K-12 Education: Observations on States’ School Improvement Efforts

What GAO Found

Many states use flexibilities in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as amended, in identifying low-performing schools and student subgroups (e.g., students from major racial and ethnic groups and low-income students) that need support and improvement. For example, states must identify all public high schools failing to graduate at least one-third of their students. According to GAO’s state plan analysis, four states used ESEA’s flexibilities to set higher graduation rates (i.e., 70-86 percent) for purposes of state accountability. Similarly, while ESEA requires states to identify schools in which students in certain subgroups are consistently underperforming, 12 states assess the performance of additional student subgroups. Although states are generally required to set aside a portion of their federal education funding for school improvement activities (see figure), states have some discretion in how they allocate these funds to school districts. According to GAO’s survey, 27 states use a formula to allocate funds. GAO also found that in at least 34 states, all school districts that applied for federal funds received them in school year 2018-2019, but states had discretion regarding which schools within those districts to fund and at what level.

Funding for School Improvement through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Title I, Part A

Note: For more details, see figure 2 in GAO-21-199.

A majority of the 50 states and the District of Columbia responding to our survey reported having at least moderate capacity to support school districts’ school improvement activities. Education provides various types of technical assistance to build local and state capacity such as webinars, in-person training, guidance, and peer networks. About one-half of states responding to GAO’s survey sought at least one type of technical assistance from Education’s program office and various initiatives, and almost all of those found it helpful. For example, Education’s Regional Educational Laboratories (REL) help states use data and evidence, access high-quality research to inform decisions, identify opportunities to conduct original research, and track progress over time using high-quality data and methods. Several states most commonly reported finding the following assistance by RELs to be helpful: in-person training (26), webinars (28), and reviews of existing research studies to help select interventions (24).

Why GAO Did This Study

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires states to have statewide accountability systems to help provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps high-quality education. These systems must meet certain federal requirements, but states have some discretion in how they design them. For example, ESEA requires states to identify low-performing schools and student subgroups for support and improvement.

Senate Report 115-289 accompanying the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2019, includes a provision for GAO to review states’ school improvement activities.

This report addresses (1) how states identify and allocate funds for schools identified for support and improvement; and (2) the extent to which states have capacity to support districts’ school improvement activities and how helpful states find Education’s technical assistance.

GAO analyzed the most current approved state accountability plans from all 50 states and the District of Columbia as of September 2020. The information in these plans predates the COVID-19 pandemic and represents a baseline from which to compare school improvement activities going forward. GAO also surveyed and received responses from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. GAO also conducted follow-up interviews with officials in three states selected based on variation in reported capacity and geographic diversity.

For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.

