State should fix failing schools, not just threaten them

The federal government is scaling back its role in the schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which replaces No Child Left Behind (NCLB), will enhance the authority that states and school districts have over their schools.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

For advocates and friends of GS4A, which is promoting the establishment of magnet schools in Rochester to decrease the effects of poverty and segregation, here are some elements of  the new law and other factors to consider as it takes effect:

  • The U.S. Department of Education will require states to identify their poorest performing schools. States will be allowed to direct more money to these schools. This could be up to 7 percent of the Title I money allocated to the state.
  • The poorest performing schools—those in the lowest 5 percent statewide—will be defined as priority schools. Schools  with a graduation rate of less than 67 percent also qualify as priority schools. Focus schools are a step up from the priority schools but still have high numbers of non-proficient students in sub-groups.
  • New York State’s accountability system is currently based on math and English Language Arts assessments in grades 3-8 and Regents exams at the high school level along with graduation rates.
  • The “opt out” movement” is the wild card here. It is unclear how the Department of Education and New York will determine accountability status if large groups of students refuse to take the assessments or if they will be penalized for high numbers of opt outs.
  • There are still racial, language, disability and other sub-group components that factor into a school’s status and districts will have to design evidenced-based plans to turn these schools around. Each state will define what that evidence is, which may turn out to be more than a semantic argument.
  • Schools that fail to improve for up to four years must be taken over by the state.
  • While the U.S. Department of Education still requires testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school, states can scale back the role these tests play in gauging school progress.
  • States can move away from the Common Core curriculum and teacher evaluations linked with student test scores, as New York State has done.

There is much more in the law and terms like “quality,” “evidence” and “accountability” will no doubt be interpreted differently state-to-state and district-to-district. But this is a new era that gives states and localities more flexibility to try new ideas with schools mired in poverty. And Rochester has nothing but high-poverty schools.

The trouble is, flexibility doesn’t seem like much help for a school district as burdened by poverty as Rochester. As RCSD parents, my wife and I received a letter last week listing the Priority Schools, Focus Schools, and schools in Good Standing.

Twenty-eight of the 51 schools on the list are priority schools. There are two charter schools included on this list. Let that sink in. The students in these 28 schools are among the lowest 5 percent in the state and they comprise over half the schools in Rochester. In fact these 28 schools comprise about 16 percent of the statewide list. When you add in the Focus schools, there are only 10 schools in Good Standing in Rochester.

So I went to the master list of all the schools in the state (found here) and started looking for schools in Monroe County, but I stopped after finding that all the schools in Brockport, Brighton, Churchville Chili, Fairport, Honeoye Falls Lima and others in Monroe County were in good standing. I did not get to the P’s. There are a lot of schools on this list. But I doubt that parents in Penfield of Pittsford made got same letter that I did.

So no matter how much flexibility we have in measuring progress in the Rochester city schools, there is no massaging the central reality: We are past the tipping point. Some of the charters have made modest progress and schools 7, 15, 23, 25 and a few others are holding their own—for right now. School of the Arts and School Without Walls are also in Good Standing. But they are the only high schools in Good Standing.

Academic progress and accountability are important. But this annual ritual of assessment only serves a purpose for those districts, schools, principals and teachers who can use the data to improve outcomes. You see that is how assessment works. When I was a principal our school used the results of state and local assessments to understand the gaps that we needed to fill in our curriculum and the skills that we needed to develop in our students. Then we could adjust our professional development to provide teachers with support in these areas. But the city’s problems cannot be addressed by shifting resources or tweaking instructional techniques. The RCSD cannot fix its schools—no matter how many times the state threatens to take them over.

As a city parent and a city taxpayer I’m tired of report cards that do no more than belittle city schools. If New York State truly wants to turn around priority schools, it should provide the opportunities and the financial incentives for the inter district collaboration that can actually produce better outcomes for the poorest kids in our community.

This annual scolding just doesn’t cut it.