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Should/Does the School Improvement Industry Have Anything to Say About 100% Proficiency by 2014?

Over the last several days, I've seen a spate of articles on the large and growing number of schools in need of improvement under No Child Left Behind.

Stephanie Banchero
of the Chicago Tribune notes that some 900 Illinois schools missed state targets Adequate Yearly Progress, up 30% from last year. Another 572 schools would have joined them, but for changes to the meaning of "pass" on state math and reading tests.

In the New York Times Diana Jean Schemo notes that 441 schools in Florida, 77 in New York state, and even 49 in Baltimore, Maryland fall into this category. Over 1000 California schools are failing, and the state predicts 6,063 by 2014.

Philip Ireland of the North County Times, quotes the school board president of Carlsbad Unified School Districts - one of the best in the state - Kelli Moor: "Within two to three years, our school district will be in the headlines for failing." Schemo quotes Guadalupe Parama, director of high schools on the East Side of Los Angeles Unified School District: "What are we supposed to do? Shut down every school?”

That depends on why schools aren't making AYP.

It's an important question, and not just for politicians and eduwonks debating NCLB reauthorization. Proficiency targets are the single most important factor determining the size of the school improvement market as measured by potential sales revenues.

No Child Left Behind requires that by 2014 every student in every public school in the United States will achieve proficiency in math, reading and other essential subjects, as measured by state defined tests against state-defined standards. In the interim, schools must meet an ever rising set of targets on the way to the 100 percent goal, and not only for students as a whole, but for significant subgroups, the most important being students with special needs, English language learners, and African Americans.

In the midst of the debate over NCLB reauthorization, critics from the left, right and center; Democrats, Republicans and independents; eduwonks, educators and elected school leaders, are saying the goal of 100% proficiency is impossible. At current course and speed, I think it’s a safe bet that politics will compromise this objective substantially in NCLB II.

The charge goes to the core of a de facto (if unrecognized) federal industrial policy towards k-12.

NCLB’s role in the development of a school improvement industry is straightforward. In any given year, in any given state, the percentage of proficient students the state has set as a benchmark, the rigor of the standard defining proficiency, and the rules governing what constitutes a passing grade for proficiency, define how much money will be spent on school improvement services. Most observers focus on the market created when schools fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress. Students obtain a right to tutoring (supplemental education services) purchased by the government at as much as $2000 per student. Schools become eligible for support services and eventually subject to the possibility of private takeover. In my view, the more important market opportunity consists of the schools that want to avoid failure by addressing the needs of students who are not making proficiency. In either case, the more demanding the expectations of AYP are, the larger the potential addressable market becomes; the less demanding, the smaller.

Does the school improvement industry have anything to say about the substantive debate over proficiency and AYP? After seven years of experience with the implementation of NCLB with hundreds of thousands of students in thousands of schools in every major urban area in every state, it should.

I have heard a good deal of opposition from Supplemental Educational Services providers acting through the Education Industry Association that changing NCLB’s school accountability rules will reduce the number of students eligible for their services. I've heard their appeal to feelings that those kids need assistance. But the arguments have not been grounded in a view on the basic public policy. I’ve yet to hear or read anything on proficiency objectives as a public policy matter from the other school improvement industry’s trade associations. If there are policy statements, I'd be more than happy t publish them at edbizbuzz.

Trade groups that can’t or don’t relate their self-interest to the larger national interest doom their industries to the margins. That imperative requires the school improvement industry to engage the question of 100% proficiency by 2014 head on.

Three substantive reasons why the 100% goal might be impossible, and what the school improvement industry ought to be able to say about each.

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