Across the United States, too many schools have persistently failed to improve student achievement over years, and often decades. Some of the more controversial provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) have been aimed at improving such persistently low-performing schools. However, ESEA's prior attempts to improve these schools have often fallen short. Research consistently points to three challenges that undermine school reform: selecting effective reform approaches, ensuring that these approaches align with needs, and securing the commitment of effort and focus required for reforms to succeed. Since 2002, when No Child Left Behind (NCLB, the most recent authorization of ESEA) was enacted, federal laws and policy have attempted to address these challenges. Although the next phase of school improvement policy may look very different from the last, future efforts for school improvement can benefit from lessons learned.
A critical aspect of school reform is selecting an effective approach to bring about improvement. NCLB is peppered with over 100 references to requirements for “scientifically based research,” with consistent emphasis on choosing reform approaches that have been proven effective in rigorous research. The U.S. Department of Education has supported this drive for evidence-based decisionmaking with the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), a multimillion dollar initiative that offers reviews of the evidence of intervention effectiveness, researcher-practitioner grants to help expand the evidence base, and related resources.
Despite efforts like WWC, the specific school reform models promoted under NCLB and subsequent federal efforts, such as Race to the Top and the School Improvement Grants (SIGs) under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, vary in their evidence bases. Some features of these models build on strong evidence, such as SIG models that focus on effective teachers and school leadership; decades of research show that, respectively, teachers and principals have the highest and second-highest within-school influence on student learning. Unfortunately, some other features, while appearing intuitively sound, do not yet have strong research backing. For example, there is no strong evidence base to support closing ineffective schools and sending students to other schools.
Identifying an effective model is not sufficient if it is done out of context, because a reform approach that is effective in one situation may not be effective in others. For example, a school that has a strong professional teaching community might benefit from a reform that engages teachers in collectively redesigning instruction, while a school where teachers have historically worked independently might need a reform that guides teachers towards collaboration around instruction. Furthermore, schools using externally developed reform models or programs may need to adapt the model or program to fit the school's needs. For example, if a school that has many English language learners (ELL) adopts a reform model that focuses on reading skills, the school may need some additional reading or language supports, such as hiring instructional aides with ELL experience, to help students benefit from the model. Adapting externally developed models requires a delicate balance that fits the model to the specific context and preserves the key parts of the model that contribute to its effectiveness.
A third critical aspect of school reform involves committing to and carrying out major change. Too often, what is actually implemented is much less intensive than what was intended by federal policy. Given the option, schools and districts tend to choose the least-intensive reform approaches, which unfortunately also tend to be the least effective. Under NCLB, one of the five available reform models essentially allowed schools to continue current practices with modest changes, and over 70 percent of schools identified for comprehensive improvement chose this model. Responding to this failure, the next major federal school reform initiative—the SIG program— included more prescriptive conditions, and grantees were required to adopt one of four models, all of which mandated comprehensive staff, programming, and management changes. Nevertheless, SIG models also vary in intensity—the most intense calls for the school to close and send students elsewhere—and 90 percent of SIG schools adopted the least intensive of these models, enabling them to make much less demanding changes. Effective policy must communicate the message that school reform is hard work and support the substantial, sustained effort it requires.
After more than a decade of active federal engagement in school reform policies that emphasize comprehensive, research-based approaches, the driving force for school improvement appears to be shifting from the federal to the state and even district level. Current proposals for ESEA reauthorization provide more state-level autonomy in identifying low-performing schools and setting direction for improvement. Federal legislators might consider some of the lessons from the last 13 or more years as they consider how to direct ESEA resources to states for their school reform efforts:
School failure should be identified and addressed. Advances in data systems and analysis have made all stakeholders painfully aware of the fact that some schools consistently fail to educate their students, and that the implications of that failure are profound for the individual student and for society. As Congress considers eliminating SIG, the largest federal program for school improvement, it might also consider how to ensure that school improvement remains a priority in an era of tight budgets and hard decisions. Further, we now know which schools struggle the most. This information should be thoughtfully and systematically used to target schools for ESEA-funded support.
States, districts, and schools should select reform approaches based on the evidence of their effects. Historically, many forces have driven the decisionmaking process, including developers eager to sell their products, policymakers who are enamored of an approach based on personal experiences, and public pressure to adopt a popular approach. Federal policies have promoted a more measured selection process, and future reformers—whether federal or state policymakers, districts, or schools—could increase the likelihood of success by continuing to require rigorous evidence in decisionmaking as a condition of funding.
School reform funders, whether states or districts, should provide clear guidance on selecting reform approaches that address school-specific conditions and challenges. The strengths and needs of students and staff, school and district resources, and prior history of reform efforts matter in whether a specific reform approach will be accepted and work in the school. Districts and schools should justify the choice of an approach, and the rejection of others, before launching reform. Further, when implementing an externally developed reform model, some adaptation is inevitable. Staff should explicitly choose to make adaptations to improve the fit of the model with the school, and consider whether the adaptations might undermine impact before making changes.
Federal and state policymakers should hold districts and schools accountable. The net result of schools and districts frequently opting for the most flexible approaches is that very little change has occurred in schools that desperately need substantial change. For schools to improve, maintaining the status quo should not be an option. While academic achievement is a critical element of accountability, expectations for accountability should also include early indicators of progress, such as instructional and behavioral improvement.
As legislators rethink ESEA and reconsider the federal role in improving schools, they will need to find a balance between driving for school improvement and acknowledging state and local autonomy in setting specific directions for reform. Federal policy should ensure that school improvement is a priority, that schools adopt proven reforms that fit the school context, and that schools and their districts are held accountable, when federal resources are used for school improvement.
Becki Herman is a senior policy researcher and Distinguished Chair in Education Policy, Brian Stecher is a senior social scientist and Laura Hamilton is a senior behavioral scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.