Governance

My colleague, Adam Emerson, recently penned a piece on rethinking charter school governance; specifically, how charter school governing entities (i.e., school boards) are structured and the pros and cons associated with different arrangements. It is a good piece, but I would argue that structure means nothing without capacity.

We have an internal saying within our charter school authorizing operation: “As the board goes, so goes the school.”

More often than not this proves to be the case, which is why board capacity – and by that I mean the collective strength of the school’s board to govern a fiscally, organizationally and academically healthy school that is achieving its goals for students - is critical.

Have a high performing charter school? Chances are it’s got a savvy board whose membership consists of mission-aligned individuals with diverse professional expertise and experience that is leveraged to advance a strategic and defined vision, and achieve a specific set of goals.

As the board goes, so goes the school

School not doing so well? Probably the issues start and end with the board, and will fester as long as the board lets them.

Adam touches on this issue by pointing out that education management companies and other service providers sometimes control charter school boards (as opposed to the board controlling the vendor). He’s absolutely right; this happens and it shouldn’t. However, to place the blame squarely on the vendors who contractually formalize (sometimes egregious) arrangements advantageous to the vendor with charter school governing boards...

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Emily Carter

Redefining the School District in TennesseeOver the past few years, Tennessee has taken important steps to improve public education. With a focus on higher standards, great teaching, turning around low-performing schools, and using data in new and important ways, Tennessee has made significant progress. Even with student achievement improving, there is still a lot of work left to do before every student graduates high school prepared for college and the workforce.

One important way Tennessee has worked to raise student achievement is through initiatives aimed at turning around low-performing schools. Redefining the School District in Tennessee helps to illuminate this work by examining the development, implementation, and ongoing efforts of the Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD is a special statewide district that acts as both as school operator and charter authorizer that steps in to take over and support the lowest performing 5 percent of schools in the state.

Author Nelson Smith highlights key aspects of Tennessee’s turnaround work that other states can learn from, including the importance of community support and buy-in. As Smith notes, “People hate for their schools to be closed and taken over,” and states should consider options that allow communities to participate in and contribute to the decision-making process. It’s important for the ASD to understand local community needs so that they can best serve students.  

While much can be...

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My colleague, Adam Emerson, recently penned a piece on rethinking charter school governance; specifically, how charter school governing entities (i.e., school boards) are structured and the pros and cons associated with different arrangements. It is a good piece, but I would argue that structure means nothing without capacity.

We have an internal saying within our charter school authorizing operation: “As the board goes, so goes the school.”

More often than not this proves to be the case, which is why board capacity – and by that I mean the collective strength of the school’s board to govern a fiscally, organizationally and academically healthy school that is achieving its goals for students - is critical.

Have a high performing charter school? Chances are it’s got a savvy board whose membership consists of mission-aligned individuals with diverse professional expertise and experience that is leveraged to advance a strategic and defined vision, and achieve a specific set of goals.

As the board goes, so goes the school

School not doing so well? Probably the issues start and end with the board, and will fester as long as the board lets them.

Adam touches on this issue by pointing out that education management companies and other service providers sometimes control charter school boards (as opposed to the board controlling the vendor). He’s absolutely right; this happens and it shouldn’t. However, to place the blame squarely on the vendors who contractually formalize (sometimes egregious) arrangements advantageous to the vendor with charter school governing boards...

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Is 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 (see our Fordham report here), 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 been key to moving it...

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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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