By the end of January, the state will publish the initial list of hundreds of low-performing California schools that must receive intensive help under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.
On Jan. 9, the State Board of Education approved how districts with any of those schools must verify what they’re doing to turn those schools around. A coalition of student advocacy groups unsuccessfully argued that documentation alone isn’t enough. They urged the state board to require more monitoring by county offices of education and proof that districts’ actions are improving student performance.
What is clear is that there will be a lot more schools in line for assistance than the board initially anticipated and that their numbers will stretch thin the $130 million per year in federal funding that’s been set aside for “comprehensive” assistance.
Like the No Child Left Behind Act, which it replaced, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states identify and improve the performance of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools receiving federal funding for low-income students, along with high schools where fewer than two-thirds of students graduate. But unlike NCLB, which told states how to fix the schools — like firing the principal and replacing half the staff — Congress gave states wide latitude to choose their own strategies.
The state board’s plan for implementing the law, which took months of negotiating with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ staff, is consistent with the state’s new approach to accountability under local control.
The state plan says that the multicolored California School Dashboard will identify the low-performing schools, just as it does for districts. The dashboard uses a range of metrics, including suspension rates, chronic absenteeism and graduation rates — not just standardized test scores — to measure performance. And the plan says that school districts will be in charge of improving low-performing schools, consistent with how they address low-performing student groups districtwide that the dashboard identified.
With its vote Jan. 9, the board will require districts to add a separate section to their Local Control and Accountability Plans to deal with low-performing schools. LCAPs are the documents that districts must update yearly to spell out how they will spend money and expand programs and services for all students, particularly low-income children, English learners, foster and homeless youths.
In the new LCAP section, districts must verify that they thoroughly examined the school’s needs and weaknesses, adopted interventions that have been proven to work and identified “resource inequities” that a school improvement plan would address. A district must seek the advice of principals and other school leaders, teachers and parents and tell how the school will meet the needs of students at risk of not meeting the state academic standards.
Board members emphasized in the discussion that they were adopting an interim approach to satisfy federal law. Over the next three years, the California Department of Education plans to redo the LCAP to make it quicker to read and to write. Responding to repeated complaints that the public cannot track spending easily, if at all, in some districts, staff are creating a budget summary for parents. And the state’s Department of Finance will issue regulations this year requiring further budget transparency.
In a Jan. 4 letter, leaders of seven student advocacy nonprofits that formed the Equity Coalition credited the board’s efforts but criticized it for not taking a strong role in ensuring that low-performing schools actually make progress. They called for county offices of education, which already review district LCAPs to make sure they are complying with state law, to monitor the strategies and spending of districts.
“We want counties to play a more active role” and not simply “hold their noses if the plans are bad,” John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, a coalition member, told the board in early January.
State law requires that the state superintendent of public instruction and the state board intensify intervention if a district’s poorly performing student groups identified by the dashboard don’t improve within several years, but the state board hasn’t said what the interventions might be. The board similarly hasn’t decided what it might do with low-performing schools that don’t improve.
The state’s Department of Education is expected to name about 350 low-performing schools, based on those that perform in the red — the lowest of five color-coded performance levels — on all or most of the dashboard metrics. The wild card this year will be the addition of hundreds of district and county alternative high schools serving students who have dropped out, been expelled, spent time in juvenile hall or feel out-of-place in traditional high schools. They weren’t included under previous state accountability systems but will get long-overdue attention now. With low graduation rates, many, if not most, will likely make the state’s list.
Federal law requires that California distribute $130 million — 7 percent of its Title I funding for low-income schools — to fix the lowest-performing schools. A big list could reduce each school’s allocation, which could end up being anywhere between $200,000 and close to $400,000 per school.