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Volume 26, Number 2
March/April 2010

Four Central Dilemmas of Struggling Schools

The starting points for a developmental approach to intervention


There is an emerging crisis of school accountability in this country. Having passed beyond the arguments about whether schools should be held accountable at all, we’re trying to figure out what to do with the thousands of schools that aren’t good enough. Included in this group are schools that are persistently dysfunctional, along with many others that truly have gotten better, but not with the speed demanded by federal regulations. For a host of reasons, these schools haven’t converted the labels and sanctions imposed by states and districts under the No Child Left Behind Act into any dramatic leaps in student learning. They haven’t capitalized on the new performance data available to them. The new crisis—the most recent in a long series of urgent calls for reform—centers on how to fix this underperformance.

Time and again, state accountability and intervention in low-performing schools collides with the realities of the established culture and relationships in these schools. In some cases, this collision appears to bring about promising new practices, or at least helps set in place the conditions that might lead to sustained improvement. In others, the collision is like a powerful wave rolling to its quiet conclusion on a long beach. After the wave’s energy is dissipated, the beach remains unchanged; the low-performing school retains its most persistent, limiting features.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    A. Calkins, W. Guenther, G. Belfiore, and D. Lash. The Turnaround Challenge: New Research, Recommendations, and a Partnership Framework for States and School Districts. Boston, MA: Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, 2007.

    Center on Education Policy. Moving Beyond Identification: Assisting Schools in Improvement. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy, July 2007.

    R. Elmore. School Reform from the Inside Out: Policy, Practice, and Performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2004.

    J. Gray. Causing Concern but Improving: A Review of Schools’ Experiences. London: Department for Education and Employment Research, 2000.

    National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. Reaching New Heights: Turning Around Low-Performing Schools—A Guide for Governors. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, 2003.