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In 1997, the state of California labeled Markham Middle School as low-performing. Located in the Watts neighborhood of Southeastern Los Angeles, Markham is stuffed with over 1,500 students in just three grades, sixth–eighth. Roughly 70 percent of the students are Hispanic, and 30 percent are black. Eighty-two percent are poor. That year, the average Markham student scored at the 16th percentile in math and 12th percentile in reading.
Over the next 11 years, the state and then the federal government under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) enacted a series of reforms designed to turn Markham and other schools like it around. Officials affixed a variety of alarming labels to these schools: “chronically low performing,” “failing,” or “troubled.” They drew up plans, disbursed funds, and hired specialists. Principals and teachers came and went, while politicians of all stripes vowed to get tough and do what it takes to reform these schools or close them down. Yet, at the end of all that, Markham Middle School was still open for business, still serving low-income and minority students, and still low-performing. In 2009 only 3 percent of the students were proficient in math and 11 percent in English.
Markham Middle is not unusual—there are many hundreds of similar schools nationwide. While advocates and interest groups for the past eight years have contested the merits of NCLB—arguing about standardized testing, “Adequate Yearly Progress,” and the best way to properly identify the worst schools—schools like Markham have been mired in chronic failure. Even today as Congress considers reauthorizing NCLB, much of the debate continues to center on what measures should be used to label schools as high-performing, low-performing, or somewhere in between. Relatively little attention has gone to fixing schools that, like Markham Middle, look bad no matter what method of evaluation is used to label them. The biggest challenge in public education is no longer determining which schools need help. It’s determining how to help them, and when to decide that no amount of help will do.
Unfortunately, many states appear to be taking the same approach to reforming low-performing schools that they’ve taken to identifying them in the first place—that is, exploiting their flexibility in interpreting NCLB to avoid tough choices on behalf of vulnerable students. In 2006 and 2007, Education Sector published two reports on the school identification process. The reports featured “The Pangloss Index,” a summary of education statistics reported by states under NCLB. The index revealed that many of the states reporting the best results—high test scores and graduation rates, low levels of school violence, and few schools identified as failing under NCLB—achieved those results not through actual educational excellence but through their implementation decisions, including setting unusually lax achievement standards. And when states and districts have acted, change has often come in the form of serial, ineffective reforms that leave chronically failing schools resistant to intervention.
President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made “turnaround” a major priority of the administration, vowing to fundamentally reshape the nation’s worst performing schools. Duncan has targeted the lowest 5 percent of schools, stating that “we cannot continue to tinker in terrible schools where students fall further and further behind, year after year.” The administration has put both a reauthorization proposal and money behind this goal. In March 2010, the president released a “blueprint” for the reauthorization of NCLB that would target meaningful interventions at the lowest 5 percent of schools. In addition, the stimulus package set aside $3 billion to begin this work. Some believe that President Obama and Duncan have taken a heavy-handed approach. But to move beyond tinkering to genuine reform, they’ll have to confront the sobering reality of NCLB implementation: When it comes to taking meaningful action on behalf of students trapped in schools like Markham Middle, the hard work has barely begun.
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