More schools facing No Child Left penalties
Associated Press
May. 10, 2006

Ben Feller

WASHINGTON - Falling short of requirements under President Bush's education law, about 1,750 U.S. schools have been ordered into radical "restructuring," subject to mass firings, closure, state takeover or other moves aimed at wiping their slates clean.

Many are finding resolutions short of such drastic measures. But there is growing concern that the number of schools in serious trouble under the No Child Left Behind law is rising sharply, up 44 percent over the past year alone, and is expected to swell in the next few years.

Schools make the list by falling short in math or reading for at least five straight years.

In perspective, the total amounts to 3 percent of roughly 53,000 schools that get federal poverty aid and face penalties under the No Child Left Behind law.

"It's just a matter of time before we see upwards of 10,000 schools in restructuring," said Michael Petrilli, a former enforcement official at the Education Department.

"Unless all of these schools suddenly turn themselves around, or the states continue to find ways to finagle the system, you're going to see the numbers accelerate," said Petrilli, now vice president for policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a school-change organization.

The Associated Press reported last month that schools were deliberately not counting the test scores of nearly 2 million students, mostly minorities, when they measure progress by racial groups. Those exclusions have made it easier for schools to meet their yearly goals.

Still, more than a quarter of the nation's schools have failed to make adequate yearly progress for at least one year. Many will keep moving along the law's penalty timeline. A district must choose an overhaul plan for a school by the fifth year, then act on it in the following year.

For example, in Tucson, the Anna Lawrence Intermediate School for five years has failed to show enough reading progress among its students. So the district has ordered a total overhaul. All employees must reapply for their jobs.

The school's plan also calls for a longer school day, expanded tutoring, and bonus pay for instructors deemed to be master teachers.

"It's actually a positive, something to be excited about," said Ross Sheard, a supervisor of principals for the Tucson Unified School District. "We're not being dictated to. We're being told, 'You come up with a solution.'"

Anna Lawrence is one of 12 Arizona schools that receive federal poverty funding and failed to pass Adequate Yearly Progress for a fifth year in 2005. As of 2005, 234 of 1,781 district and charter schools had missed the federal requirement for at least one year.

That's down from 304 schools in 2004. But the U.S. Department of Education may require Arizona to include the test scores of more English-language learners in their calculations for 2006 and, for the first time, the state will add reading and math test scores from fourth-, sixth- and seventh-graders.

In past years, Adequate Yearly Progress was calculated using only third-, fifth- and eighth-grade scores. Assistant Education Secretary Henry Johnson said he's not encouraged by the growing number of schools ordered to make a drastic change. But the trend also shows the law is working, he said, by identifying schools that have underserved poor and minority kids.

Of the directions districts are forced to take, most choose a general reform option that allows for approaches that are easier to pull off than firing teachers or opening under new management.

"Most schools are not doing radical things," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, which has studied restructuring efforts in California and Michigan.

"They are offering professional development, rethinking the curriculum, bringing coaches in, and trying to improve the school without wiping the slate clean," he said.

The Education Department monitors whether districts are restructuring schools and aims to help them assist. But it does not get involved in how they do it.

"I don't know that we have a preferred way," said Johnson, the Education Department official. "Whatever way that works is the preferred way."

Yet some see an enormous loophole. Free to choose "any other major restructuring," districts have opted for milder remedies that won't turn schools around, Petrilli said.

"This is a credibility issue," he said. "If parents get information that their school is failing for six straight years, and everyone keeps their job, how is that a restructuring?"

Each year a school falls short, the consequences grow, from letting students transfer to offering tutoring to installing a new curriculum or some other major step. Then comes the order to restructure.

Nationwide, the number of schools in the final penalty phase varies widely because states started the countdown at different times.

The law has been in effect for four school years. Yet some states list schools as failing for five or six years based on testing and data reporting that began before the law.

California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania account for almost 70 percent of all schools ordered to restructure.