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Let's Show Struggling Schools Some REAL Love: A Valentine for the Bottom 5%

The phrase "tough love" is a strange one. It usually describes treating someone harshly but in their own best interest. So when, as parents, we force a child to go to bed before they want to, or to stop playing video games and start doing homework, that might fit the term. But the term has also been applied to teachers and schools recently. When the entire staff of a Rhode Island high school was fired last year, this was also called "tough love."

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In fact that term is often used to describe the four options now available to schools in the dreaded "bottom 5%." As President Obama pushes to renew No Child Left Behind, several key things will change. First, the toxic moniker will be dropped, and the law will return to its original name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Second, the absurd timetable that required every student in the nation be proficient by 2012 will go away, and along with it the concept of Adequate Yearly Progress, the constantly rising test score benchmarks that schools must meet to avoid being labeled failures. To hear Secretary Duncan talk, you might think the Department had learned some important lessons. In recent speeches he has said that the No Child Left Behind law punishes underperforming schools and is too narrowly focused on testing.

The abandonment of AYP will allow most schools to escape some of the pressure to constantly raise test scores, and that is a good thing.

Duncan has made it clear he understands this sort of punitive approach has not worked, and has led to what he describes as a narrowing of the curriculum, and teaching to the test. But for some reason, he still feels this punitive approach is useful for the bottom 5% of the schools. It is as if we had a class of students, and we decided that encouragement and rewards will work for most of you, but for the few incorrigibles, we will still have to use the belt. The Blueprint that the Department has issued to guide reauthorization continues to offer four punitive alternatives for the bottom 5% of the nation's schools.


  • Fire the principal and at least half the staff.

  • Close the school and reopen it as a charter

  • Simply close the school and send students elsewhere.

  • Fire the principal and engage in extensive reform

The schools in that bottom 5% are being separated from the rest of our schools for this special treatment. If these approaches had a track record of success, then this might be justifiable as "tough love." Unfortunately, they have not. Not in Chicago, where Duncan closed down 61 schools, and studies showed that the students who were moved to different schools did no better. Not in Rhode Island, and not in Los Angeles either. This treatment is tough, but it does not much resemble love.

Last summer I shared a proposal from Congresswoman Judy Chu, who showed us how we might support struggling schools to become stronger. Her proposal takes into account the challenges students and staff at these schools face. One hundred percent of these schools are attended by children living in poverty and violence. As was described here:

With respect to addressing barriers to learning and teaching, Chu's report emphasizes that learning supports need to be organized into a comprehensive system for a full continuum of interventions to enable every school to better address barriers to learning and re engage disconnected students. She outlines that key strategies include:


  • building teacher capacity to re engage disconnected students and maintain their engagement

  • providing support for the full range of transitions that students and families encounter as they negotiate school and grade changes

  • responding to, and where feasible, preventing behavioral and emotional crises

  • increasing community and family involvement and support

  • facilitating student and family access to effective services and special assistance as needed.


We must show teachers at our most difficult schools our appreciation for the challenges they are taking on, and give them the support they need, not pretend to be giving them "love" in the form of firing them.


On this Valentine's Day I declare my own appreciation and love for the teachers who have chosen to work in our toughest schools. And I will be joining with others in marching on Washington, DC, this July 28 to 31, to support a change in policies. What Secretary Duncan said - that NCLB has been far too punitive, is true for ALL our schools, including those in the poorest neighborhoods. We must have an ESEA that delivers support, not firings, to the schools with the greatest needs.

Please check out the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action's new website! And sign up there to keep informed about activities in your area.

What do you think? Are the four options for struggling schools "tough love"? Or should we find some better ways to support them?

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