School Improvement Under No Child Left Behind

All across the country, educators, parents, and state officials are concerned that too many schools are being classified as “in need of improvement” due to the accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. These requirements mandate that states establish steadily increasing targets for student achievement and that schools progress toward meeting the long-term goal of proficiency in reading and math for all students by 2013-14. Those schools that do not meet state targets for two consecutive years are identified as “schools in need of improvement” (SINI) and are required to institute changes so that all students receive adequate and appropriate instruction to enable them to reach proficiency.

In addition to the apprehension that a growing number of schools will be labeled as “in need of improvement,” it is sometimes mistakenly believed that schools designated for improvement lose federal funds. Although these schools may lose funds for other reasons, the law does not say that schools lose money because of their status as a school in need of improvement. Indeed, NCLB provides additional resources in the form of a School Improvement Fund (SIF) to help these schools implement improvement strategies. Nationally, the SIF totaled $4931 million this school year, and an estimated $514 million was allocated toward school improvement for 2005-06.

These fears about the labeling of schools and the loss of funding have overshadowed discussion of the law’s requirements for enabling those schools to make the improvements necessary to produce students who are proficient in reading and math. Who is responsible and what is being done to carry out school improvement? This paper from the Center for American Progress is likely the first examination of how states are implementing their role as providers of technical assistance and resources to schools in need of improvement.

Under NCLB, while local districts are the “first responders” for helping low-performing schools, states are charged with the critical role of providing the resources—both human and monetary—to districts and schools undertaking improvement efforts. Specifically, states are responsible for both providing a “statewide system of intensive and sustained support” to assist schools in implementing improvement strategies and for allocating 95 percent of the SIF directly to schools. (States retain 5 percent of the SIF to fund the statewide support efforts mentioned previously.) While NCLB provides some guidance in carrying out both of these duties, states have adopted a wide range of approaches.

To perform the first of these two functions, NCLB requires that state education departments establish school support teams that help schools design and implement their improvement plans. While some states have instituted school support teams, others say that the restriction that they use no more than 5 percent of their SIF to pay for state support systems leaves them without sufficient resources to do so. States have also opted to support school improvement efforts through the deployment of specialists, such as literacy coaches, English-language-learner professionals or others who can address schools’ specific weaknesses. In many places, both human and financial resource constraints have meant that states operate largely regional systems of support.

Secondly, states are charged with allocating 95 percent of their SIF directly to schools. Because NCLB does not specify precisely how states should do this, they have adopted a variety of approaches to distributing the SIF. Some states have opted to provide schools undertaking improvement efforts with a flat per-school allotment, while others give schools in need of improvement different amounts based on how long they have been in improvement status or what percentage of the school’s students are low-income. After receiving their improvement money, schools have some discretion in how they may use these funds. States, however, do exert some influence over how schools spend this money, and many states have cautioned schools that these funds should only be used for non-recurring expenses, such as coaching.

In both of these areas, states have been affected by the level of federal funding designated for school improvement. Some states are straining for money to support many SINI, while others have sizable funds available for school improvement and relatively few schools designated for improvement efforts. For example, the number of SINI increased by 10 in Minnesota between the 2003-04 and 2004-05 school years, while the state’s SIF declined. In Georgia, on the other hand, the SIF more than doubled between 2003-04 and 2004-05, yet 90 fewer schools were designated as needing improvement in 2004-05.

The amount of school improvement funds per school can vary widely from year to year depending on how states determine SINI. In the 2003-04 school year, Texas had nine SINI and $20.3 million, or roughly $2.26 million per SINI. The SIF doubled to $44.4 million for the 2004-05 school year, totaling roughly $225,524 for each of the 197 schools Texas designated as needing improvement in 2004-05. The seemingly excessive money from 2003-04, however, may not have helped the state next year when it had more SINI, because states can ordinarily carry over only 15 percent of Title I funds from one school year to the next.

Some of these state-by-state disparities are related to the method by which the size of the SIF is determined, both at the federal and state levels. NCLB requires states to designate for the SIF a federally specified portion of their Title I Part A funds, which the federal government allocates to states on the basis of estimates of the number of low-income children aged 5 to 17 in a school district. States were required to direct 2 percent of their Title I Part A funds toward school improvement in fiscal years 2002 and 2003, and 4 percent of those funds in 2004-07. However, Title I funding for each state may increase or decrease annually, depending on the overall level of federal funding for Title I and on the number of poor children in the state. Also, because “hold-harmless” provisions require that states provide a guaranteed baseline sum to districts before funding the SIF, it is possible that a state may have less money available for school improvement even as the percentage of a state’s Title I Part A funds slated for school improvement may have increased.

This examination of state practices in carrying out the school improvement provisions of NCLB has revealed a number of ways in which school improvement might be more effectively implemented.

  • Build state capacity to implement a repertoire of approaches to school improvement. States need a wide range of potential options for assisting schools, instead of being prompted to rely on the single approach—school support teams—favored by NCLB. In addition, states need some discretion in using more than just the 5 percent of the SIF designated for state-level support in order to ensure that they have the resources to adequately help schools carry out their improvement strategies.
  • Focus school improvement efforts beyond the school level. Under NCLB, districts and schools bear front-line responsibility for school improvement. However, schools may not currently be equipped to play this role. District-level initiatives, such as leadership development of principals and central office administrators, should be considered a legitimate school improvement expense.
  • Ensure appropriate funding for school improvement efforts. Because of the current funding process and the differences in the standards used by states to identify schools in need of improvement, funding per SINI varies widely among states. Congress should appropriate funds every year for a separate school improvement authorization and direct the Secretary of Education to allocate that money proportionately to states whose school improvement fund has dipped below 4 percent of its Title I Part A setaside.
  • Use school improvement funds more strategically. NCLB’s accountability provisions, which require that schools report test scores in reading and math broken down by income, race, language and disability status, both identify long-struggling schools and shine the spotlight on specific areas within schools that need improvement. As such, the SIF should not be treated as just another discretionary grant program. Instead, additional resources, such as money designated under other programs for special education or English language learners, should be folded into school improvement grants. In addition, states should use the NCLB designations regarding school improvement status as a tool in identifying the communities in which these low-performing schools are located and focusing state assistance on those areas.
  • Focus on effectiveness. In evaluating state education departments, federal program reviews should consider not only whether school improvement mechanisms, such as school support teams, are in place, but also whether they are successful. 

Strengthening the management of the school improvement process is the next major implementation challenge of NCLB. If properly implemented, these efforts will benefit thousands of students and teachers by helping turn low-performing schools into high-performing buildings.

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