Youngstown needs to think outside the box

Among Ohioans, Youngstown is known as much for its appallingly low academic achievement as it is for being part of the blighted “Steel Valley” that’s lost so many jobs in recent decades. Kudos to the city’s civic leaders for trying hard to find ways for its revitalization, but the city’s public schools needs more than good intentions and nostalgia, especially as it’s the only district in the Buckeye State rated F by the state.

Youngstown City Schools’ achievement data makes the district the most blighted house on the street as 2009-10 performance results place it well below any of Ohio’s other Big 8 cities. A mere six percent of charter and district students in the city attend a school rated Excellent or Effective (A or B), while 12 times as many (72 percent) attend a school rated D or F. Youngstown’s woeful academic performance led the state to take it over via its “Academic Distress Commission,” a group charged with creating a $3.2 million recovery plan to guide the district’s overhaul.

The district is in the midst of a new superintendent search. The Youngstown Vindicator reported last month that it was “encouraging” to see so many candidates with doctoral degrees in education applying for the position. This credential, of course, doesn’t necessarily equate with the leadership skills necessary to pull the state’s most dysfunctional schools out of its academic funk. Further, the paper reported that it was encouraged by one candidate who shared the belief that “you can’t teach a kid if you don’t care about him first.” (To be fair, this candidate also noted that “it’s all about student achievement” – a sentiment we agree with.)

The point is that neither the local newspaper nor even the state commission charged with rescuing Youngstown students seem to appreciate the gravity of the problem, or realize that simply dumping more money and more of the same into a broken system will lead to little improvement.

A quick glance at Youngstown’s academic recovery plan illustrates this mentality. The plan lays out several goals (with a 2015 deadline), including:

  • Moving the district from Academic Emergency to Continuous Improvement;
  • Having all subgroups meeting Adequate Yearly Progress in reading and math and achieving a Performance  Index of at least 80;
  • Having all subgroups meet value-added and graduation targets
  • Increasing enrollment by at least 300 students; and
  • Decreasing the number of students identified for special education by five percent (from 20 to 15).

These are all worthwhile goals. But the strategies named for accomplishing these are broad and unfocused, expensive, and misdirected. The most egregious such initiatives are:

  • Reducing student-teacher ratios even further for grades K-1 to 15:1 ($2 million by itself);
  • Deploying a “comprehensive system of outreach and support for families and non-academic experiences for students” which includes creating a “community asset map” and other strategies to engage parents; and
  • Creating leadership teams at every level – district, building, and grade – whose sole purpose is to foster “collaboration, trust; and communication.”

(There are a mere two strategies that seem worthwhile: recruiting highly-qualified preschool teachers and intervening with struggling readers and writers.)

The level of vagueness and wishful thinking in the plan is staggering. The district will deploy millions of dollars to reduce class-sizes, yet it doesn’t acknowledge the preeminence of teacher quality in lifting student achievement. Youngstown has no strategy for recruiting highly effective teachers, identifying or developing those that aren’t effective, or retaining those who are. The solution is to simply put more teachers into classrooms without a plan for improving their quality. This is akin to throwing ingredients in a bowl, closing your eyes, and hoping when you open them that a delicious cake will appear. Somewhere during that process you need to tap into the talent of a chef.

The pie-in-the-sky language around building outreach, bolstering engagement, and fostering collaboration is rivaled only by similar-sounding reforms embedded in Ohio’s evidence-based model. Besides not being able to decipher what this actually means in practice, it’s offensive to spend money on because there is little evidence that these new inputs actually have a tangible impact on student achievement.

Lots of districts around the nation (including Cleveland) have written much bolder plans of action that include reforms such as overhauling the way we think about seniority-based hiring, transfers, and layoffs; reforming teacher evaluations to take into consideration student growth; building better partnerships with charter schools or innovative alternative models; shuttering or relocating under-enrolled buildings; extending the learning day; devolving more autonomy to schools in exchange for accountability, and so on. 

Youngstown is the worst-performing district in the state and should be handled with urgency, boldness, and a rigorous turnaround mindset, not with kid gloves. When a district is the most battered and blighted in the state, it needs true renovation and not just window-dressing. Youngstown kids need real reforms.

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