Governance

Few school systems have embraced a crisis of opportunity quite like the school system in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Just five years ago, when the economy collapsed on everyone, the Reynoldsburg district was cutting deep into its staff and establishing buffers such as a $500 pay-to-play activity fee on families. Exasperated parents fled to neighboring districts and voters repeatedly rejected the district’s many levy requests. Pupil enrollment eventually fell by 10 percent from 2008 to 2012, and once crowded schools found themselves with extra space.

But while other suburban school districts succumbed to hand-wringing at such moments of despair, Reynoldsburg responded with innovation. It slashed central office staff and sent more resources to individual schools, empowering principals with key decision-making authority. It developed “themes” at schools with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and it established more charter schools and enhanced school choice throughout the district. Most unusually, it bartered with a community college, a hospital, a preschool, and a dance company to utilize its extra space in ways that benefitted its own students.

But perhaps most important, write Ellen Belcher and Terry Ryan in their informative profile of the district for the Fordham Institute, Limitless, Education, the Reynoldsburg Way, is the approach the 6,300-student district has taken to school leadership and administration—that of portfolio management. Principals have the authority to design unique academic programs, and they get to make the calls and employ the people that are the right fit for their schools. The superintendent acts...

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Introduction

One of the most exciting developments in American education during the last decade has been the reconceptualization of school districts and how they should be organized and managed. Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, describes this as a movement of “relinquishers.”¹ Relinquishers, according to Kingsland, are superintendents who use their authority to transfer power away from the central office to individual schools – and, most important, to their principals and teachers.

Education researchers Paul Hill, Christine Campbell, and Betheny Gross at the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Seattle have written for more than a decade about “portfolio school districts.” Like Kingsland’s relinquishers, portfolio school district leaders see their role not as running the schools, but rather as creating the conditions for a “tight-loose” system of school management – “tight” as to results, but “loose” with regard to operations. Superintendents are no longer owner-operators of schools, but rather “quality control agents” for portfolios of different types of schools in their districts.

Portfolio school district managers, according to Hill and his colleagues, think like savvy financial managers who build a diverse portfolio to ensure overall financial success even if parts of the portfolio underperform. A successful portfolio manager:

…avoids betting everything on one investment, knowing that some holdings will perform much better than expected and some much worse. This manager is agnostic as to which companies are represented but knows that diversity is key...
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As the charter movement enters its third decade, it is imperative that policymakers and legislators understand the perspective of those schools that have succeeded in providing their students with a quality education. The charter sector in Ohio is often seen by those outside as a monolith – for better or worse – but Fordham has long known that there are both high-flyers and underachievers. As an organization that focuses on the availability of quality education for Ohio’s children, Fordham feels it is imperative that the lessons of the high-performing charter schools be known above and beyond the “charter sector” as a whole.

As a step in accomplishing this goal, Fordham’s own Terry Ryan has helped form a coalition of high performing charter schools to testify in front of the Senate Finance Committee’s Education Subcommittee. The schools in which these leaders work represent some of the best public schools that Ohio has to offer. While each leader is advocating for their school and telling the story of what success looks like in their cities, they also provide overarching policy recommendations that could help forward the expansion and replication of successful charters including:

  • Supporting the implementation of the Straight-A-Fund
  • Increasing the per pupil facilities funding to charter schools
  • Implementing tougher laws that would lead to the closure of failing charter schools

Below you will find links to the testimonies this coalition have turned in to the Subcommittee.

Andrew Boy, Founder & Executive Director at United Schools Network (USN)

School Profile: ...

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Jane S. Shaw

Michael Petrilli is absolutely right that many Pell grant recipients aren’t ready for college and would be better off doing something else. One sign of poor preparation is the need to take remedial classes in college, and Petrilli recommends that students enrolled in such courses not be given Pell money.

The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (which I head) offers a somewhat different solution to the same problem. We believe that the federal government should inject an element of merit into the selection of Pell grantees. Thus, in a paper on Pell grants, Jenna Ashley Robinson and Duke Cheston recommend that Pell-grant recipients have SAT scores of at least 850 (verbal and math) and a high school GPA of at least 2.5 (between a C and a B).

“Not only would this save taxpayer money, it would provide a positive incentive for students to do better in school,” they write. “Students with very low high school academic performance are unlikely to graduate from college regardless of financial aid.”

The two solutions are similar, of course. As we see it, the advantage of our proposal is that it’s an objective standard that would be easy to enforce. Under Petrilli’s proposal, I would worry (as he does) about colleges renaming remedial courses as “regular” courses, something that may already be happening.

The SAT score we recommend, 850, isn’t high. According to the College Board, in order to have a 65 percent chance of...

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Philly’s Schools Phuture?

During the research for my book, one of the most interesting and depressing tidbits I uncovered was that the handful of high-performing, high-poverty traditional public schools described in No Excuses had not been grown by their districts. The central recommendation of my book is that the “four principles of chartering” should be applied across all three sectors; that includes growing great schools of all types (charter, private, and district). Charter growth has been happening via CMOs for more than a decade now, but the Philadelphia Schools Partnership has found a number of district schools to expand. Interesting development.

Addressing Non-urban Poverty

It appears that, slowly but surely, the education-reform community is paying more and more attention to the needs of low-income kids in rural areas (more on this from Bellwether soon). For years now, the primary focus has been on America’s cities. Maybe it should come as no surprise that Teach for America is stepping forward; TFA has long had a number of non-urban outposts. Its new program is designed to train TFA alum for school leadership positions in rural America. This is a tiny program, at least initially, but it’s a start.  Good luck, and well done.

