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Overhaul looms for rising number of schools

Educators face harshest penalties under Bush law

WASHINGTON -- Falling short of requirements under President Bush's education law, about 1,750 US schools have been ordered into radical ''restructuring," subject to mass firings, closure, state takeover, or other moves aimed at wiping their slates clean.

Many are finding resolutions short of such drastic measures. But there is growing concern that the number of schools in serious trouble under the No Child Left Behind Act is rising sharply, up 44 percent over the past year alone, and is expected to swell by thousands in the next few years.

Schools make the list by falling short in math or reading for at least five consecutive years.

In perspective, the total amounts to 3 percent of roughly 53,000 schools that get federal poverty aid and face penalties under the No Child Left Behind Act.

''It's just a matter of time before we see upwards of 10,000 schools in restructuring," said Michael Petrilli, a former enforcement official at the Education Department.

''Unless all of these schools suddenly turn themselves around, or the states continue to find ways to finagle the system, you're going to see the numbers accelerate," said Petrilli, now vice president for policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a school change advocate.

The Associated Press reported last month that schools were deliberately not counting the test scores of nearly 2 million students, mostly minorities, when they measure progress by racial groups. Those exclusions have made it easier for schools to meet their yearly goals.

Still, more than a quarter of the nation's schools have failed to make adequate yearly progress for at least one year. Many will keep moving along the law's penalty timeline. A district must choose an overhaul plan for a school by year five, then act on it in year six.

For example, in Tucson, the Lawrence Intermediate School for five years has failed to show enough reading progress among its students. So the district has ordered a total overhaul. All employees, from the teachers to the janitors, must reapply for their jobs.

The school's plan also calls for a longer school day, expanded tutoring, and bonus pay for instructors deemed to be master teachers.

''It's actually a positive, something to be excited about," said Ross Sheard, a supervisor of principals for the Tucson Unified School District. ''We're not being dictated to. We're being told, 'You come up with a solution.' "

Henry Johnson, assistant education secretary, said he's not encouraged by the growing number of schools ordered to make a drastic change. But the trend also shows the law is working, he said, by identifying schools that have underserved their poor and minority students.

When a school reaches the end of the line, its district has five choices:

Hire an outside organization to run the school.

Reopen the school as a charter school, with new leadership and less regulation.

Replace most or all of the school staff with any ties to the school's failure.

Turn operation of the school over to the state, if the state agrees.

Choose any other major restructuring that will fundamentally reform the school.

Most districts are opting for the last choice, a wide-open category. It allows for approaches that are easier to pull off than firing teachers or opening under new management.

''Most schools are not doing radical things," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, which has studied restructuring efforts in California and Michigan.

''They are offering professional development, rethinking the curriculum, bringing coaches in, and trying to improve the school without wiping the slate clean," he said.

In Michigan, many schools improved their test scores by using a mix of strategies, a good lesson for other states, Jennings said.

The Education Department monitors whether districts are restructuring schools and aims to help them assist. But it does not get involved in how they do it.

''I don't know that we have a preferred way," said Johnson, the Education Department official. ''Whatever way that works is the preferred way."

Yet some see an enormous loophole. Free to choose ''any other major restructuring," districts have opted for milder remedies that won't turn schools around, Petrilli said.

''This is a credibility issue," he said. ''If parents get information that their school is failing for six straight years, and everyone keeps their job, how is that a restructuring?"

Maryland tried a get-tough approach. The state schools chief ordered a state takeover of 11 struggling schools in Baltimore, invoking the federal law. But Democratic state lawmakers halted the plan, then overrode the Republican governor's veto when he intervened.

The law requires schools to test students in reading and math in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school. The schools must show overall improvement and yearly progress among poor children, minorities, and other groups. Missing even one target means the whole school falls short.

Each year, the consequences grow, from letting students transfer, to offering tutoring, to installing a new curriculum. Then comes the order to restructure.

Nationwide, the number of schools in the final penalty phase varies widely because states started the countdown at different times.

The law has been in effect for four school years. Yet some states list schools as failing for five or six years based on testing and data reporting that began before the law.

Seven states -- California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania -- account for almost 70 percent of all schools ordered to restructure.

Eight other states and the District of Columbia list none at all.

Education Department officials cautioned that the current numbers are still being verified.

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