Chronically Failing Schools Face Weak Sanctions

Published December 1, 2005

Although the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) calls for severe sanctions, including remedies such as state takeover and restructuring, against schools that chronically fail to meet certain performance benchmarks, the reality is that over the past five years few schools have been forced to face sanctions more severe than the ones they dole out to themselves, according to policy analysts and a September report from the Denver-based Education Commission of the States (ECS).

In late September, Massachusetts Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll called for the state to take over three schools with persistently low test scores. The state took over one, Matthew J. Kuss Middle School in Fall River, last year. In practice, a takeover means the state can remove the principal and require the district to increase spending at the school. However, like most current restructuring efforts under NCLB, the state intervention will likely lead only to mild reform for the low-performing schools in Massachusetts.

As the Providence Journal editorialized on October 3, “although the state’s experiment in managing these four schools may lead to improvements for the children attending them five or ten years from now, the current students will remain stuck in poor schools–as many of them have been for as long as they have attended school.”

Similarly, a September 29 Sacramento Bee feature reported 249 California schools reached federal limits for failure after more than five consecutive years of missing federal test-score benchmarks. The article concluded those schools will probably get by without much legitimate reform, as the state of California has been slow to enforce restructuring options in the federal law.

Across the nation, more than 9,000 schools have not met federal standards, and hundreds of schools will soon be required to “restructure” under NCLB.

Restructuring Schools Have Options

NCLB was designed to help make schools more accountable for student achievement and to make school performance more transparent. However, in order for NCLB to offer meaningful improvement for low-performing schools, there must be meaningful consequences for persistently underperforming schools, said Matthew Ladner, director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice, a school choice advocacy organization based in Phoenix. NCLB requires that schools failing to make “adequate yearly progress” for five or more years must face severe consequences known as restructuring.

According to the ECS report about state restructuring efforts under NCLB, the federal law offers five options for school restructuring:

  • reopening the school as a public charter school;
  • replacing all or most of the school staff (which may include the principal) who are relevant to the failure to make adequate yearly progress;
  • entering into a contract with an entity, such as a private management company, with a demonstrated record of effectiveness, to operate the public school;
  • turning the operation of the school over to the state educational agency, if permitted under state law and agreed to by the state; or
  • any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms, such as significant changes in the school’s staffing and governance.

According to the ECS report, restructuring efforts to date have been slow and weak at best. The federal government has offered states little detailed guidance on restructuring; states have mostly left it up to local school districts to decide how to restructure low-performing schools; and the districts have chosen mild school interventions that mostly fall into the vague fifth option of “other” major restructuring efforts.

Lax Approach Continues

“School district administrators most often choose mild interventions, such as changing the curriculum or offering technical assistance,” said Rebecca Wolfe DiBiase, a charter school expert and author of the ECS report, “rather than strong interventions such as converting low-performing schools into charter schools or using outside management companies to operate low-performing schools.”

In California, for example, the majority of fifth-year failing schools have taken the vaguely worded “any other major restructuring” option, said Wendy Harris, an assistant superintendent in the state Department of Education.

As Los Angeles Unified School District spokeswoman Barbara Mecka told the Sacramento Bee on September 29, “at Los Angeles Unified, where nine schools entered the fifth-year phase last year, other restructuring included extensive staff changes, bringing in outside consultants, creating small learning communities, or a combination of the above.”

NCLB’s restructuring sanctions have had little success at providing better schooling options for students attending low-performing schools. School district administrators may feel threatened by some of the more significant reforms that diminish their control, such as state takeover, reopening as a charter, or private management. For that reason, the ECS report predicts the prevailing trend of accepting mild and moderate, rather than strong, improvement strategies from districts will be the norm in the future.

Lisa Snell ([email protected]) is education director at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.

For more information …

To read the entire text of the report, “State Involvement in School Restructuring Under No Child Left Behind in the 2004-2005 School Year,” by Rebecca Wolf DiBiase, visit the Education Commission of the States Web site at