Governance

Redefining the School District in TennesseeAs the challenges of education governance loom ever larger and the dysfunction and incapacity of the traditional K–12 system reveal themselves as major roadblocks to urgently needed reforms across that system, many have asked, “What’s the alternative?”

Part of the answer is the “recovery school district,” a new state-created entity that has the potential to turn around schools that have—often for decades—produced dreadful results under district control.

Nelson Smith investigates the Volunteer State’s Achievement School District (ASD) by analyzing the ASD’s history, politics, and moving parts in the new policy report Redefining the School District in Tennessee.

Smith offers concrete advice to other states thinking of creating similar “recovery school districts.”

  • Due Diligence: Because there aren’t enough high-quality national charter and turnaround networks to fill the demand created by large-scale reform efforts, states need to look for homegrown solutions.
  • Destination: States must consider how to make schools slated for turnaround attractive places to work for high-quality teachers, administrators, and leaders.
  • Expectations: What is an acceptable level of success, and at what point should legislators get the information they need to make further decisions? States must consider how to define “good enough” in turnaround measures.
  • Buy-In: States should follow the ASD’s lead in separating the identification of turnaround schools from the selection of potential operators—people hate for their schools to be closed and
  • ...
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If you asked me that question fifteen years ago, I would have given a pat answer: incentives, or the lack thereof. In our bureaucratic education system, described most accurately as a public monopoly, nobody faced strong incentives to look for ways to build a better mousetrap. And if that mousetrap was threatening to anyone (as mousetraps tend to be), forget about it; the status quo ruled.

Why don't schools extend the reach of great teachers?
Why don't schools extend the reach of great teachers, as recommended by Public Impact?

Change the incentives and watch schools embrace change, I would have argued. Hold superintendents, principals, and teachers to account for raising test scores. Subject them to real competition. Then voila: They would spend night and day looking for promising innovations to improve achievement and better serve families.

Well, we know how that’s turned out. We’ve put a lot of those incentives in place, and schools (and educators) still don’t seem to embrace good ideas, even the non-controversial, inexpensive kind. Take, for instance, the following:

  • Bring “departmentalization” to elementary schools by asking strong math teachers to teach math and strong reading teachers to teach reading. Don’t ask anybody to do both.
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Adapted from the Foreword

by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Winkler

As the challenges of education governance loom ever larger and the dysfunction and incapacity of the traditional K–12 system reveal themselves as major roadblocks to urgently needed reforms across that system, many have asked, “What’s the alternative?”

Part of the answer is the Recovery School District, a new state-created entity that that has the potential to turn around schools that have—often for decades—produced dreadful results under district control.

This is both a governance innovation and an imaginative response to pressure (from No Child Left Behind, from Secretary Arne Duncan, and from many other sources) to transform the nation’s most egregious “dropout factories” into providers of quality education and sources of worthy school choices for children who urgently need them.

Redefining the School District in Tennessee, by Nelson Smith, examines the progress of the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), a statewide model for school turnarounds based on Louisiana’s pioneering Recovery School District.

The ASD is now leading the charge in developing talented building and classroom leaders, luring high-quality charter-management organizations to The Volunteer State, and incubating new school-choice networks. It runs some schools directly and entrusts others to external charter operators. But the goal remains the same: turn the bottom 5 percent of schools into high-achieving ones (top 25 percent) within five years.

Will this happen? ASD is too new to have produced definitive evidence. But its forerunner in New Orleans, where the percentage of students...

GadflyThe Obama administration’s budget proposal was late to the party and is mostly a big yawn—at least when it comes to K–12 education. The big-ticket items, such as they are: level-funding for Title I and IDEA; new efforts to promote STEM education and tweak American high schools; and a Race to the Top for higher education. The real firepower is reserved for the President’s well-designed Pre-K plan, which would be the biggest federal expansion into early childhood since the creation of Head Start, to be financed by a huge increase in cigarette taxes. Were it not for Congressional realities, it might even be something to get excited about.

After changing part of the exam it uses to determine which four-year-olds are eligible for the coveted gifted-and-talented slots in its public schools, New York City has (very slightly) reduced the number of children who qualify. Yet most of the high scorers still came from the city’s richer areas—a problem, given that they altered the test precisely in order to combat the influence of income-related factors, such as test-prep programs. And (at the risk of sounding like a broken record) there still aren’t enough suitable options for gifted children.

Researchers from Yale, MIT, USC, and Stanford, with a little pocket change (i.e., a $10 million grant) from the National Science Foundation, are experimentally placing...

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Tilting at WindmillsThis is the brave tale of Alan Bersin, superintendent of San Diego Unified School District from 1998 to 2005, and his aspiration to bring about rapid, systemic reform across that sprawling district. At attorney by training and experience, Bersin was new to school administration. But he moved swiftly, replacing the bloated, inefficient bureaucracy he had inherited with three distinct branches focused chiefly on improving instruction through centralized curricula, direct coaching, and observation. San Diego’s teacher union, however, viewed such moves as power grabs rather than legitimate reforms. Relations only got worse when Bersin implemented a prescriptive plan to curtail social promotion and increase instruction for high-need students—without teacher input. The union, upset at his top-down management style and his simultaneous embrace of charter schools, set out to change the composition of the school board and stock it with anti-Bersins. Never mind that overall student achievement had gone up and achievement gaps had significantly narrowed during his tenure. Bersin’s successor was then chosen to make peace between the union and the school district, and of course this peacemaking process undid just about all of his significant reforms. And the wheels keep spinning.

SOURCE: Richard Lee Colvin, Tilting at Windmills (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013)....

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The U.S. Department of Education is on the verge of making an unprecedented and unwise decision.

