By andrew Katz
WASHINGTON – All secondary school students must be equipped with the tools necessary to reach postsecondary successes, such as college, a career or military service, a Maryland education official told a Senate committee Tuesday.
Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the No Child Left Behind Act. He joined several other national education experts before the panel.
Tuesday’s hearing on school turnarounds touched on how middle schools and high schools, rural and urban, could improve student achievement.
Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the U.S. Department of Education estimates there are about 5,000 underperforming schools across the country, representing about 5 percent of the nation’s public schools and including largely minority and low-income students.
The experts said that closing chronically underperforming schools, improving teacher retention and enhancing school accountability would strengthen the institutions, and that several turnaround trials in their communities have shown short-term successes.
“It’s not about who, but how” the schools are operated and employed that matters, said Balfanz, who is also associate director of the Talent Development Middle and High School Project in Baltimore.
There are three key components of school turnaround, he noted: diagnosis of the institution’s educational challenges, the “know-how” to implement a strategy to “reach every kid” and the “will” to work through each problem.
“Once we put all of these things together … we have a recipe for success,” he said.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965 and mandated equal access to education, established high standards and authorized federally funded programs. It was amended in 2002 and reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act, according to the department.
President Barack Obama called for its reauthorization in his State of the Union address in January and, with his administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, presented a blueprint on March 13 for revisions.
In testifying before the committee last month about the reauthorization, Duncan said the new act would “raise standards,” “reward excellence and growth” and “increase local control and flexibility while maintaining the focus on equity and closing achievement gaps.”
Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said improvements to the new legislation are necessary.
“No one really knows yet what’s going to come out of the reauthorization, but we hope we stick to the overall goal of student improvement and continue to look at assessment as an important aspect of that tool,” he said.
“You could have a school that was doing all the right things in one area and having trouble with another thing in another area and it would be seen as not making academic progress,” he said, “and then it was characterized as a failing school.”
Reinhard said part of the problem is how some schools are “branded,” particularly when it’s with the label “failing.”
“We think each school should be looked at individually and their problems should be given an individual solution.”
While any determination of how effective the reauthorization will be is premature, Reinhard said, “We hope to stick to the overall goal of student improvement and continue to look at assessment as an important aspect of that.”