The feds are on the wrong train to better schools. California needs to get off

President Barack Obama smiles after signing the Every Student Succeeds Act, a major education law setting U.S. public schools on a new course of accountability, on Dec. 10, 2015.
President Barack Obama smiles after signing the Every Student Succeeds Act, a major education law setting U.S. public schools on a new course of accountability, on Dec. 10, 2015. AP

Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the end of 2015, to almost universal surprise and relief. The law abandoned some of the worst ideas of No Child Left Behind, freeing California and other states to design more flexible policies on school accountability.

Sadly, Congress held on to one really bad idea. ESSA requires each state to identify the bottom 5 percent of schools for interventions to improve student performance and close achievement gaps. This rule threatens to undermine the work that California has done to build a new and better accountability system.

The state Board of Education, which will discuss the issue at its meeting Thursday, should seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education.

David Plank (2).JPG
David Plank

California should reject the bottom 5 percent rule for three main reasons.

First, the state’s new accountability framework gives school districts the primary responsibility for improving local schools. Under the Local Control Funding Formula, local school boards and administrators decide how to spend money and to adopt policies suited to the needs and expectations of their students and communities. Requiring the state to turn around 500 low-performing schools, as the 5 percent rule does, short circuits this system. It takes those with local knowledge and expertise out of the loop. This is not a recipe for success, as a long history of failed state interventions will attest.


Second, California has introduced a multi-measure dashboard to evaluate the performance of schools. The dashboard provides information on ten different indicators, including test scores, graduation rates and parental involvement. It lets parents and district officials judge the specific strengths and weaknesses of each school, and to decide what kinds of help they need. As our own research has shown, school rankings impose arbitrary judgments on schools, disguised behind a veil of fake precision. They offer no useful guidance about what schools should do to get better, or what others can do to help them

In stark contrast, the ESSA rule requires California to rank the state’s 10,000 schools on a uniform scale from best to worst. This is a fool’s errand. Approximately one percent of California schools perform badly on every measure on the dashboard. They are clearly the worst schools, and ought to be taken over or closed.

But the remaining 99 percent of schools are good at some things and bad at others. Judgments about which schools should be ranked higher than others are based on the values of those who set the scale, not on meaningful differences in school quality.

The third reason to resist is that there is nothing magical about 5 percent. We know that one percent of California’s schools are in serious trouble, but the number of schools that are struggling might be three percent or 10 percent or more. ESSA’s requirement may easily result in a misallocation of scarce resources, targeting schools that are improving on their own while depriving schools that need support.

Without a waiver from the 5 percent requirement, ESSA will undermine the coherent and effective school accountability system that California is trying to build.

David N. Plank is executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a nonpartisan research center based at Stanford University, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Davis. He can be contacted at