Classroom

Unless Secretary Duncan can be prevailed upon to reconsider, decades of education policy will be overturned and a federal agency will have assumed authority that should remain squarely in the hands of Congress and the states.

A group of California districts have jointly applied for an NCLB accountability waiver. So far only states have had proposals approved. It’s not the consortium’s application that’s noteworthy; it’s that the feds are taking it seriously. (Duncan evidently encouraged them, and the submission has been forwarded to peer reviewers.)

There’s very good reason to deny the application on the merits. The proposed accountability system relies too heavily on non-academic measures; sets the expectations bar too low; has weak interventions; and, most troublingly, trusts districts to hold themselves accountable. (Grave concerns about the plan’s achievement-gap implications have been raised by, among others, a former Bush administration official and Ed Trust’s head.)

But regardless of its content, this application—and similar district-accountability-waiver requests—should be denied for two reasons.

First, for years America has maintained an intricate K–12 accountability framework, with states playing lead. I never realized how critical this was until I worked for a state education agency.

Under state constitutions, state governments have responsibility for public education. Districts are creatures of state...

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Mayoral Governance and Student AchievementIn the world of education reform, the biggest, baddest elephant in the room is, without question, the broken manner in which American schools are governed. This latest attempt to dispel our romantic attachment to the traditional school board comes from Kenneth Wong, who has long studied the impact of mayoral control and who here examines the effects of it on student achievement and resource allocation. He and his colleague analyze eleven districts that were governed by some version of mayoral control from 1999 to 2010—meaning, the mayor had direct authority over at least some of the schools. They find that mayoral-control districts have generally improved district-wide performance relative to average school-district performance statewide, though the results vary from place to place. Specifically, five of the eleven cities (New York, New Haven, Chicago, Philly, and Baltimore) significantly narrowed achievement gaps, while the other six (Hartford, Harrisburg, Boston, Providence, Yonkers, and Cleveland) saw patchier outcomes. The researchers also looked at performance on the NAEP for the seven districts that participated in the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) and found that students in New York, Boston, and (to some extent) Chicago outpaced their peers across various subgroups. What’s more, an in-depth, school-level analysis in New York showed that mayoral control increased the percentage of students in a school who are proficient on state standards by 1 to 3...

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Another effort is afoot to turn Title I, at least partially, into a scholarship program for low-income kids. I’d love to see this happen. Anything we can do to create more accessible high-quality seats for disadvantaged kids gets my vote. But this windmill has seen tilting knights since the 1970s. Someday we’ll get our Dulcinea del Toboso. But the Galicians of this administration would sooner leave such plans bruised and battered.

Three very interesting job-related items!

  • The very cool, very influential TNTP is looking for a VP of Strategy, Systems, and Policy. The person would lead the organization’s educator evaluation and other human capital systems design and implementation work. They’re looking for a bold, innovative leader with a breadth of experience who can quickly build credibility with high-level clients.
  • New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) is looking for a Managing Director of Human Capital Investments. This person will manage NSNO’s relationship with the nation’s leading human-capital organizations and will direct a $13 million grant program related to educator evaluation and compensation. If you’re interested or know someone who might be, contact HR Director, Jenny Katz, jenny@nsno.org.
  • NSNO’s Neerav Kingsland is also involved with a terrific brand-new human-capital organization called Hackstack EDU. The group, which just launched, uses an online platform and some innovative methods to match amazing teachers with amazing schools. It’s a free service allowing each interested teacher to create a personal profile, find schools that match his interests and abilities, and
  • ...
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“Autonomy, in exchange for accountability” has been the mantra of charter school theorists since before the first charter opened its doors in Minnesota in 1991. But, far too often over the last two decades this mantra has been more ideal than reality. Getting the balance right between autonomy and accountability has been so hard because there has been much confusion over the appropriate roles and responsibilities of the non-profit charter school governing boards, school operators, and authorizers in the autonomy/accountability deal.

Fordham’s new policy brief by Adam Emerson, “Governance in the Charter School Sector: Time for a Reboot,” tackles the governance issue head-on. One section in particular is especially interesting to me because of our role as a charter school authorizer in the Buckeye State. Ohio, and other states with strong charter school networks (both non-profit CMOs and for-profit EMOs), has struggled to balance the power and influence of school operators with that of their non-profit governing board. Too often boards are seen as little more than a necessary evil while operators run the show. It is not at all uncommon for charter school operators in Ohio to “hire” board members, and then use them as a rubber stamp for all school operations.  

As a state approved charter school authorizer in Ohio we have always held a different view. Our position has been that the non-profit governing boards are independent, and clearly in charge of, any outside organization that they engage to run their education programs. It has...

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Ohio’s urban school districts, like many others across the country, face a slow burning governance crisis. Elected school boards in cities like Columbus, Dayton, Lorain, and Youngstown are proving incapable of providing the leadership their cities, schools, families and children need to be successful. In Dayton, for example, long-time school board member Yvonne Isaacs summed up the challenge when she told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2012, “There is really no continuity in terms of the vision and the direction of the district…I think what we have lost is the ability to collaborate and to set vision.” Youngstown’s dysfunction is legendary: It’s been under state financial control for years and now faces a state academic takeover.

But, no city in Ohio currently displays better the dysfunction of big city elected school boards than does Columbus. Columbus City Schools is a district in turmoil. Mayor Michael Coleman spelled out the challenges in a recent Columbus Dispatch op-ed thusly:

The children of Columbus City Schools need our help. Forty-seven percent of kids enrolled in the district attend schools receiving a D or F grade by the Ohio Department of Education, while just 21 percent go to A or B schools. The district ranks near the very bottom statewide in terms of how much a student learns in a given year.
State and federal investigations into allegations of student-data manipulation hang like a black cloud over the district. The results threaten to further lower the academic-performance scores of our schools,...
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