School Re-structuring Options Fail in the US

Kevin Rudd’s threat to apply school re-structuring sanctions against schools that fail to improve student achievement is doomed to failure according to a new US report on school sanctions. The report concludes that there is little to no evidence that re-structuring requirements for low performing schools deliver any improvements in student achievement.

The report shows that there is little difference in test scores before and after sanctions are applied and that the differences as likely to be negative as positive. In highly dysfunctional school environments where dramatic change was needed, some positive organizational effects have been reported. However, negative side effects are frequently recorded. These include increased segregation, termination of or dramatic shifts in ongoing reform efforts, substantial short-term drops in achievement scores, and organizational instability.

It recommends that policy makers should refrain from relying on re-structuring sanctions to effect school improvement because they have produced negative by-products without yielding systemic positive effects. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard would do well to heed this advice.

The report just published by the Education and Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado reviews the experience with US federal requirements for sanctions to be applied to low performing schools. Under the No Child Left Behind Act if a school does not make its adequate yearly progress targets after four previous years of being “in need of improvement,” it must implement a fundamental restructuring plan.

The restructuring options are: (1) turn the school operations over to the state, (2) turn the operations over to a private company, (3) reopen as a charter school, or (4) reconstitute the school by replacing some or all of the teachers, staff and administrators.

Kevin Rudd has threatened to apply the fourth option in Australia. He has said that senior teachers and principals in low performing schools will be fired if their schools fail to improve. He has also threatened closure of the schools as the ultimate sanction.

The report says that this sanction has not been widely used in the US, but where it has there was little to no impact on student achievement. The schools where it has been applied have experienced a great deal of disruption with no gains in test scores. The report notes that finding qualified teachers in challenging urban areas can be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible.

The research shows some positive findings, noting that low quality teachers were often removed, negative school climates changed, and order re-established in chaotic situations. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggested that the staff and surrounding community were stigmatized and demoralized.

The report also finds little evidence in support of the other sanctions.

The first option of turning school operations over to the state is not relevant to the Australian education system as it involves the transfer of administration of schools from district school boards to state administrators. Frequently, a state takeover is an intermediate step to a hand-off to private corporations (Educational Management Organizations) or to city mayors. The report concludes that states lack the capacity to operate school districts, takeovers are politically controversial, and they “have yet to produce dramatic and consistent increases in student performance.”

Turning schools over to private management under so-called Education Management Organizations has not proved effective. At best, the evidence is equivocal. Overall, the report found no consistent test score advantages for this option, while disruption and teacher turnover are high. It found that substantial test score losses are commonly reported in early years, with some controversial evidence suggesting that these losses are recovered in later years.

As regards the charter school option, major national studies consistently indicate that charter schools have not demonstrated any clear test score advantage over regular public schools after prior achievement and demographic differences are considered. Unintended consequences often include increased segregation along ethnic, ability and socio-economic lines. No systemic evidence exists that they have yielded more innovation in educational practices than have other public schools.

The report concludes its discussion of the evidence on the four sanctions as follows:

“None of the four major ultimate restructuring options—takeovers, private management, charters, and reconstitutions—has been shown to hold particular promise as an effective school reform strategy. The evidence suggests that, on average, private management and charter schools do not deliver the promised improvements. Our knowledge of takeovers and reconstitutions is more limited and confounded. Nevertheless, the lack of test score progress under any of these options, combined with negative side effects, is at best no improvement and at worst harmful. Given that these approaches are being proposed for the nation’s most troubled schools, the solutions are likely to be woefully inadequate.”

It says there are more productive approaches to improving school and student achievement. They lie in programs with direct and demonstrable links to the educational, social and health needs of children.

“This requires addressing poverty and health systems, shifting our emphasis to reforms with proven effectiveness, implementing and properly funding academic programs for our most needy children, and making adequate and focused investments in school improvements.”

The report recommends that policy makers should support strategies that have been empirically demonstrated to yield significant school improvement. These include early education, longer school years and days, small school communities, intense personal intervention, strong counselling, and social support systems.

Trevor Cobbold

The University of Colorado report is available from this link

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