States Struggle With Next Step for Failing Schools

The No Child Left Behind Act spells out what schools should do to improve if they fail to meet their performance goals. It mandates progressively severe interventions each year.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Raise test scores or face the consequences. That's the basic principle behind the federal No Child Left Behind law. For schools that don't measure up, the consequences get worse.

Each year for five years, the law spells out progressively stronger interventions. But what about schools that still can't meet their goals after five years, despite all efforts to turn them around?

As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, Michigan is one of the first states to face this problem, and soon others will be in the same situation.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

Levi Barber Middle School, in Detroit, has been on Michigan's list of failing schools for six years in a row. Barber is a big, imposing three-story building in a quiet neighborhood. The hallways and classrooms look clean, kids are polite but noisy, like most 13 and 14 year olds. Nearly all of the 670 students here are black and poor. Many are struggling academically, although in the last couple of years their math and reading scores on state tests have improved significantly.

Randall Moody is the principal.

Mr. RANDALL MOODY (Principal, Levi Barber Middle School): Last year we scored in reading 59 percent.

SANCHEZ: That means six in ten kids at Barber are reading at grade level.

Mr. MOODY: When we look at mathematics, we were at 56.4 percent. That would be proficiency.

SANCHEZ: Still, four out of ten students at Barber today flunked the state's math and reading tests. Moody and his staff has done just about everything that struggling schools are required to do under No Child Left Behind. Barber has revamped its curriculum, provided a lot more one-on-one tutoring, brought in special advisors and even overhauled the way the school is managed, just like the law requires.

But now with Barber in Phase Six, its sixth year on the state's list of failing schools, the law offers no guidance.

Dr. YVONNE CAAMAL CANUL (Office of School Improvement, Michigan Department of Education): Yep. We didn't get much guidance on what Phase Six would look like.

SANCHEZ: Dr. Yvonne Caamal Canul, heads the Office of School Improvement at the Michigan Department of Education. She says half a dozen schools in Michigan are in Phase Six. So Caamal Canul, along with her counterparts in several states, have asked the United States Education Department for advice.

Dr. CAAMAL CANUL: We said, well, what sanction options are you considering for Phase Six, or are people just in a holding pattern after they restructure? How long do they get to stay in a restructured mode if they continue not to make adequate yearly progress? What happens?

SANCHEZ: Nobody seems to know. So, we're on our own, says Caamal Canul.

When NPR called the United States Education Department to talk about Michigan's Phase Six schools, a public affairs officer sent this email:

We've had school improvement guidance on the website for years. Additionally, we're sure we provide technical assistance to states on school improvement.

But education groups that have been monitoring state's compliance with No Child Left Behind say the Department's technical assistance does not cover Phase Six schools. With so many schools across the country about to enter their fifth and sixth years of inadequate yearly progress, United States Education Secretary Margaret Spellings seems concerned.

Ms. MARGARET SPELLINGS (United States Education Secretary): Thank you for tuning in. As I assume everybody knows, now that No Child Left Behind is maturing, and as we see --

SANCHEZ: That's Spellings in a conference call with reporters earlier this month.

Ms. SPELLINGS: We are now in our five-years into implementing No Child Left Behind. We have seen good progress, but, you know, without consequences, accountability is hollow. And there are still intractable educational situations where parents need options.

SANCHEZ: In other words, Spellings seemed to be saying there comes a point when a school has been failing so long, parents will want to leave. So along with the $200 million dollars the Bush Administration is proposing for restructuring schools, it's asking Congress for $100 million dollars to subsidize private tutoring services or vouchers for parents who see no light at the end of the tunnel and want to enroll their children in private schools.

Yvonne Caamal Canul says vouchers and other drastic measures, like handing schools over to private management companies or turning them into charter schools, are not good options. Michigan's 436 failing schools need help, not a death sentence, says Caamal Canul.

Dr. CAAMAL CANUL: We're going to watch. We're going to come in, and we're going to ask you questions. We have the option at the state level to shut you down and that's not the option we're interested in taking.

SANCHEZ: You don't feel you are, you the state, are under a lot of pressure to do something more radical?

Dr. CAAMAL CANUL: I think we are under pressure to do things that are more radical. But we want to hear their story.

SANCHEZ: And the story at Barber Middle School, says Caamal Canul, is hopeful.

Dr. CAAMAL CANUL: Barber has done incredible things. They really have done just about everything they could possibly do.

SANCHEZ: It's almost three in the afternoon. The school day at Barber has ended. Kids flock past the doors into the narrow, icy streets that wrap around the school.

Randall Moody, the Principal, has brought me to the school's huge, ornate library to meet his leadership team, a dozen veteran teachers and counselors. But first, Moody pulls out a thick, three-ring binder with graphs and spreadsheets showing students' academic progress from the year 2000 to the present.

Moody says everybody at Barber has raised their scores on the state tests, or MEAP, except one group, special education students. Barber has 144, a fifth of the school's total enrollment.

Mr. MOODY: We have children who are emotionally impaired, we have students that are learning disabled, we have students that are POHI, which are physically or otherwise health-impaired. Many of these students have severe deficits and are required, by the law, that they take the MEEP test.

SANCHEZ: Few though can handle the state's math and reading tests, says Moody. So --

Mr. MOODY: The entire school was identified as being a failing school and moved from Phase Five to Phase Six.

SANCHEZ: Moody and his staff are convinced that as long as the federal government requires that 97% of special education students take the same test everybody else has to take, Barber is likely to remain on the state's list of failing schools.

The federal government's response to this is, schools need to hold special education students to high standards too. That's what's imbedded in No Child Left Behind.

Linda Mulberry, a reading specialist, says everybody at Barber works hard to help disabled students. But she says kids and teachers here have been waling around for the last six years wit a big F stamped on their foreheads.

Ms. LINDA MULBERRY (Reading specialist, Michigan): And we're not F by any means, and that's not wishful thinking. We are an excellent school.

SANCHEZ: So what is it exactly that you want the state and federal government to do with schools like Barber, I ask? Are you saying, give us more time, leave us alone, is that what you're saying? No, says Moody.

Mr. MOODY: No, that's not what you're hearing us say. And I don't want anyone to not hold us accountable. I want to be held accountable. If there is an administrator who can do a better job than what I have been doing in this building over the past 19 years, then I implore the Detroit Public School System to bring that person to Barber and let them take the helm of the school.

I have an excellent staff, and we're working as hard as we possibly can.

SANCHEZ: But that's still not good enough, given the law's requirements. Which means states and the federal government need to agree on what to do with schools like Barber before they enter their seventh, eighth, or ninth year of low test scores.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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