Leave Bad Schools Behind

12/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As the Harry & Nancy Show contemplates, long overdue changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, called No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, by the current White House), they should consider calling the next installment the Leave Bad Schools Behind Act of 2009.

There are lots of problems with NCLB, but let me defend its basic premise:

• A commitment to measurement. We can improve what we measure and NCLB simply required states to measure academic progress in reading and math in most grades. Tests could certainly be improved to more frequently and less obtrusively measure progress (i.e., online adaptive assessment).

• Use of disaggregated data. For the first time, states were required to look at test data by race, income, special needs. Previously states and districts were able to live in Lake Wobegon where all kids were above average. NCLB made us all confront the ugly truth that low-income kids are (on average) poorly served educationally.

• Qualified teachers. While based on the flawed premise that certification equals qualified, NCLB at least supported the goal of a good teacher in every classroom

• School accountability. While far from perfect, NCLB spelled out a system of progressive intervention starting with public humiliation and ending with replacement. Prior to NCLB, few states or cities had a coherent public plan to deal with chronic failure. And NCLB set a floor with a basic intervention plan.

The first unfortunate thing about NCLB is that congress didn't revise it three of four times since passage in 2001. A little tinkering in the definition of bad schools and good teachers and reasonable goals for subgroups of kids would have gone a long way to making it workable. By postponing the fix for eight years, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act now requires major open heart surgery. I'll leave it to to enumerate the detailed changes required, but I'd like to suggest a goal and a strategy that should be central to the next revision of ESEA.

The goal of ESEA should be to ensure that every family in these United States has access to at least one good school -- a school where students have a good shot at college and careers. There's obviously more to a good education, but a good school should at least help students leave college eligible (i.e., able to pass a community college placement exam and earn credit without remediation).

A 'good school' goal requires a serious accountability system, a system that differentiates between 'chronic failure' and 'room for improvement' (something NCLB doesn't do). A 'good school' guarantee would first identify, then intervene, and finally close and replace bad schools. States actually had some flexibility to make these distinctions but few did and none built the capacity (government or market) to fix or replace a large number of failing schools.

When comparing good schools and bad schools, there's only one thing that is different -- everything. The bad news is we don't know how to dramatically improve failing schools, at least secondary schools (i.e., middle, junior and high schools). It's really hard to change everything in short order especially in a poorly resourced community. The good news is that, over the last ten years, we've learned a great deal about starting good new schools. Thanks in part to a number of generous donors, there are more than one hundred new school developers that have opened thousands of good new secondary schools in the last decade. The most reliable quality comes from charter school developers (e.g., Achievement First, Aspire, High Tech High, Green Dot, KIPP, Mosaica, National Heritage, PUC, and Uplift just to name a few of the 80 such organizations).

The 'good school' goal requires a supply side strategy, in particular, a dramatic strengthening of quality school developers. As Rick Hess recently pointed out (, strong accountability requires a strong supply of quality teachers and schools. For charter management organizations (CMO's) it means access to public facilities and funding parity with other public schools (they don't get facilities and they operate on about 20% less then district schools). It would be easy and relatively inexpensive for states to create funding and facilities parity for top performing CMO's.

When Congress reauthorizes ESEA, the Leave Bad Schools Behind Act of 2009 should focus like a laser on closing and replacing schools that are failing most students and should build a vibrant supply side of quality school developers full of enthusiastic well paid and unencumbered teachers. We don't need another federal bailout, we need a federal venture fund ten times the combined size of the Charter School Growth Fund and the New School Venture Fund. Loan forgiveness for teachers and school leaders would help fill the human capital pipeline. Lifting state caps on charter schools would ensure continued growth of this important sector.

While not easy for a Democratic Congress, the courage to close bad schools and support for good new schools would help ensure that every student in America had access to at least one good school.