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    The owners of over a dozen New York-area pharmacies were charged in an indictment unsealed today for their roles in a $30 million health care fraud and money laundering scheme, in which they exploited emergency codes and edits in the Medicare system that went into effect due to the COVID-19 pandemic in order to submit fraudulent claims for expensive cancer drugs that were never provided, ordered, or authorized by medical professionals.
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  • Climate Resilience: Actions Needed to Ensure DOD Considers Climate Risks to Contractors as Part of Acquisition, Supply, and Risk Assessment
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Defense (DOD) has not routinely assessed climate-related risks faced by its contractors as part of its acquisition and supply processes, through which DOD obtains contracted goods and services. DOD's acquisition process includes long-term planning activities such as life-cycle sustainment planning. Its supply chain process includes steps to identify and assess potential disruptions, such as severe storms affecting transportation or energy systems, in order to mitigate risk. However, these processes in general do not systematically identify and consider climate-related risks to materiel acquisition and supply or the acquisition of weapon systems, according to Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and military department officials. DOD's climate change adaptation directive indicates that OSD and the military departments should include climate considerations in acquisition and supply and integrate those considerations into relevant policy and guidance. However, GAO's review of DOD and military department guidance on acquisition and supply found that the guidance did not implement DOD's climate change directive by including consideration of climate change or extreme weather. Until DOD and the military departments include these considerations in their guidance on acquisition and supply chain processes, they risk continuing to develop acquisition strategies and managing supply chains without building climate resilience into these processes and potentially jeopardizing their missions. DOD guidance requires consideration of climate-related risks as part of the mission assurance process, when appropriate. However, GAO found that the department has not assessed risks—including those associated with climate change or extreme weather—to commercially owned facilities, which can support DOD installations as well as weapon systems, as part of this process. Assessing risks to commercial facilities has been a longstanding challenge for DOD, with the department noting in 2012 that it had paid inadequate attention to challenges outside of DOD-owned facilities and citing a limited understanding of supply chain risks as a pervasive problem. DOD's mission assurance guidance includes minimum requirements for assessments of certain non-DOD-owned facilities, such as completion of an all-hazards threat assessment. However, DOD officials stated that they had not conducted such assessments. The officials noted that DOD is limited in its ability to conduct such assessments, as it does not have the same access to commercial facilities as it does to its own facilities. While DOD officials stated that they are exploring alternative ways of assessing risks to commercial facilities, they noted that these efforts are in the early stages. Without determining what approaches may be feasible for assessing risks to commercial facilities as part of the mission assurance process and issuing or updating guidance accordingly, DOD may not fully evaluate the risks to critical commercial facilities as part of the mission assurance process, leaving gaps in its knowledge of potential risks—to include climate and weather-related risks—to its ability to fulfill key missions dependent on such facilities. Since 2010, DOD has identified climate change as a threat to its operations and installations. The department relies on contracted goods and services for its mission and installations. Climate change is projected to have broad effects that could affect DOD's supply chains, and any associated risks to contractors can have an impact on DOD. One way DOD assesses risk to its missions is through mission assurance, which is a process to protect or ensure the function of capabilities and assets critical to its missions. GAO was asked to review potential threats to national security from the effects of climate change on defense contractors. GAO examined the extent to which DOD assesses the potential effects on its operations from climate change and extreme weather risks faced by its contractors through the department's (1) acquisition and supply processes, and (2) mission assurance process. GAO reviewed DOD acquisition, supply, and mission assurance documents and interviewed relevant DOD officials and contractor representatives. GAO is making six recommendations, including that DOD incorporate climate adaptation into its acquisition and supply guidance and issue or update guidance on mission assurance-related assessments for commercial facilities. DOD concurred with three recommendations and partially concurred with three. GAO continues to believe that DOD should fully implement its recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
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  • COVID-19: Federal Efforts Accelerate Vaccine and Therapeutic Development, but More Transparency Needed on Emergency Use Authorizations
    In U.S GAO News
    Through Operation Warp Speed—a partnership between the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense (DOD)—the federal government is accelerating efforts to develop vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19. A typical vaccine development process can take approximately 10 years or longer, but efforts under Operation Warp Speed seek to greatly accelerate this process by completing key steps simultaneously (see figure). As of October 15, 2020, Operation Warp Speed publicly announced financial support for the development or manufacturing of six COVID-19 vaccine candidates totaling more than $10 billion in obligations. It has also announced financial support for the development of therapeutics, such as a $450 million award to manufacture a monoclonal antibody treatment (a treatment that uses laboratory-made antibodies, which also may be able to serve as a prevention option). Operation Warp Speed Timeline for a Potential Vaccine Candidate Note: An Emergency Use Authorization allows for emergency use of medical products without FDA approval or licensure during a declared emergency, provided certain statutory criteria are met. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may temporarily allow the use of unlicensed or unapproved COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics through emergency use authorizations (EUA), provided there is evidence that the products may be effective and that known and potential benefits outweigh known and potential risks. For vaccines, FDA issued guidance in October 2020 to provide vaccine sponsors with recommendations regarding the evidence FDA needed to support issuance of an EUA. For therapeutics, FDA has issued four EUAs as of November 9, 2020. The evidence to support FDA's COVID-19 therapeutic authorization decisions has not always been transparent, in part because FDA does not uniformly disclose its scientific review of safety and effectiveness data for EUAs, as it does for approvals for new drugs and biologics. Given the gravity of the pandemic, it is important that FDA identify ways to uniformly disclose this information to the public. By doing so, FDA could help improve the transparency of, and ensure public trust in, its EUA decisions. The U.S. had about 10.3 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and about 224,000 reported deaths as of November 12, 2020. Given this catastrophic loss of life as well as the pandemic's effects on the U.S. economy, effective and safe vaccines and therapeutics are more important than ever. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines, (1) efforts of Operation Warp Speed to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutic development; and (2) FDA's use of EUAs for COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines, among other objectives. GAO reviewed federal laws and agency documents, including HHS and DOD information on vaccine and therapeutic development and EUAs as of November 2020. GAO interviewed or received written responses from HHS and DOD officials, and interviewed representatives from vaccine developers and manufacturers, as well as select public health stakeholders and provider groups covering a range of provider types. FDA should identify ways to uniformly disclose to the public the information from its scientific review of safety and effectiveness data when issuing EUAs for therapeutics and vaccines. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but said it shared GAO's goal of transparency and would explore approaches to achieve this goal. For more information, contact Mary Denigan-Macauley at (202) 512-7114 or deniganmacauleym@gao.gov, or Alyssa M. Hundrup at (202) 512-7114 or hundrupa@gao.gov.
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    The Justice Department announced today that it has reached a settlement with the Worcester County Sheriff, in his official capacity (currently Matthew Crisafulli, formerly Reggie Mason), and the state of Maryland, resolving allegations that a former staff member was subjected to a racially hostile work environment and that he and others who supported him were retaliated against after he complained about the racial discrimination. The Justice Department also announced the settlement of related retaliation claims filed against Pocomoke City, Maryland that were resolved on Dec. 4, 2019.
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    In Crime News
    An American military contractor was sentenced today to more than three years in prison for his role in a theft ring on a military installation in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
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