Imperfect list of ‘worst’ schools
State education officials are still tinkering with the list of 188 of the “worst” schools two days before the State Board of Education is required to approve it.
The continued delays in completing the list and uncertainties about a federal improvement program have frustrated school district officials. They may not know until the state board votes on Thursday whether some schools they’ve already told to expect drastic interventions will actually have to go through with them. Some superintendents are arguing that their schools shouldn’t have been put on the list in the first place.
They may be right; there are quirks in the methodology. But making the list could be viewed as an opportunity, not just a label of failure. Each school will be entitled to between $150,000 and $6 million over three years, depending on their size and improvement strategy.
In return for the money, districts must pick one of four jarring strategies:
- Closing down the school;
- Converting to a charter school;
- Firing the principal and teachers, with the option of rehiring no more than half of the staff; and
- Transforming it – a broadly defined option that would include a longer school day.
The federal government is requiring that states designate the 5 percent of “persistently lowest performing schools” that can pursue federal school improvement money – $415 million over three years in California’s case.
Since January, the state and federal departments of education have been sparring over which schools should be included. Finally, on Monday, the state released a preliminary list of 188 schools on the list. They include 183 schools with low percentages of students proficient in English language arts and math (here and here) and five high schools with a graduation rate of less than 60 percent. The schools on the list have faced sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Some have changed principals and curriculums already. But this marks the most determined effort by the federal government to turn around schools that for years, if not decades, have been immune to improvement. What’s not been proven is whether the four strategies chosen by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will work.
In releasing the list on Monday, state education officials said that they weren’t finished revising it and that several dozen schools, high schools and middle schools from this list, may be replaced. The state’s still struggling to get the parameters right because of imprecise criteria imposed by the feds and the Legislature. Two schools in San Jose’s Alum Rock Union with API scores above 700, for example, can’t reasonably be labeled among the state’s worst middle schools.
Complications with the criteria
One complication is that the Legislature exempted all schools that increased their API scores 50 points over the past five years. That’s not a high bar, and apparently a bunch of very low-performing schools – the state hasn’t said how many – got off the list that way. The state then included schools with students more proficient in English and math but whose API hadn’t grown 50 points.
All of the schools on the list are either Title I schools – low-income schools that receive federal anti-poverty aid – or middle and high schools that were eligible for Title I money but, by their districts’ choice, don’t receive it. Adding the lowest 5 percent of those schools to the list, as the feds required, also apparently ensnared some higher performing schools. San Jose Unified Superintendent Don Iglesias, who has two middle schools on the list, plans to complain to the state board about the disparities created by the methodology in a hearing this week.
As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, the state’s list of 23 Los Angeles Unified schools doesn’t include a half-dozen schools that the district had designated as warranting a takeover, including Garfield and Fremont high schools. No district can have more than 10 percent of schools on the list.
Schools on the list will have until June to apply for the federal money and then start the restructuring this fall. However, because the state has delayed the list until now, some districts may be precluded from closing the schools, converting to a charter or requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs. Choosing those options could require handing out layoff notices to teachers in those schools, and the last day to do that, under state law, is Monday, March 15.
Schools on the list technically aren’t required to seek the federal assistance, and so could escape doing anything, at least for a year if not, in theory, indefinitely. But turning aside the money that might not again be available would probably be foolish. The feds or the Legislature will likely close the loophole in the law to make restructuring mandatory not voluntary.
The federal law is also unclear whether this will be a one-time or annual list of failing schools and what will be required to exit the intervention program.