California especially experiences challenges with school reform under NCLB. According to the Center on Education Policy (Scott, 2009), specific attention has gone towards California school districts that have not met their annual yearly progress (AYP) goals for four consecutive years. These schools receive additional funds to implement reforms in school.
There are five major intentions for school reform that Fleischman & Heppen (Fleischman & Heppen, 2009) identified when studying the effectiveness of reform movements. The first is to create a personalized and well-organized school. This reform is particularly helpful in large schools to provide support for students. It also can help improve the safety of a school. The second reform is to offer additional academic support (usually literacy-based) for students who are below grade level. The third reform is to provide professional development to teachers and to hire highly-qualified teachers in their content area. Fourth is to help students prepare for careers or higher education. Lastly, the fifth intended outcome is for schools to exhibit positive change (Fleischman & Heppen, 2009). Types of reforms are applied based on the desired end result that a school hopes to achieve.
Progress with school reforms in California is slow. Following a two year increase, the 2008-2009 school year had a decreased number of schools entering restructuring. Still, the overall number is too great for California’s Department of Education to oversee directly (Scott, 2009). Some schools find it easier to meet NCLB’s safe harbor provision than to achieve their AYP. The safe harbor provision allows schools to meet their AYP provided that there is a 10% increase in the number of students scoring above the proficient level annually (Scott, 2009).
Charter schools focus on school improvement through effective management. Charter schools work on the premise that a market competition in conjunction with freedom to run the school will create a successful learning environment (Fleischman & Heppen, 2009). Charter schools are responsible for student achievement, but may not have to follow many other mandates and regulations (as seen in their exemption from the current hiring freeze in New York City). Charter schools may have a central theme or mission to guide it. Typically, these types of schools are found in inner-cities or areas of low socio-economic status. There is limited research to prove whether charter schools are more or less successful than traditional public schools, in part because students have to apply to charter schools, which may indicate that higher performance is due to internal motivation of students than external factors (Fleischman & Heppen, 2009).
In Oakland, California, Cox Elementary became a charter school in the 2005-2006 school year. Cox Elementary is located in a low socio-economic area and the majority of students are minorities. Overall improvements have been made since 2003 in terms of student progress, but the school still struggles to make their AYP. In 2007-2008 this school could not meet their AYP, and instead had to use the safe harbor provision for math, and did not meet goals for ELA (Scott, 2009). While Cox Elementary has improved since 2003, they are enough to be considered a great success according to NCLB guidelines.
Creating Smaller Learning Communities (SLCs) is a structural reform. This can be achieved by creating several small schools within a larger building, building schools that are physically smaller in size or to establish groups of students into “houses” according to theme or interest. The belief is that SLCS personalize the learning experience for students and create a supportive learning environment where students and teachers have a greater level of direct interaction (Fleischman & Heppen, 2009). Lee and Smith (1997) conducted research that indicates a smaller school is especially beneficial for students of low socio-economic status and minorities. Under NCLB grants were given for SLCs to be created n high schools with over 1,000 students by the U.S. Department of Education’s Smaller Learning Communities program (Fleischman & Heppen, 2009). There is data showing positive outcomes from SLCs, specifically that the smaller atmosphere provides support for students, increases safety and establishes a sense of community for those in the school. Additionally, a long range analysis over seven years shows that students in SLCs tend to join more extra curricular activities and are less likely to be involved in violence in school, abuse drugs or alcohol or need disciplinary action (Fleischman & Heppen, 2009). This length of time for this study shows that the various SLC approaches are effective, but may take several years to demonstrate measurable improvements.
Yet, despite the promising results of SLCs, the Oakland school district has no plans to create any new small schools (currently there are 39 in the district). The understanding is that Oakland is going to support the SLCs already in existence (Scott, 2009). This is surprising considering the positive outcomes that result from creating SLCs, particularly the long-term benefits. SLCs currently in place in Oakland report positive feedback. One small school, Greenleaf, takes great measures to support the ELLs by using data-driven instruction and integrating students. Additionally, this school reaches out to parents to work as a team to meet the needs of the students. Another new school, New Highland, focuses on developing a sense of community in the school so that there is a more personalized learning environment and student safety (Scott, 2009). While it may take several years for data to report the positive outcomes of new schools, these examples of SLCs show the positive outcomes that can result when the needs of the students are realized.
NCLB, while noble in the mission, may expect too much too soon from schools. This slowdown of schools in California undergoing restructuring could indicate gradual progress being made by reforms, or it could indicate that more schools are leaning towards NCLB’s safe harbor provision instead of meeting their AYP. True and lasting progress takes years to achieve for schools that are significantly struggling and meeting AYP goals may be too much to ask of some schools.
Fleishman, S. & Heppen, J. (2009). Improving low-performing high schools: Searching for evidence of promise. Future of Children, 19(1), 105-133. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EJ842054). Retrieved July 11, 2009, from http://www.eric.ed.gov/
Scott, C. (2009). Top down, bottom up: California districts in corrective action and schools in restructuring under NCLB. Center on Education Policy. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED504826). Retrieved July 11, 2009, from http://www.eric.ed.gov/