Let's Make State Interventions for Underperforming Schools Rigorous, Fair, and Effective

In our previous article on this subject, we analyzed the Michigan State Reform Office’s policy for closing struggling schools, and we made the following suggestions:[1]

To make the policy more rigorous and transparent we propose a new way of defining “quality” based on absolute, not relative standards for student and school performance.

To make it more fair, we suggest including metrics assessing the level of difficulty schools face in meeting quality standards.

And, to make it more useful, we call for schools to be grouped by level of difficulty so that schools with different levels of success but similar challenges can work together to improve quality.

In this article we propose criteria for determining which schools receive targeted supports to address their quality gaps, which have corrective actions imposed and which face closure?

In developing these criteria, we adapt a principle I first heard articulated by David Hornbeck, a well-known national child advocate and former superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools.  The “Hornbeck principle” states that, with respect to academic performance, individual students should not be punished (denied high school graduation or grade promotion) when their school or school system has failed to support most students like them to achieve the required academic standard. 

We apply this principle to the question of when states should close schools as a function of their academic performance.

First, in our view, no school should be singled out for state closure based solely on its academic performance until and unless the majority of schools facing comparable levels of difficulty in that state have met the performance standards.  Level of difficulty refers to the concentrations of students with learning challenges and degree of control schools exert over student and staff recruitment and retention.

Second, the state-imposed consequences for academic underperformance – from targeted supports to corrective actions to potential closure – should be a function of three measures:

  1. the school’s performance against absolute quality standards,
  2. the level of difficulty it faces in achieving those standards, and
  3. the state’s success in supporting similar schools to close their quality gaps.

Below are possible scenarios for a school identified as needing state intervention based on its performance against absolute quality standards.

If at least half of schools with this school’s same level of difficulty meet the absolute standards:

  1. Provide that school 1-2 years of targeted supports (using information from successful schools within this group to guide these supports).
  2. With persistent lack of defined progress toward the school quality standard(s), move that school to corrective actions (including leadership change, model imposition) or closure.

If more than 25% and less than 50% of schools with this school’s level of difficulty meet the absolute standards:

  1. Provide targeted supports (using information from the successful schools in this group) until 50% of schools like this one achieve the quality standard, then;
  2. Apply the same intervention and support strategies as above

If less than 25% of schools with this school’s level of difficulty meet the absolute standards:

  1. Where possible, redistribute students with learning challenges more equitably and /or provide greater flexibility in student or staff recruitment,
  2. Diagnose and address the systems' (state, district, CMO) inability to adequately support this school and other like it.
  3. Reallocate system resources to these schools to address their challenges in meeting absolute quality standards until at least 25% of them meet the absolute standard, then
  4. Apply the same intervention and support strategies as above.

Final Thoughts

In this series of articles on state interventions with struggling schools, we offer an alternative approach to bring more rigor, fairness and positive impact to the process. We will continue make the case that this new approach should and can be implemented by providing more detail and specific examples in future articles.

Please follow us on Twitter (@InstResReform) and Facebook for announcements of new articles in this series and other articles providing practical and credible suggestions for improving education policy, research and practice.  For a detailed discussion of IRRE’s approach to defining and measuring education quality see our website at http://eqis.irre.org/.

 We are grateful to the Skillman and GM Foundations, United Way of Southeast Michigan and our other education partners in Michigan and nationally for the opportunity to learn about the many factors affecting students’ and educators’ success. The challenges identified and solutions proposed in this article are IRRE’s alone, not necessarily those of our partners.


[1] IRRE has developed data analytic strategies and metrics to implement these suggestions and we will share the results in subsequent articles in this series.