By Guest Columnist DANA RICKMAN, policy and research director for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education
On Dec. 10, 2015, President Barak Obama signed into law the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA).
This law reauthorizes the “Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965,” which has been more recently known as “No Child Left Behind.” This important legislation has provided Georgia an opportunity to set its own direction and determine the best way to support schools and districts.
ESSA substantially reduces federal control over K-12 education for the first time in three decades and puts a majority of decision-making authority back to the states and local districts.
One of the big questions now facing individual states is how to intervene in consistently low-performing schools. Under ESSA, states are required to identify the lowest 5 percent of schools. If an identified school shows no progress after four years, the state may step in and take corrective action. The federal law does not stipulate what type of action needs to be taken.
During 2016 – and most likely into 2017 – Georgia leaders will be investigating new and inventive ways to improve teaching and learning. Many of those options will be informed by the recommendations made public by Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission.
If adopted, they would overhaul K-12 funding, increase charter and flexibility options for schools and districts, impact the delivery of instruction and assessments, and improve access to quality early learning options.
Throughout 2016, this column will take a look at the specific recommendations and their impact on education policy as they are debated and potentially passed into law. However, today’s column will examine how Georgia will address persistently low-performing schools.
Currently, the Georgia Department of Education provides turnaround services to struggling schools, and, over time, has made significant changes to how they support them. GaDOE found the same elements that national research has cited as necessary to implement and maintain turnaround efforts: leadership and support for sustainability.
Relatedly, one of the main lessons learned through working with these persistently low-performing schools was that any improvements made within a school building were extremely difficult to maintain over the long term without district support and involvement. Along with the school improvement focus, Georgia is focusing on the capacity of districts and district leaders to support struggling schools.
In addition to efforts at the state level, many local districts are working on innovative approaches to turnaround persistently low-performing schools within their system.
For example, Fulton County Schools has implemented their own Achievement Zone. In this pilot, Fulton is focusing on the geographic area around Banneker High School in the southern end of the county. The schools within this area experience high rates of mobility, poverty, crime, and lack of intensive supports for struggling students.
The mission of the zone is to accelerate and concentrate research-based reform efforts that provide a wide range of supports and remove barriers to dramatic school improvements.
In addition to the work already happening across the state, Georgians will vote on a constitutional amendment in November 2016 on whether to create an Opportunity School District (OSD).
One of Gov. Deal’s primary policy goals for education, if approved by voters, the OSD would establish a state-run school district that would step in and take over Georgia’s worst performing schools.
The OSD is being offered as another tool to be used to help chronically low-performing schools and is one that should be considered. If the OSD were operational in 2015, 139 schools would qualify under the definition of “chronically failing” as outlined by the legislation.
These schools have been trapped in a cycle of dismal performance for multiple years and local districts have been unable to turn them around. A new and different approach is warranted. However, voters must decide if that new approach will be controlled by their local school board or the state. As the federal government has moved decision making power from the national to the state level, proposals like the OSD set the stage for a debate about state versus local decision-making and control over schools.
As the state moves forward in considering the OSD, attention must be given to how this tool can fit with the other reforms already happening in Georgia at both the state and local level.
Best-practice research, as well as Georgia’s own experiences with turnaround schools, indicates that district capacity and leadership development are key factors in sustaining long-term outcomes, though neither of those are addressed in the OSD proposal.
Moreover, a majority of students enrolled in the schools that were identified as currently eligible for the OSD are from poor and minority families. Nearly 92 percent of the students in these schools participate in the free-reduced price lunch program, more than 90 percent are students of color. Concentrations of high poverty and high crime can easily undermine any effective school turnaround reform agenda if not addressed.
Community engagement and comprehensive wrap-around services may be needed to support and stabilize the school. Districts are already rethinking how to engage resources and help struggling schools identify existing community supports that can be integrated into the improvement process. As the debate about the OSD moves forward, just the threat of a pending OSD has caused many districts to re-think how they support struggling schools.
Moving forward, Georgia policy makers will contend with education questions formerly dictated to them by the federal government, such as: What should students be expected to learn? How should we measure student success? What should be the consequences when schools and districts don’t achieve as expected?
Now free of many former federal guidelines, Georgia now has a greater responsibility for building a world class education system. To maximize this opportunity, Georgia must have positive and effective leadership at both the state and local levels.
We need leaders with the courage to demand high standards for all students while providing proper equity in resources to meet those standards.