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Here's How 17 States Plan to Fix Struggling Schools

ESSA_900x500.jpgBy Andrew Ujifusa and Alyson Klein

The Every Student Succeeds Act is supposed to be a brave new world when it comes to school improvement. States and districts will now get to decide what to do about perennially struggling schools, and schools where certain groups of students, like English-language learners, aren't doing well.

So now that states have all this newfound freedom, what are they deciding to do with it? We looked at the school improvement portions of the 17 ESSA plans that have been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval. Want to jump to details on a particular state? Click on it in the menu below:

We've also identified some takeaways from the improvement plans. Click here to check out those takeaways. Here's a big one: Many states don't seem particularly interested in changing what they're doing right now.

Want a couple of key trends in chart form? Check out those charts below:

Finally, if you need a refresher or quick primer on the two types of schools all this stuff applies to—comprehensive improvement schools, and targeted support schools—click here to read up on those definitions.

Arizona

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: The Arizona education department says it would work with local districts on identifying "evidence-based" school improvement strategies. Arizona also wants to use its five regional education centers, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, and the Arizona Charter Schools Association to help identify improvement strategies.
What if that fails? Under Arizona's plan, schools would be subject to a more in-depth needs assessment by the state that would help identify and monitor new improvement plans.
How do schools escape low-performing status? A school could exit comprehensive improvement status if it no longer met identification criteria, and if its grade on the state A-F accountability system is no longer in the bottom 5 percent of Title I schools. A school could exit targeted support status if it no longer met identification criteria, and would be expected to shed that label in a four-year window.
Spending plan: The state doesn't appear to set aside any specific grants to districts or schools for improvement work. As part of ESSA's required resource review, the state does say the department would check to see if districts are "providing adequate additional resources" for schools needing improvement. The state would also help schools with budgeting.

Connecticut

Does the state require specific interventions? No. (At least, not at first.)
Interventions: The state would require the 10 lowest-performing districts to choose improvement plans for their low-performing schools from state guidance on "evidence-based interventions." This intervention guidance would cover academic, school climate, early learning, and other areas. This guidance would be published in October 2017. Other districts would have more flexibility in their improvement strategies.
What if that fails? Schools that fail to improve under that strategy would be subject to mandatory training, as well as state-recommended (and eventually state-required) improvement strategies.
How do schools escape low-performing status? A school could exit comprehensive or targeted status if it no longer meets identification criteria for two straight years after being identified as such. Schools must also hit certain growth targets.
Spending plan: The state would distribute grants to the 10 lowest-performing districts, with $500,000 for each comprehensive support school and $50,000 for each targeted-support school. These grants would cover 70 percent of Connecticut's federal funding earmarked for school improvement. For the remaining 30 percent, the state would offer competitive grants, with $500,000 for each comprehensive support school and $50,000 for each targeted-support school.
The above plan assumes a certain level of federal dollars for school improvement. If that funding fell short, the state would provide competitive grants to both types of schools, with other limitations.

Colorado

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: Colorado would put together a list of evidence-based interventions, strategies, and partnerships that can offer support to the range of needs in identified schools. However, schools would not be required to use any particular intervention from that list.
What if that fails? Districts would have to take additional action. The department says possible options include closing a school, converting it into a charter school, or granting the school a local or state waiver.
How do schools escape low-performing status? A school could shed the comprehensive-improvement label if it improves sufficiently after those three years, although it would keep that label for at least three years. A school identified for targeted support could shed the label if it improves sufficiently after three years.
Spending plan: Colorado would distribute school improvement grants to states. The state wouldn't attach dollar amounts to the grants, but does say that there would be more grant money set aside for comprehensive support schools than targeted support schools.

Delaware

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: The state would work with districts and schools identified for improvement to conduct a "needs assessment" and monitor improvement plans. This work would include identifying previous school improvement strategies and why they might not have worked.
What if that fails? The state would work with the district to do both a qualitative and quantitative analysis of why a school did not exit improvement status after the allotted time.
How do schools escape low-performing status? A school could shed its comprehensive or targeted status if it no longer meets identification criteria. However, the state would also negotiate with districts to set exit targets for schools.
Spending plan: The state plans to provide $2.4 million in formula grants for schools needing comprehensive support, and will allow districts to apply for an additional $600,000 to $700,000 on a competitive basis for improvement work. Delaware says it doesn't anticipate having enough federal money for school improvement to fund work at targeted support schools.

