Fixing schools usually fails

Report on efforts of 3 Md. districts finds little improvement in decade of trying

December 06, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN REPORTER

Maryland's attempts to turn around its worst schools in the past several years have largely failed, according to a report by a Washington-based nonprofit education research group.

Of the 76 schools labeled failing for at least five years, only 12, or 16 percent, have improved significantly since 2004, the Center on Education Policy found.

"Even in an advanced state like Maryland, that has tried to deal with these problems for a decade ... we just don't know what to do," said Jack Jennings, president of CEP.

The most commonly tried solution - bringing in a turnaround specialist - usually doesn't work, the report said. And a newer option, replacing the teaching staff, has caused disruption but hasn't gotten results.

Maryland is to be commended, Jennings said, for learning from what doesn't work and changing its strategy so that it no longer allows turnaround specialists as an option. The lesson for other states around the nation, he said, is "that we ought to be humble ... that it is a long, hard slog to bring about change, and it is something we just have to keep working at."

CEP took a close look at Maryland because it is one of a handful of states that began a comprehensive testing program in the early 1990s, before the No Child Left Behind Act made that mandatory across the nation. The state had already begun identifying troubled schools when the federal law passed, so school systems here have been experimenting with solutions longer than elsewhere in the country.

The report underlines what is still the prevailing question in education: What should school districts do to fix schools that have long histories of failure? While there are isolated examples of schools that overcome the odds, there has not been an inexpensive solution that has fixed a large number of urban public schools.

Some staffs where there was improvement told the CEP researcher that NCLB is focusing on the wrong issues. They say it wasn't the changes they were forced to make by the state, but other fixes they initiated that made the difference, such as providing tutoring after school and on Saturdays, changing curriculum or providing more training for teachers. And they say that family and socioeconomic issues outside a school's influence can hinder its success.

"Teachers are saying that there is too much emphasis on test-driven accountability and structural changes instead of what they consider the essential elements of education ... the relationship between teachers and students," Jennings said.

On the other side, though, NCLB has kept the pressure on school districts to focus more clearly on how to make schools work better, he said.

CEP hired a researcher who spent more than six months interviewing teachers and principals and analyzing data from the schools in the state that were designated for "restructuring" under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Maryland State Department of Education officials largely agree with the report. "I guess it is a fairly accurate assessment of where we are as a state. We have learned a lot," said Ann Chafin, an assistant superintendent in charge of restructuring schools.

The report looked at schools in Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Baltimore counties as well as Baltimore City, which has 79 percent of all the state's failing schools.

Federal law requires states to order changes in school management when there is a history of failure. If a school district were to refuse to take certain steps to improve its failing schools, the district would jeopardize its federal funds.

Maryland was the first state to attempt to take over failing schools under a plan proposed by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and endorsed by the state board.

The attempt backfired, and the Maryland General Assembly voted in 2006 to put a moratorium on state takeovers. Grasmick has made no further attempts.

Jennings said most states have not chosen to try to turn their failing schools into charters or to take them over.

Instead, they have chosen other options, many of which have to do with changing who runs the school. School districts can replace a principal with one who is better trained, contract with a private company to run a school or try one of several national models for reforming an entire school.

Chafin said she believed the most popular choice among the options used to be putting in a turn-around specialist, usually a retired principal or someone from the district with expertise in running schools, to help the principal improve the school. Those choices have failed in most cases, Chafin believes, because the schools have deep-rooted problems reaching back many years.

"Any one person walking in the door cannot bring to the table what they need," Chafin said.

State officials say they believe that replacing staff at two schools, Annapolis High and Woodlawn Middle, could prove beneficial even though it caused problems initially. Annapolis High decided to restructure voluntarily, a year before it might have been required to by the state.

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