The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), the current incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, often is characterized as enforcing a punitive and inflexible accountability system. Few education stakeholders ever discuss the provisions in the bill meant to provide rewards to schools that succeed in improving student achievement, particularly among low-income students. And there is good reason for this – the sections of the law that provide for such rewards are mostly buried in the bill and ignored by states because they are not mandatory.
But Senators Harkin and Enzi recently proposed an ESEA reauthorization bill that would take an existing program – Blue Ribbon Schools – and use it to further codify and formalize a rewards system for successful schools.
The existing Blue Ribbon Schools program is authorized under the Fund for the Improvement of Education (FIE), a program in NCLB that typically supports pet projects and some specific national programs. The program recognizes either high-performing public and private elementary, middle, and high schools or schools where student achievement has improved dramatically, especially among disadvantaged students. In 2011, 314 schools were named Blue Ribbon Schools and Congress appropriated the program $1 million. While these schools can take pride in knowing that they are considered some of the best schools in the country, they receive no specific benefits from the program.
The Harkin/Enzi proposal would move the Blue Ribbon Schools program out of FIE and make it part of Title I, the section of the law that outlines accountability provisions in the bill. States are not required to participate in the program – they can opt into the rewards system. However, those that choose to do so would participate in a much more rigorous system of rewards than the Blue Ribbon Schools program provides today.
To become a Blue Ribbon School, a school must be in the top 5 percent of schools in a state in terms of the percent of students on track to college- and career-readiness in language arts and math, graduation rate (where appropriate), performance of students by sub-group, student growth in achievement (if a state is using a growth model), and school gains. The current Blue Ribbon Schools program allows schools to either be “high-performing” or “improving” as defined by each state’s chief state school officer. The new program would place a higher bar, as it more clearly defines high-performance as in the top 5 percent.
But more importantly, the proposed Blue Ribbon School program specifies actual benefits for the recipient schools. Participating states could have to give their Blue Ribbon Schools autonomy over budget, staffing, and time; give the schools flexibility in how they use their Title I funds; and distribute competitive reward grants to school districts for their Blue Ribbon Schools.
The prescribed uses of these reward grants are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the proposal: Blue Ribbon Schools that receive rewards would be required to use them to (1) improve student achievement; and (2) provide technical assistance to low-achieving schools with similar characteristics.
If a Blue Ribbon School is already in the top 5 percent of schools in terms of student achievement in a state, it is somewhat counterintuitive to require that school to use the funds to further improve achievement. This is not to say that Blue Ribbon schools should not be expected to improve further. In fact, it is commendable that the Harkin/Enzi bill seems to prioritize pushing these successful schools harder. But it is somewhat confusing to see that language in a program meant to reward schools.
More intriguing is the second usage: to provide technical assistance to low-performing schools. This is one of the few places where we see Congress attempting to create what are known as “communities of practice” – opportunities for schools to come together to share best practices and work together to improve student achievement. But this is often more easily said than done. Highly successful school leaders may have neither the time nor inclination to help similar schools while they are still working to support and strengthen their own campuses.
In many ways, Harkin and Enzi should be applauded for writing a more concrete rewards system into their ESEA reauthorization bill. If it’s enacted, however, it’s difficult to know how many states will choose to participate and which of those states will actually use the program to provide their successful schools with well-earned benefits. Further, the reward grant provision seems poorly thought out at the moment, and it needs further explanation. Check back with Ed Money Watch as we continue to follow developments in this program and others in the Harkin/Enzi reauthorization bill.