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

  • pedro rivera photo
    AP file photo




Every state in the United States was required to submit a proposal to the federal government by last week about 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 previous 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.

"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 Department of Education.

The department plans to identify its bottom 5 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."

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks


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Kevin McCorry

Kevin is WHYY/NewsWorks' senior education writer.