Is it time for Ohio to consider new forms of governance and management for its most troubled schools and districts, and, if so, what might alternatives look like? The question of what to do with long-suffering public schools has driven many of the country’s most significant education reforms. Both the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top competition addressed failing schools and sought to force dramatic changes within them. States have also taken up the challenge. According to the Education Commission of the States there are at least 29 states that permit state takeovers of school districts for academic bankruptcy, fiscal mismanagement, and other problems, while at least 23 states provide for takeovers of school buildings.
But, despite both federal and state legislation and millions of dollars in things like “school improvement grants” there are still far too many schools that seem impervious to improvement efforts. Consider Cleveland where there are 15 elementary schools that have been rated Academic Emergency (F) by the state for at least the last four consecutive years. Collectively, these schools serve about 6,000 children and in 2010-11 they met a total of just eight state performance indicators out of a possible 225. In these schools fewer than half of the children attain basic proficiency in reading and mathematics by the time they leave eighth grade. Yet, these schools, and many others across the state, keep failing kids year after year. This despite all the talk, money, and policies aimed at school turnarounds over the last decade.
Does it have to stay this way? Not necessarily, but it is hard to revitalize gravely ill schools without tackling the governance arrangements that led them – or at least enabled them – to fail in the first place. And it is clear that many lawmakers, mayors and other civic leaders, business leaders, school reformers, and others have grown impatient with the persistence of dismal schools and school districts that seem incapable of fixing themselves.
Across the country, there are some bold efforts underway to turn around both persistently failing schools and even failing school districts. Among the boldest and most interesting of these is Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD), which is accomplishing both significant gains in student achievement and consequential impacts on district-level standards and governance. Its success has already drawn the attention of policymakers in other states and similar entities are now operating in Michigan and Tennessee. The RSD has been in business long enough (since 2003) to produce some important lessons.
We at the Fordham Institute wanted to find out how the RSD concept might be applied in Ohio; so we commissioned the report (released today) – The Louisiana Recovery School District: Lessons for the Buckeye State. We asked Nelson Smith, former president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, to lead the study because of his long experience in Louisiana, particularly in post-Katrina New Orleans, working with state education leaders, RSD leaders, and practicing educators doing their utmost to start, re-start, or turnaround schools.
Smith shows how the RSD came about to tackle chronic dysfunction and corruption, especially within the New Orleans Public Schools where two-thirds of the state’s “academically unacceptable” schools were located. The RSD was set-up legislatively in 2003 “with extraordinary powers that could take control of individual chronically failing schools.” According to Smith:
Although the bulk of failing schools were in New Orleans, the RSD was created as a statewide entity aimed at turnaround of schools rather than takeover of districts. Based on Chapter 11 bankruptcy law, it could override existing contracts including those governing personnel. Schools could be transferred into the RSD if they failed to meet minimum academic standards for four consecutive years and were in a district ‘academically in crisis.
For two years, things moved slowly with the RSD and its turnaround efforts; then Hurricane Katrina hit and things took off as people in New Orleans, Louisiana, and across the country fought to save and revitalize “The Big Easy.” Important to the overall recovery effort was doing better by children and their education. The RSD played a major role in this effort and by 2011 there were 112 New Orleans schools in the RSD: five prior to the hurricane and 107 after.
But, even more important than the scale of the change in New Orleans is that student performance in the RSD schools is improving. A report issued in September 2011 by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor found, “Overall, the RSD is making progress toward improving student performance based on multiple measures of accountability reported by LDOE [Louisiana Department of Education].” Smith points out, however, that despite the improvements made by the RSD schools there is still a lot of work to be done in New Orleans to ensure every child there has a high-quality education, but the speed and scale of improvements there is vastly superior to anything we’ve seen in any of Ohio’s most troubled schools over the same period of time.
Smith’s paper provides seven lessons from the RSD for Ohio, but he cautions readers that the lessons have to be taken with major differences in state contexts in mind. For example, where Ohio is a strong union state Louisiana has no public sector collective bargaining laws. Smith’s lessons for Ohio include thinking strategically and knowing what the right target is for intervention – is it the district or troubled schools within districts? Ohio has tried to target both districts – Youngstown is currently overseen by an academic distress commission for example – and individual schools for corrective actions. Maybe Ohio should focus solely and more forcefully on schools? Further, Smith says it is critical to have the people in place to do the work – at the state level, at the RSD level and in the individual schools targeted for turnaround. “Be realistic but aggressive on human capital,” advises Smith.
And, leadership matters big time. According to Smith, “Someone needs to play the charismatic insurgent; someone needs to lead both the state agency (department) and the ‘RSD’ itself with vision and a non-excuses attitude. And of course, legislative champions must first be found.” Smith concludes with one final piece of advice, “If Ohio chooses to launch a statewide turnaround effort, it should obtain plenty of guidance and feedback, in real time, from parents and local officials who see the results not on a spreadsheet but in their homes and schools and neighborhoods.”
Fordham is profoundly appreciative of Nelson Smith’s illuminating work on the Louisiana RSD, and hopes it fosters a renewed discussion across the Buckeye State about what it really takes to fix the state’s most troubled schools and districts. A key lesson here is that Ohio is not alone in its desire to improve schools and school systems that have proven incapable of fixing themselves over years, if not decades, because of broken governance and failed systems of management and operations. And, as New Orleans and others are starting to show, change is possible with the right strategy and people in place to lead the effort. What are we waiting for? Ohio and its big cities already have some of the leaders in place, and they now need the tools and support necessary to get the job done.