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U.S. educators and policymakers are concerned about the poor performance of the public schools, particularly schools that serve students from low-income families. Although education is primarily a state function, the federal government also has a longstanding interest in improving education for disadvantaged students, and it targets funding to this group. Federal involvement in states' provision of education has grown since the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965, and the 2002 reauthorization of ESEA, known as No Child Left Behind, represented a significant increase in federal intervention, particularly in terms of school improvement. ESEA could be reauthorized in 2011, and there is much discussion about the most-effective way to balance federal and state responsibilities for improving schools and how best to frame federal policy to promote this goal. This report reviews the literature on the state and federal roles in education, examines the effectiveness of states' ongoing school-improvement efforts, and considers options for framing future federal guidance and support of state school-reform efforts. Three general conclusions stand out: (1) the federal government has multiple policy alternatives from which to choose, and reauthorized ESEA legislation need not merely replicate approaches from the past; (2) the challenge that educators and policymakers face at present involves developing rather than replicating successful strategies to improve low-performing schools; (3) states vary tremendously in terms of their strategies and capacity to improve low-performing schools. Consequently, the optimal federal–state relationship would entail flexibility and incorporate a range of policy levers.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Federal and State Roles in School Improvement

  • Chapter Three

    States' Role in School Improvement

  • Chapter Four

    Directions for Federal Policy to Promote School Improvement

This work was prepared for the Sandler Foundation. The research was conducted in RAND Education, a unit of the RAND Corporation.

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