Takeover policy fails poor schools


Using its authority under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the Maryland State Board of Education last week voted to take over 11 Baltimore public schools. Politics aside, the takeover and the NCLB policies it is based on are flawed.

Over the past four years, we have examined NCLB to understand how this law is affecting schools serving the most-disadvantaged students - the ones it was designed to help. While there are a number of noble goals in the law, it is based on assumptions that schools can make large and rapid gains in achievement scores and that a mix of publicly labeling schools as failures and imposing sanctions will force these schools to make gains that never before have been achieved.

The law requires that all children make yearly progress toward each state's proficiency level, but does not reflect the statistical reality that the students, schools and subgroups furthest behind would have to make more progress each year to avoid sanctions.

The result has been the imposition of special burdens and requirements and higher and more rapid loss of resources on the schools serving the most-disadvantaged population. Once these schools have been "identified for improvement," they face sanctions. They also face being publicly branded as failures, at much higher levels than schools for the affluent, even if they achieve the same rate of academic growth as their more-affluent peers.

The law also does not recognize what research tells us about reforming poorly performing schools in high-poverty areas; it takes time, lots of resources and committed and skilled administrators and teachers.

The law is silent on the role of principals in school improvement but does make assumptions about teachers: If they just work harder, students will do better. It puts schools and the teachers who work in them under intense pressure to do better or risk losing their jobs when the school is reconstituted or taken over by the state.

Teachers recognize the impact that the NCLB sanctions, such as those being applied in Baltimore, can have on their schools. In a survey of teachers that we conducted as part of our study on NCLB, three-fourths of the teachers in schools that were sanctioned under NCLB planned to leave that school.

Teachers also believed that the NCLB sanctions would cause teachers to transfer out of schools not making adequate yearly progress.

These findings suggest that it is very difficult to get teachers to make a long-term commitment to such schools and that the "reforms" advocated by NCLB may make things worse.

State takeovers of public schools are a reform idea dating to the 1980s and reinforced under the current federal law. Although a number of states have tried this reform - including Maryland - there is very little evidence that any state has been able to transform low-performing schools, situated in the most-impoverished areas of the country, into the high-achieving schools demanded under NCLB.

A study by the Education Commission of the States, a compact of state education agencies, concluded in a 2004 report that takeovers were "yielding more gains in central office activities than in classroom instructional practices."

Little progress was noted on academic gains, certainly nothing like the gains required by NCLB: "Student achievement still oftentimes falls short of expectations. ... In most cases, academic results are usually mixed at best, with increases in student performances in some areas ... and decreases in student performance in other areas."

A better alternative for Baltimore schoolchildren and the Maryland State Board of Education would be to recognize that reform is a long-term process that takes resources and a commitment to building capacity from all those involved.

Gary Orfield is a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University and director of the Civil Rights Project. Gail Sunderman, senior research associate at the project, director of its national study of NCLB and first author of "NCLB Meets School Realities," lives in Baltimore. Their e-mail addresses are orfield@gmail.com and glsunderman@yahoo.com.

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