UVA Professor’s New Book Wary of Top-Down School Reform

“The Children Left Behind: America’s Struggle to Improve Its Lowest-Performing Schools,” by UVA Professor Daniel Duke, analyzes the successes and failures of the No Child Left Behind Act under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

As a classroom teacher in a low-performing school on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Daniel Duke, now a professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, experienced first-hand the struggles of the public school system.

At the conclusion of the first semester of his ninth-grade classes in African-American and American history, Duke was prepared to award his students their final grades, many of which were A’s.

“They earned them,” Duke said.

But a school administrator didn’t approve, stating that such a move would result in Duke’s students, who weren’t considered college-bound, shaking up the school’s student rankings by knocking down students who were.

Duke couldn’t fathom the idea of not rewarding students with the grades that they had earned and deserved, and took that as his cue to create change.

“That convinced me that there was a need for a different kind of leadership,” Duke said.

The experience propelled Duke to earn his doctorate in educational leadership from the University of New York at Albany, arming him with the tools to become a school administrator in upstate New York. Still, Duke knew there was more he could do to address the problems he had witnessed.

So Duke entered the world of academia when he was hired by Stanford University to direct its Instructional Leadership Program, focusing his attention on guiding and shaping America’s future educational leaders and administrators.

Now at UVA, Duke researches America’s low-performing schools. An internationally known specialist on school improvement, Duke has conducted numerous studies on the school-turnaround process and has designed training programs on improving struggling schools. Duke was also instrumental in establishing the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, a joint venture of UVA’s Darden School of Business and the Curry School that strives to help leaders in education operate school systems effectively and efficiently.

In Duke’s newest book, “The Children Left Behind: America’s Struggle to Improve Its Lowest-Performing Schools” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), he discusses the issues facing the public education system as the No Child Left Behind Act gives way to the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Q. What problems did the No Child Left Behind Act intend to address?

A. The No Child Left Behind Act received bipartisan support. At the time, the intent was to focus attention on the very lowest-performing schools. Never before had the federal government zeroed in on the lowest 5 percent.

Also for the first time, there was an actual prescription for what these schools could do. Those four prescribed strategies reflected a range of opinions about what needed to be done, including closing the schools; converting them to charter schools; firing the principal and making changes to the curriculum and in how time was allocated; and firing the principal and half of the teachers.

Q. In what ways did NCLB succeed and in what ways did it fail?

A. While some states have done reasonably well in assisting their lowest-performing schools, others have really struggled.

The Recovery School District in Louisiana has been a reasonable success. Out of over 100 schools in the district, only three or four of the highest-performing schools were kept and the others were converted to charter schools. The average performance on state tests of the African-American students in the charter schools has exceeded the performance of African-American students elsewhere in Louisiana.

Cincinnati, Ohio is the poster child for a successful district turnaround. UVA worked with Cincinnati during the early years of the Darden/Curry program.

Unfortunately, while there have been successes, they haven’t been nearly as plentiful as folks had hoped. One of the strong beliefs in our political system is that of local control, which is probably as much myth as it is reality. People cling to that belief in terms of low-performing schools. Some of the greatest successes I’ve seen have been at local level, but so have the greatest failures.

Q. What do you think the reasoning is behind some of NCLB’s failures?

A. Trying to understand the reasons why some states did better than others is a major part of the book. What comes out of the analysis is predictable: The states that have done poorly allowed the mission of helping low-performing schools to get caught up in the political process.

It’s very hard to export one state’s innovation to another state. So that’s a lesson that we can take away – the grail we’ve been seeking for years of having a model you can scale up nationally just hasn’t worked. Local solutions are the preferable option because each locality has its own idiosyncrasies.

Q. Have there been any lasting effects on the teaching profession as a result of NCLB?

A. The major problem and yet unresolved issue is “How do we staff our lowest-performing schools with qualified teachers?” The turnover rate is enormous, and we are struggling to find minority teachers to go into minority schools. We can’t have effective education solely through virtual instruction, at least not for the lowest-achieving students. We desperately need teachers and administrators, but fewer and fewer people want to tackle that job.

Q. You point out in the book that NCLB was in place for seven years under the Bush administration and seven years under the Obama administration. In what ways did NCLB change or evolve over the course of those 14 years?

A. No Child Left Behind continued under the Obama administration because Congress could never reach agreement about reauthorization. So it continued in effect, but the Obama administration modified NCLB in significant ways.

During the recession of 2008, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act poured an unprecedented amount of money into turning around schools. The Bush administration, on the other hand, never fully funded school improvement grants. Obama, acting with the support of Congress, was able to allocate $4.5 billion to school improvement. That was unprecedented in American history. I can’t say all the money was well spent, but there were some successes – and just as many unsuccessful experiences. The Obama administration also tied more strings to the money.

Q. What is your outlook for the Every Student Succeeds Act?

A. The Every Student Succeeds Act has shifted the focus from the federal government taking the initiative to the states.

Because this new legislation has turned greater control over to the states, it would suggest people believe the states are capable. That hasn’t been demonstrated. What has been demonstrated, though, is that there is political will to get the federal government out of the process of directly monitoring school improvement.

It’s too early to tell what the impact of ESSA will be. Once a piece of legislation comes out, how it is translated into action is embodied in a set of rules and regulations. There is a lot of debate right now about what those regulations should be.

Q. What other pieces of the puzzle must be considered in order to address the issue of low-performing schools?

A. Community involvement is extremely important. It was a big part of Cincinnati’s success. A consortium of Fortune 500 company executives pulled together and saw to it that schools got volunteers and supplementary funds for teachers to purchase materials. Community involvement at that level is essential.

Another essential ingredient to Cincinnati’s success has been the stable leadership of a visionary superintendent of schools. Too many low-performing districts suffer a continuous churn of top-level leaders.

Q. What do you think the future of the public school system holds and what do you hope to see be done?

A. There’s a chapter in the book that looks at three positions – the idealist, the pragmatist and the cynic. The idealist says, “If we can turn around one low-performing school, I know it’s possible, so let’s find out how to do it elsewhere.” The pragmatist recognizes that it will probably never be the case that many of the low-performing schools will be moved up into the top half of distribution of schools. They believe improvements can be made, but also believe equity is an illusion. The cynic, on the other hand, would say, “Let’s just close them.”

What policymakers seem to overlook or minimize the importance of, though, is student motivation. What can we do to increase it?

Well, spending a whole day on math or reading is not likely to motivate a lot of people. There’s got to be some hook in there, some way of engaging the interest of young people. It’s got to be in the context of some other, more meaningful pursuit.

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