District of Columbia

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: The District plans to share evidence-based improvement strategies with schools, including material from the "What Works Clearinghouse" from the U.S. Department of Education, as well as strategies from the Massachusetts education department.
What if that fails? There would be a "state-directed" process, in which the state office of education would seek out proposals for improving the schools. Parents and other stakeholders would also get the chance to offer input. The proposals would have to be more rigorous than previous intervention strategies.
How do schools escape low-performing status? A school could exit comprehensive or targeted status if it no longer meets identification criteria. However, a comprehensive support school making significant progress would get an additional year to shed the label before "more rigorous" action must be taken.
Spending plan: The District plans to administer school improvement grants based on either a formula or competitive basis.

Illinois

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: Schools would select external organizations to aid them in school improvement through the state's "IL-EMPOWER" network. Schools and its IL-EMPOWER groups would conduct an audit and set targets that the external group will then monitor. Targets for school improvement would have to focus on at least one of the following: governance and management, curriculum and instruction, and climate and culture. 
What if that fails? The state would provide resources for "evidence-based" improvement to districts. However, a school identified for comprehensive improvement, as well as schools that fail to improve after a specific time period, would have to partner with an "IL-EMPOWER" organization, which would have to demonstrate a track record of school improvement work.
How do schools escape low-performing status? A school could shed needs-improvement status if it no longer meets identification criteria. However, in order to shed the label, a school would have to establish "a growth trajectory for students, including those at the highest and lowest levels of attainment." A school would also have to show how it would maintain that growth.
Spending plan: Illinois would use part of its federal funding for school improvement to develop a formula for handing out money for comprehensive and targeted support schools. It would also use that money to design an approval process for external IL-EMPOWER organizations.

Louisiana

Does the state require specific interventions?No.
Interventions: The state would work with districts to develop plans for school improvement. There would also be an analysis of each student subgroup's needs at individual schools.  
What if that fails? The state's existing Recovery School District would evaluate chronically underperforming schools to "determine the strongest path to successful intervention in each context."
How do schools escape low-performing status? A school could shed the comprehensive improvement label if it achieves at least a C grade on the state's accountability system for two consecutive years. A school could shed the targeted support label if all subgroups are scoring above an F grade on the state's accountability, and also has an out-of-school suspension rate that is above needs-improvement status for two consecutive years.
Spending plan: The state would award a "significant" portion of federal funding for state school improvement activities to competitive grants to districts. Each district with at least one school needing comprehensive improvement would have to submit a plan for intervening in and improving all such schools they oversee.

Maine

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: All of Maine's districts have access to regional support networks, which help superintendents swap ideas. And the state's lowest-performing schools—those in comprehensive support—would get extra financial resources and face-to-face coaches and mentors from the state. Schools would have to develop a school improvement plan that considers factors such as school climate and time for teacher collaboration.
What if that fails? If a school fails to improve after three years, the state would go deeper on similar strategies, including more coaching and extra financial resources.
How do schools escape low-performing status?? Maine would develop its exit criteria once it has student performance data.
Spending plan: School improvement grants would be as small $50,000 for targeted improvement schools, or as big as $400,000 over three years for comprehensive improvement.

Massachusetts

Does the state require specific interventions? Yes.
Interventions: The state would largely stick with the school improvement process it used under the Obama administration's School Improvement Grant program. At the center of that approach: support for districts with low-performing schools, both through "regional centers" and a cadre of  "commissioner's districts" made up the state's 10 largest urban districts, which are home to most of the state's struggling schools. Individual low-performing schools would get coaching from the state, professional development opportunities, access to research on what's worked for successful turnaround schools, and help with data analysis. The state would also have a list of approved turnaround partners with a track record of success.
What if that fails? Schools and even entire districts that perennially struggle would be subject to state takeover.
How do schools escape low-performing status? The state plans to figure out this out when it has new student achievement data.
Spending Plan: The state would distribute school improvement funds competitively to struggling schools, but would distribute some grants by formula if there's enough money available.

