ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This fall, Congress is trying - again - to rewrite No Child Left Behind. The federal education law was signed in 2002, and technically, it expired years ago, but it's on the books until it's replaced. NCLB is itself a rewrite of a bill first signed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, a civil rights bill for the nation's schools.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LYNDON JOHNSON: As a son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty.
SIEGEL: Today the law gives billions of federal dollars to schools that serve low-income kids. No Child Left Behind also forced schools to test students annually and recommended tough sanctions for low-performing schools. On Morning Edition, we heard about research that found that most of those sanctions failed - with one remarkable exception. From the NPR Ed team, Cory Turner has the story.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Under No Child Left Behind, the federal government played tough guy. Schools had to get a certain percentage of students to grade-level in reading and math each year or take a beating. Low-performing schools could be forced to pay for tutoring, allow students to transfer, change their curriculum, even lengthen the school day. There's just one problem.
TOM AHN: These sanctions start stacking up, and at the end of the day they don't help the schools to improve.
TURNER: Tom Ahn teaches economics at the University of Kentucky. A few years ago, he wrote a paper about NCLB that many in Congress should be reading. He studied the law's effect on struggling schools in North Carolina because he was working at Duke at the time. He found that in schools where lots of kids were behind, just one thing helped - the last, most feared sanction.
AHN: Restructuring, when it occurs, it's basically a lobotomy.
TURNER: Restructuring in North Carolina most often meant replacing the principal. And Ahn found that often raised student test scores as well as teacher morale. But why? Well, one answer can be found in Durham, N.C.
MAGGIE: Goldfish, Brown bear. OK, blue horse again. Red bird again. OK, and the green frog again.
TURNER: Five-year-old Maggie is in kindergarten at George Watts Montessori Magnet. She's working by herself finding matches for a deck of colorful animal cards. Then her teacher, Amanda Watson, gathers the kids for a Montessori-inspired pledge.
AMANDA WATSON: I am a peacekeeper.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: I am a peacekeeper.
WATSON: I will do my best today.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: I will do my best today.
TURNER: Watts was named a 2015 National Magnet School of Distinction, and it's outperforming nearby schools. This year, it had over 900 applicants for just 65 slots.
PATTI CRUM: We are kind of a little isolated gem.
TURNER: Principal Patti Crum.
CRUM: You know, there are signs in front yards saying that this is George Watts - I mean, the realtors are using that to sell homes.
TURNER: But before No Child Left Behind became law, George Watts Elementary was in trouble. Carol Marshall was principal.
CAROL MARSHALL: The minute that legislation was passed, we knew that our grade was not going to be passing at all.
TURNER: Marshall says the school was already under state supervision for poor performance. Most of its students were bused in from low-income Durham neighborhoods. Ninety percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. Watts was exactly the kind of school Lyndon Johnson had hoped the law would help. Marshall worked tirelessly to improve students' scores, but it was never enough. And she says being considered a failure was demoralizing.
MARSHALL: So you have to protect your teachers from that feeling despite the fact the TV channels call you and ask you how it feels.
TURNER: In 2003, after back surgery, Marshall retired early. It was clear the school was in for a reckoning under No Child Left Behind so the district planned an early restructuring before the law could force one. And this is where Tom Ahn's research comes in, as the district debated who should lead the lobotomy. Durham tapped a principal at a better school nearby. When Nancy Barbour's phone rang, her response was...
NANCY BARBOUR: I think I'm good, you know? I'll just stay here and ride out my time. And then you quickly realize that this wasn't a call to ask you. (Laughter). This was a call letting you know that this was going to be happening.
TURNER: What Barbour did was dramatic. Instead of restructuring...
BARBOUR: We called it a transformation because we were transforming into something totally different.
TURNER: First, she and Crum, who was then her principal intern, converted Watts into a Montessori.
BARBOUR: You don't walk in and see desks, and you don't have textbooks. It's just a whole different way of thinking about school.
TURNER: Remember Maggie?
MAGGIE: Red bird again, OK.
TURNER: In kindergarten, she plays alongside preschoolers. First-graders now sit with second and third-graders, fourth-graders with fifth-graders. Barbour says this puts struggling students at ease because they're in classes where kids are supposed to have varying skill levels. Melissa Blalock, the school's Montessori coordinator, says it's also important to let kids stick with the same teacher for years.
MELISSA BLALOCK: The teacher really gets to know the child very, very well. They get to know their strengths, their challenges. They get to know the family.
TURNER: It would be easy to credit the turnaround at Watts to this Montessori shift, but it also underwent a second change. It became a magnet.
CRUM: So when families live within a certain area, they are chosen first choice in the lottery.
TURNER: Crum, who succeeded Barbour as principal, says that's helped make it a neighborhood school.
CRUM: Hi Aiden. Morning, Ella.
TURNER: Each morning, Crum waits outside greeting the many families who live close enough to walk their kids. Those who can afford to live in the school's priority zone, along the edge of Duke University, get first crack at a coveted space. And with families moving in because of the school, fewer spaces are left each year to kids who live elsewhere. It's a stark contrast to the old days when most students were bused in and Watts was essentially a high-poverty segregated school. Listen to these numbers. Before the change, more than 80 percent of Watts' students were black, just 8 percent white. Today, 21 percent are black and 37 white. Roughly 90 percent used to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Since then that number's dropped by more than 30 points. Teacher Cathy Carinder worried back then that the shift would benefit some kids at the expense of others.
CATHY CARINDER: When we go and we just try to shuffle those kids other places so it becomes not our problem, we're not helping anybody. And I think too much of No Child Left Behind did that.
TURNER: Now, technically, the law didn't tell Durham to turn Watts into a magnet or a Montessori, it just said, fix this school or else. Without that strong message, Barbour says...
BARBOUR: I'm afraid that George Watts would have just continued to have been seen as an unsuccessful, that-school, and that's not fair.
TURNER: Now, it's also not fair to use one case study to judge a law this big, but it is instructive. As researcher Tom Ahn found, restructuring can change a school for the better and often did. Today, Watts is a vibrant neighborhood school. It's also more diverse. Segregated, high-poverty schools aren't just bad policy, they're wrong. But the story of Watts also reveals the law's blind spot. It forced districts to triage low-performing schools on a case-by-case basis. Looking at Watts in isolation, it's a success story, but what about the families that no longer have access to it? According to the state's own ratings, some of the schools left to them aren't much better than the old Watts. The law helped create a pocket of progress bound within the school's century-old walls. But beyond them, 2015 still looks a lot like 2005, which helps explain a small wooden sign hanging in the principal's office. It says, focus on the good. Cory Turner, NPR News, Durham N.C.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.