San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 2008 · If the system mandated by No Child Left Behind to fix thousands of failing schools were subjected to its own rigorous standards, it too could fail. That's the conclusion of the first large study examining whether school-restructuring programs required by the federal No Child Left Behind education act are actually working. The study, released today, found that the number of schools failing to meet achievement goals nationwide under No Child Left Behind jumped by 50 percent since last year - with California leading the way. California now has more than 1,000 persistently failing schools forced to undergo drastic restructuring, the study found. That's more than any other state, yet few are being helped by the mandated process. "We think the federal law is like a first draft of a paper - and we don't think it's developed very well," said Jack Jennings, president of the independent Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., which has studied No Child Left Behind for years and has now turned its attention to "school restructuring" efforts in five states, including California. The study name says it all: "A Call to Restructure Restructuring." Little guidance from feds The U.S. Department of Education "has offered little guidance on what to do about persistently struggling schools," according to the report. As a result, the study found that local efforts to comply with the law and turn schools around are often poorly focused and tend to lack a key ingredient: qualified teachers. "I would agree," said Jack O'Connell, California's elected schools chief. "You have to question your entire accountability program when you're setting all your schools up for failure." The idea of No Child Left Behind is that 100 percent of students will score "proficient" in reading and math by 2014. To get there, a rising percentage of students at every school has to score proficient each year. Program Improvement Schools failing to meet those annual proficiency goals two years in a row enter Program Improvement. The first few years include carrots: free tutoring for kids, extra training for teachers and other technical help. Schools that still don't meet the goals after three years face drastic restructuring measures: reopening as a charter school, replacing all staff, being operated by an outside agency or - the most popular - "any other major restructuring" they choose, such as changing the curriculum. More than 3,500 schools across the country are in the restructuring phase of Program Improvement this year. That's a 50 percent increase from last year, when about 2,300 schools had to restructure, the study says. The problem is that even those drastic measures don't help in most cases.