Michigan

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: The state would enter into "partnership" agreements with districts that have low-performing schools and help them do needs assessments, and set both 18 month and three-year goals. The state would designate an "implementation facilitator" to help districts with low-performing schools implement their plans. Michigan would also come up with a list of "evidence-based interventions" for schools to choose from.
What if that fails? Schools not improving would be considered in "breach of plan." The state and the school would determine what that would mean when the plan is initially written.
How do schools escape low-performing status? The state is still finalizing that.  
Spending plan: Not specified.
 

Nevada

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: The lowest-performing schools would need to come up with an improvement plan that includes a focus on resource inequities and ideas for how the school and district will fix them. The state would take charge of monitoring the plan's implementation and providing support to the school and district. In addition, up to six schools could be considered for inclusion in the state's new Achievement School District, in which schools would be paired with outside turnaround partners or transformation teams. The state would also come up with a list of evidence-based interventions for schools to choose from.
What if that fails? Schools that perennially struggle could become part of the Achievement School District. 
How do schools get out of low-performing status? Schools are considered out of low-performing status if they no longer meet the exit criteria.
Spending Plan: The state will give out competitive grants to districts with low-performing schools. 

New Jersey

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: The lowest-performing schools would get help from the state in turnaround planning, identifying evidence-based interventions, and more. The state would have a dedicated website for school improvement, including identifications of evidence-based practices and interventions.
What if that fails? Schools not making progress within two years would be subject to intensive data review by the state and could be paired with an outside turnaround partner. The commissioner could also intervene by reworking teachers' collective-bargaining agreements, directing staff retraining or assignment, revamping curriculum and programs, shifting expenses, and more.
How do schools escape low-performing status? Schools could get out of comprehensive and targeted improvement status when they no longer meet the law's requirements.
Spending plan: School improvement money would be allocated using formula and/or competitive grants.

New Mexico

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: Districts with really low-performing schools have to choose from a menu of turnaround strategies developed by the state, such as going through the state's principal training, or working with the state on a high school overhaul plan. The state will provide a list of turnaround programs and partners with a strong level of evidence behind them. If a school decides to choose a partner that's not on the list, it will have to show how its approach will work.
What if that fails? Schools would be subject to more dramatic interventions, including closing down, restarting as a charter, offering broad school choice, or another significant revamp.
How do schools escape low-performing status? Schools in New Mexico get out of "comprehensive improvement" status when they no longer meet the requirements in ESSA and improve any group of students' performance beyond the lowest levels in the state. Schools can get out of targeted improvement when they meet certain requirements for closing achievement gaps.
Spending plan: The state will distribute school improvement funds through competitive grants. The amount will depend on the number of schools identified.

North Dakota

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: North Dakota plans to use a continuous improvement system from AdvanceED (a nonprofit group) with all of its schools, whether or not they are flagged for comprehensive improvement. The state is also partnering with the School Improvement Network, which would offer extra supports to the lowest-performing schools, including turnaround managers and coaches. Those schools could choose their own model instead of going with the one suggested by the state, but it would need to be "at least as rigorous" as the state's suggestions.
What if that fails? The state would ask the school and district to rework the improvement plan.
How do schools escape low-performing status? Schools would get out of comprehensive or targeted status if they no longer met the requirement for those categories and if they were hitting their short-term goals.
Spending plan: Schools in comprehensive improvement would be eligible for grants between $300,000 and $400,000. Schools in targeted support could get grants of up to $50,000.

Oregon

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: Districts, especially those with more than one very low-performing school, would get help from the state in doing a "needs assessment" required by ESSA. The state will also provide assistance in writing turnaround plans, with an eye toward making sure the local community gets a voice. The state would also provide districts with resources including technical assistance, with an emphasis on equity, and coaching.
What if that fails? If a school failed to make sufficient progress, the state could give it more direction on how to spend money, provide extra coaching, require the staff to participate in "collaborative problem solving," and more.
How do schools escape low-performing status? A school would no longer be considered as needing targeted or comprehensive support if it isn't identified again in August 2021, among other factors.
Spending plan: The state would give funding priority to districts that agree to reach out to the school community and use evidence-based turnaround programs.

