Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Failing Schools
Today's NYTimes offers a No Child Left Behind update, as many states are entering the all-important 5th year of evaluation, when "failing schools" may be labeled "chronically failing" and the law recommends strong measures for fixing them - things like shutting down schools, firing teachers and administrators, having the state take over a school's operation, things like that. So what do you do when your failing schools number more than, say, one or two?
[M]ore than 1,000 of California’s 9,500 schools are branded chronic failures, and the numbers are growing. Barring revisions in the law, state officials predict that all 6,063 public schools serving poor students will be declared in need of restructuring by 2014, when the law requires universal proficiency in math and reading.
And it's not just in Cali:
In Florida, 441 schools could be candidates for closing. In Maryland, some 49 schools in Baltimore alone have fallen short of achievement targets for five years or more. In New York State, 77 schools were candidates for restructuring as of last year.
Yet so far, education experts say they are unaware of a single state that has taken over a failing school in response to the law. Instead, most allow school districts to seek other ways to improve.
And why is that? Because the mandate remains unfunded by the federal government and most other remedies have built-in obstacles. You want to fire the crappy teachers? Too bad. Labor agreements have precedent under NCLB. You want to shut down the worst school or 2? Where will you put all the kids? Who will pay for a new school, or wants to argue for overcrowding others? Want to identify which teachers are struggling the most to prepare students for the tests? You can't. Only school-wide results are available for administrative scrutiny.

So, let's review. Schools are teaching to tests that - for many reasons - their students can't pass, so parents and school administrators are forced to choose from a variety of supposed options that aren't realistic possibilities, and aren't funded even if they were. So the school districts - who didn't ask for, and likely don't want, these state-imposed, test-based standards - are required to come up with an acceptable plan - required, that is, by the same federal government whose own suggestions are completely unworkable. Sounds great, huh?

Meanwhile, most public schools continue to serve primarily the poorest and least supported of students. The best-prepared students in the best circumstances to succeed academically continue to attend private schools, or gravitate to magnet and charter schools where they can be conveniently surrounded by other kids with already-sharp minds and involved parents, which is great for them - and an understandable choice I would probably make myself. But what's left for standard community public schools? Just curious - If we distributed *all the kids* from private, magnet, and charter schools among our neighborhood public schools, I wonder how those schools would perform?

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