said!

    @Christy Thanks for the tip. I'll check out your friend's blog.

  5. Its a bit different in Australia but I do agree with GEORGES. Poor performing schools can be a reflection of the leadership.
    Another thing is, some children have learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyspraxia etc) and need screening. Many children are very smart at hidding learning problems

  6. Again, love your blog, but I'm still wondering: is your blog private? Meaning: does the super read it too? :D If so; what do the subjects of your stories think of it? Or don't they know this is your blog?

  7. @ CM You bring up a good point about students with special needs and testing/early intervention.

    @Moon The blog is not private, but I do use a pen name. I also change the names of the people who I write about and I don't give their exact location. I have not shared the link to the blog with many people from my personal network. As for the super, I don't work for his district (I came to him from an outside organization).

  8. Sabine:

    One comment I hear a lot is that poorly performing schools are simply the result of poor funding, with the amount of money spent per student (out of the local tax base) correlating directly to student performance. Has that been your experience?


  9. @ Bartacus School finance is complicated (I don't understand it completely myself) and fascinating. CA is currently being sued for what is perceived as an unconstitutional school finance system. I'll share more about the suit and general experiences next time. Thank you for the great question!