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Back to School: Meaningful educational interventions for low-performing schools

This is the fifth installment of a Back to School blog series (see Part 1 [1], Part 2 [2], Part 3 [3], and Part 4 [4]) that highlight various issues to be aware of as the 2016-17 school year kicks off.

As North Carolina’s school children and their families settle back into the rhythms of the school year, thousands of these students will attend schools that have been labeled by the state as low performing [5]. These are schools that received a school performance grade of D or F and failed to exceed expected growth based solely on test scores.

The controversial school grading system, which began during the 2013-14 school year, has been rightfully criticized as unnecessarily labeling schools as failures by using a ham-fisted measure that correlates with poverty rather than the educational quality of a given school. But the grading system has had the unexpected benefit of identifying high poverty schools that require additional interventions to help low-income students overcome the educational obstacles commonly found in impoverished communities.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of North Carolina’s low-performing schools do not receive meaningful additional support from the state. The existing program that aims to improve low-performing schools is known as Turning Around North Carolina’s Lowest-Achieving Schools (TALAS [6]). TALAS, enabled initially by federal Race-to-the-Top funding, invests in professional development, school improvement planning, and instructional coaching and mentoring for school leaders. While these services are important, this limited intervention focuses primarily on training school leaders and fails to boost additional support services for students.

Studies [7] on the program have been mixed [8] thus far, and the gains that have been realized are jeopardized by the high level of turnover among the teachers and administrators who have benefited from the enhanced professional development and leadership coaching. Even this modest intervention is only provided in 79 of the 581 [9] schools that were labeled low-performing during the 2015-16 school year. No major legislation has been discussed in recent years to help these schools other than the recent creation of a controversial “Achievement School District [10]” (ASD) that will serve just five schools with a charter school takeover model that has not shown promising results in other states. The ASD debate [11] demonstrated a  belief held by many lawmakers that we simply do not know what educational interventions will help children so we have to try something new even if it is unproven or shows poor initial results.

Thankfully that is not the case. There is a growing body of educational research based on an improved understanding of the way children’s brains develop [12] and a vast body of empirical research on educational programs from across the entire country that point to specific educational interventions that can help make a real difference in a child’s educational development.

At some point, policymakers must recommit to improving the public school system that educates the overwhelming majority of North Carolina’s children through additional state funding and support services. In North Carolina, possible research-based interventions that would immediately help students in low performing schools include 1) increasing access to North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten [13] and other early childhood services, 2) recruiting and retaining high quality teachers [14], and 3) investing in up-to-date textbooks, instructional materials, school technology, and broadband access [15].

Less than one in five low performing schools are receiving targeted state interventions designed to help them improve outcomes for students. That has to change now if North Carolina is to prepare its students for postsecondary education and careers [16] that will enable them to support their families and enhance the state’s overall economic well-being