Ideological debate over low-performing schools underlies Pa. plan to comply with new federal education law

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Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera (AP file photo)

Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera (AP file photo)

Every state in the U.S. was required to submit a proposal to the federal government by last week on how it will comply with the new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Pennsylvania’s plan, released for public comment in August, has created a political divide over a historically tough subject: what to do about chronically low performing schools.

Under the former federal education law, No Child Left Behind, there were strict mandates for how states should deal with consistently low-performing schools. The four options: replace the principal, replace at least half the staff, convert to a charter, or close the school.

The new law says states must still identify chronic low performers, but it gives greater leeway in deciding how to intervene.

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“We believe that No Child Left Behind was deeply flawed in that it had a very proscribed approach and a narrow approach for all schools that were struggling to produce outcomes for students,” said Matthew Stem, deputy secretary in the Pennsylvania’s Department of Education, an office run by Governor Tom Wolf’s administration.

The department plans to identify its bottom five percent of schools that receive federal Title I funding based on a combination of student performance and growth on standardized tests. About 100 schools across the state will meet this designation.

PDE proposes to help those schools identify the root causes of their problems, and tailor holistic interventions suited to specific school needs. These schools would see a boost in resources during at least the first two years of the intervention.

Stem says priority will be placed on “identifying fewer strategies that are high-leverage and implementing them well, as opposed to over identifying a number of strategies that can’t be implemented with fidelity.”

Under this plan, chronically low-performing schools would have five years to make progress before some of those more drastic consequences seen under NCLB would kick in.

“I think we’ve seen very mixed results — not just here in Pennsylvania, but across the country — in school improvement efforts under No Child Left Behind,” said Stem. “And we believe that addressing, in a holistic way, the local needs of students at the school level is going to better position us to see results that we haven’t seen in the past.”

School intervention efforts under No Child Left Behind were implemented most robustly by the Obama administration in the wake of the Great Recession, aided by $3.5 billion in stimulus funds through “school improvement grants.”

In January, in the final moments of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education released a study on the effectiveness of those strategies. It found that most schools opted for the least painful interventions — where only principals were changed — and, overall, found no significant effects were made on test scores or graduation rates.

Advocates for greater school choice and tougher school accountability hoped PDE would have used the findings of that report as an argument for more aggressive interventions, hinged, when appropriate, on larger staff shake-ups and charter school conversions.

Jon Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, says PDE’s plan “shows a lack of urgency.”

“We should be doing in year one what they are proposing they do after there’s proof of lack of success,” he said. “Continuing to invest the same dollars in low-performing schools, you’re going to get the same results. That perpetual status quo is what’s unacceptable.”

Many of the most drastic school interventions in Pennsylvania in recent years have occurred in Philadelphia, where results have been mixed, full of examples both encouraging and extremely disappointing.

Republican leaders in Harrisburg also criticized PDE’s plan. The House and Senate education committee chairman released a joint memo saying it would “move accountability efforts backwards, and dilute academic achievement.”

In 2015, the Senate passed a bill that would require drastic interventions in five Philadelphia schools per year. It didn’t progress any further.

Other education advocates praised PDE’s plan for moving away from the “punitive” aspects of NCLB.

“Great teachers who know how to meet the needs of children, especially those who are starting at a disadvantage, do not just appear. Great teachers are developed through experience, effective training by educational professionals, and guidance from knowledgeable and experienced building leaders and teachers,” said Susan Spika, executive director of Education Voters PA.

Stem also defended the idea that students can get a good education without without firing existing staffers.

“Often, the struggles in schools are systems issues, and teachers and administrators in the right conditions can produce results beyond what they are currently producing,” he said.

Pennsylvania’s plan now awaits approval from the Trump administration’s U.S. Department of Education.

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