Tennessee

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: The state's lowest-performing schools could be included in the state's achievement school district. Districts with a high number of low-performing schools may end up jointly operating them with the state. Other districts may operate an innovation zone, or district within a district, made up of their lowest-performing schools. The state would also be putting out resources for schools with big achievement gaps.
What if that fails? If a school failed to improve, it could be subject to a more-rigorous intervention, including possible inclusion in the state's Achievement School District. (The plan lays out a timetable.) 
How do schools escape low-performing status? Schools would have to no longer meet the criteria to be a targeted or comprehensive school, and meet certain growth targets.
Spending Plan: The school improvement grants would flow both by formula and competitively.

Vermont

Does the state require specific interventions? No.
Interventions: Vermont would use a school inspection process to do in-depth reviews of schools' strengths and weaknesses. It would use this process to help inform improvement plans for all schools, with a particular focus on those that are struggling. 
What if that fails? The state would continue technical assistance, reshape the governance structure, let the state step in and address problems, or close the school and send the students to another public school.
How do schools get out of low-performing status? Schools could get out of "comprehensive improvement" if their annual performance improved by two levels or their performance has improved by one level and if they made major gains overtime. A school could exit "targeted" improvement once it moved from the lowest levels on the state's plan.
Spending plan: The grants would be distributed competitively.

So What Are Common Themes in the Plans?

Remember how ESSA's architects said the law would unleash a "flood of innovation"? As we indicated above, the school improvement portions of many state plans are based on ideas that are already in place, at least for now.

Tennessee, for instance, is sticking with its Achievement School District and its "iZones" or innovation zones in particular districts. And Massachusetts is keeping its accountability system in place.

Also, the plans don't reveal everything you might want to see. States explained how they planned to guide and support districts in developing school improvement plans, but they didn't get into the nitty-gritty of what those plans would actually look like.

The School Improvement Grant program, which the Obama administration poured billions of dollars into and got mixed results, was criticized for ignoring the critical role districts play. Partly in response to that, ESSA beefed up the district role in turnarounds. And in general, states aren't telling their districts what kinds of changes they need to make in low-performing schools.

Here's another way to put it:

OUT: Requirements that schools get rid of their principals and half the teachers.

IN: Promises to help districts develop a "needs assessment" for their lowest-performing schools, and provide schools with coaching on implementation.

To be sure, some states offered more specificity than others. Oregon, for instance, gave a lot of detail on how it would ensure that schools make sure community members are out the table when it comes to crafting turnaround plans.

And by one count, nine states are coming up with a list of approved interventions that they think offer strong strategies for fixing schools. That's according to a forthcoming analysis by Results for America's Evidence in Education Lab. Those states are: Colorado, Connecticut, Ilinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Vermont.

At least two of those states—Massachusetts and Illinois—will essentially require districts to use one of the approved interventions or partners. Others, such as New Mexico, say districts can come up with their own solutions, but the evidence backing up their approaches has to be at least as rigorous as what's behind the state-approved ideas.

Results for America found that at least six states committed in their plans to running some sort of competition for doling out state school improvement cash: Tennessee, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New Mexico. Vermont also appears likely to allocate its dollars competitively, according to our reading of the plans, although states didn't have to spell this out in their plans.

Two Types of Schools Identified for Improvement

If you need it, here's a quick refresher or category of the two types of schools states must tag as low-performing.

Comprehensive Improvement: Schools that fall into the bottom 5 percent of performers in the state, schools where graduation rates are below 67 percent, and schools where subgroups of students are seriously struggling are identified as needing "comprehensive" support. Districts have to come up with a plan to fix those schools, monitored by the state. The district can pick any kind of turnaround plan it wants, but that plan must be backed by evidence. If the school fails to improve after a certain number of years (no more than four), the state steps in. 

Targeted Support: Schools where subgroups of students—like English-learners, minorities, poor kids, and students in special education—aren't performing well are placed in "targeted support." The school comes up with an evidence-based plan to solve the problem. If the school continues to struggle, the district steps in.


Video: ESSA Explained in 3 Minutes


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