Impervious to Competition?

Probably the bitterest pill I’ve had to swallow as a conservative ed reformer is that competition (from charters and choice programs) has had a positive but negligible influence on urban school districts. Ten years...

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A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, A Nation at Risk was released to a surprised country. Suddenly, Americans woke up to learn that SAT scores were plummeting and children were learning a lot less than before. This report became a turning point in modern U.S. education history and marked the beginning of a new focus on excellence, achievement, and results.

Due in large part to this report, we now judge a school by whether its students are learning rather than how much money is going into it, what its programs look like, or its earnest intentions. Education reform today is serious about standards, quality, assessment, accountability and benchmarking—by school, district, state and nation. This is new since 1983 and it’s very important.

Yet we still have many miles to traverse before we sleep. Our students still need to learn far more and our schools need to become far more effective.

To recall the impact of A Nation at Risk these past three decades and to reflect on what lies ahead, watch this short retrospective developed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute: A Nation at Risk: Thirty Years Later.

In my recent policy brief arguing for a reboot of charter school governance, I said that states need to create the right policy environment to ensure that management companies aren’t acting as puppeteers determining all the moves of a charter school and controlling the governing boards that ought to be in charge. When boards are mere rubber stamps, questions about accountability, incentives, and conflicts of interest are sure to follow (look at the calamity that has befallen the American Indian Model charter schools in California to see how an ineffectual and subservient board can crash even the highest flying charter).

But as my colleague Kathryn Mullen Upton pointed out yesterday, there’s plenty of blame to go around when problems like this surface. Charter boards that agree to arrangements that effectively make them subordinate to managers and vendors are as much at fault, said Upton, who oversees the Fordham Foundation’s charter authorizing operations in Ohio. Moreover, authorizers that grant a charter without even looking at the management agreement bear responsibility, too.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has recommended policies that explicitly assert the independence of the boards that ordinarily hold the charter and ultimately answer to the public. These include performance contracts that not only show how a board will assess a vendor’s performance but will terminate the contract if necessary. And there ought to be laws, just as in Florida, that explain how a governing board will maintain an arm’s-length...

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Redefining the School District in TennesseeTennessee’s Achievement Schools District is the latest character to enter the stage in the most important and interesting act of contemporary education reform: structural-institutional changes in the running and governing of public schools.

For eons, the plot was the same: a district owns and operates all of the public schools in a geographic area. The subplot, if you were in urban America, was that the district-run schools serving most of your community’s kids did so quite badly.

Chartering, entering stage right in 1991, subtly but revolutionarily, showed that other entities could run public schools. A few years later, Michigan and Massachusetts, adding dimension to the character, showed that non-district entities could also authorize (approve, monitor, renew, close) public schools.

The district’s proprietary grip on public education was broken.

Over the course of the 1990s, chartered schools slowly got more and more stage time, growing to capture larger market shares in America’s cities: 10, 15, 20, 30% in some areas.

The plot developed with a new strand: more and more state departments of education were empowered to take over individual schools and entire districts. 

In hindsight, this was the play’s most unfortunate interlude—the jump-the-shark scene, the add-a-precocious-child-to-the-cast strategy, the second season of Friday Night Lights.  SEAs, like a dog who chased and caught a car, didn’t know what to do with...

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Tennessee’s Achievement Schools District (ASD) is the latest character onstage in the most interesting act of contemporary education reform: structural changes in the governance and operation of public schools.

The Achievement Schools District is the latest character onstage
The ASD is the latest character onstage in the most interesting act of contemporary education reform: goverance reform
Image by Alan Cleaver.

For eons, the plot was the same: the district owns and operates all public schools in a geographic area. The subplot, at least in urban America, was that most of those schools weren’t delivering on the promise of public education.

Chartering, which crept on stage in 1991, subtly but importantly showed that entities besides districts could run public schools—and often run them better. Soon thereafter, Michigan and Massachusetts, adding dimension to the character, showed that non-district entities could also authorize (approve, monitor, renew, close) public schools.

The district’s monopoly grip on public education was broken.

Over the past two decades, chartered schools got more and more stage time, breaking into nearly every state and growing to capture larger market shares in America’s cities: 10, 15, 20, 30 percent in some areas.

Then the plot added a new twist, as state departments of education were empowered to take over individual schools and even entire districts.

This didn’t...

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Redefining the School District in TennesseeIs it time for Ohio and other states to take bolder steps toward turning around our most troubled schools and districts? There are a growing number of states that say yes, and they are leading the way in launching “recovery school districts.” The oldest and best known of these efforts is the Louisiana Recovery School District, but other states are embracing the idea: Tennessee, Michigan, and (most recently) Virginia.

Recovery school districts, simply put, are state-created entities that take responsibility for running—and turning around—individual schools that have languished academically for years while under district control. Fordham, as part of its series on school-governance alternatives and reforms, is issuing a three-part series focused on recovery school districts. The first report is on the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), which was seeded as part of Tennessee’s winning Race to the Top (RttT) application in January 2010.

Nelson Smith, former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and long-time school-reform leader, was the perfect person to report on the history, challenges, and early successes of the Tennessee ASD. According to Smith, Tennessee’s RttT application committed the state to turning around the “bottom 5 percent” of schools, and Tennessee allocated $22 million of its $500 million RttT award to launching the Achievement School District. Support for this effort was bipartisan, and strong leadership has...

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