How to Overhaul NCLB to Help Schools Improve: Implement Common Elements of Success

ESEA needs to shift the emphasis of America's school reform efforts from "tests and sanctions" to implementing what actually works in turning around low-achieving schools.
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We have already seen that NCLB's "tests and sanctions" theory of change rests on false premises and causes harmful effects.

A vast number of Title I-funded schools do not currently have the staff capacity to effectively teach their diverse and disproportionately disadvantaged students an intellectually challenging curriculum, nor do the students' families now widely have the capacity to effectively support their children's learning at a high academic level at home. Yet, present federal strategy essentially only orders schools to do whatever it takes to raise students' standardized test scores. Because this strategy fails to address the underlying problems, it cannot and will not succeed.

If NCLB's purpose was to put a public spotlight on the fact that many children in public schools, particularly disadvantaged children, are not learning enough, it has succeeded. But, if its purpose was to dramatically improve student learning, NCLB and its "theory of change" have failed.

If our nation is serious about seeking to accomplish NCLB's vital goals of raising virtually all students to academic proficiency and closing achievement gaps, its emphasis must shift from "tests and sanctions" to giving schools the guidance and help they need to greatly enhance students' learning.

The proper federal role is to provide insightful leadership and policies for the most effective and efficient use of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)/NCLB funds, while respectfully providing states and localities flexibility on the details of how to implement federal policy in their own special circumstances.

Above all, federal school reform policy must stop its wasteful and self-defeating reliance on continually reinventing the wheel -- having each state and locality figure out on its own how to improve its Title I-funded schools. Instead, ESEA needs to focus these schools on implementing the substantial amount already known about what works to turn around low-achieving schools.

As stated in "Common Elements of Successful School Turnarounds: Research and Experience", (Ratner and Neill), "research and experience have shown that successful turnarounds share a number of common strategies." These shared strategies may be grouped into five "common elements." As drawn from "Common Elements," key strategies include:

1)Leadership - a skilled, strong and committed principal who serves as the catalyst for change, develops a vision for the school to dramatically improve student learning, engages the teachers, staff, parents, students and community in the vision, and shares leadership responsibilities with teachers and other stakeholders, working closely together in teams.

2)Instructional Improvement - teachers regularly collaborating on lesson plans and analyzes of students' work and performance data; providing individual mentoring and professional development to meet the content and pedagogical needs of specific teachers; establishing a coherent school-wide system of effective teaching practices that engages students in higher-order thinking and effectively assesses student learning; and, after offering assistance, replacing teachers not motivated to participate in the school's turnaround efforts.

3)Curriculum - teaching a curriculum that is intellectually rigorous and broad, relevant to the children's culture and experiences, engages their interests, and is aligned so that the higher the grade, the greater the challenge.

4)Climate - establishing a school-wide norm of high expectations that all students will achieve academically and behave properly, a safe and orderly environment and mutually respectful and supportive relationships among staff; staff sharing responsibility for all students' learning and providing extra personal and academic support to the students most in need.

5)Parent and Community Involvement and Support - providing programs to strengthen parents' capacity to support their children's learning at home and engage parents to become involved with the school; community members volunteering as tutors, mentors and enrichment providers; school pupil services professionals addressing students' behavioral and other non-academic barriers to learning; and the school's working closely with community and local governmental institutions to address external student and family obstacles to students' learning.

A collaborative, organic, multi-year turnaround process focusing especially on how to implement these common elements has been recommended by the Forum on Educational Accountability (an organization in which I am active).

While these common elements have been identified in the context of turning around low-achieving schools, the common elements themselves are characteristic of good schools generally. There is every reason to believe that their adoption by Title I-funded schools would dramatically improve the schools and student learning.

Since ESEA's mandate that all public schools must implement Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and 2014 100 percent "proficiency" is arbitrary, unworkable and harmful, and its mandate that Title I-funded schools repeatedly failing AYP must carry out escalating sanctions is misconceived and widely ineffective, these requirements should be eliminated. (Disaggregated achievement data for subgroups of students by race/ethnicity, poverty, disability and limited English proficiency should still be reported.)

Instead, the reauthorized ESEA should incorporate the common elements as one of its central features. It should: encourage all Title I-funded schools to implement the elements to the extent that they have not already done so; require these schools to publicly report annually on the extent of their implementation and any obstacles they face; and, provide grants to increase states' capacity to assist districts and schools to adopt the elements. Finally, ESEA should mandate that the lowest-achieving schools implement these elements as the centerpiece of any turnaround process the Government may require them to undertake.

In short, ESEA needs to shift the emphasis of America's school reform efforts from "tests and sanctions" to implementing what actually works in turning around low-achieving schools. Congress needs to frame its programs and funding accordingly. So shifting ESEA's spotlight - from the inadequacy of student learning to the common elements of success -- would be a giant step toward achieving our nation's education goals.

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