U.S. Senate committee focuses on lowest-performing schools

A U.S. Senate panel Tuesday took up the issue of how to turnaround the nation's lowest performing schools as part of the first steps in the debate over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The hearing came in the wake of a new study from the Alliance for Excellent Education that showed fewer than 2,000 of the nation's lowest-performing high schools produce nearly half of the nation's dropouts.

Because just 12 percent of our high schools are responsible for 50 percent of the nation's dropouts, targeting reforms at these lowest-performing schools has the potential to significantly reduce disparities in high-school completion, and to increase the number of students who graduate career- and college-ready," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Health, Education and Labor Committee said Tuesday. "We must find ways to better support students at these lowest-performing schools."

The committee took no action but heard testimony from a number of education experts including Joel Klein, chancellor of New York public schools and Marco Petruzzi, CEO of Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have both called on Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is currently known as No Child Left Behind.

Turning around the nation's lowest performing schools is already a focus of the Obama administration's federal Race to the Top competition and newly revised School Improvement Grant program and is a major goal of their reauthorization proposal.

Klein told committee members that while the administration's efforts to provide federal funding as incentives to states and local officials to focus on the worst schools, Duncan's policy of forcing aggressive restructuring or closure of those schools may prove problematic.

"If you hold cities and states and school districts accountable for results and make sure federal funding follows those results, then I think you will get what you want," Klein said.

"But it's very hard to close down schools," he said. "It's very hard to change the way a school operates."

But Petruzzi said the federal government should embrace the hard line.

"You only get to fail so many years and then it's over," he said.

The report from the Alliance for Excellent Education was based on data provided by Johns Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center. It found among other things, that 16 percent of California high school students attend one of the nation's lowest-performing schools - only slightly higher than the national average of 15 percent.

A number of states - including some that placed far higher in the Race to the Top competition - did not do as well as California: Delaware, a race winner for instance, has 39 percent of its high school students in one of the low performing high schools.

To read the report visit:

http://www.all4ed.org/files/PrioritizingLowestPerformingSchools.pdf

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