Old habits die hard: An analysis of the Youngstown turnaround effort

Ohio is no stranger to district turnarounds. Back in 2007, academic distress commissions (ADCs) were added to state law as a way for the state to intervene in districts that consistently fail to meet academic standards. The law was updated in 2015 via House Bill 70, which sharpened the powers of ADCs and significantly altered the way they were run. Some of the biggest changes included lessening the power of the local school board, empowering a CEO, and offering opportunities for expanded quality choice.

Although Lorain City Schools also immediately fell under the purview of the restructured ADC law, many considered Youngstown City Schools to be the primary target. After five unsuccessful years under the previous ADC framework, legislators insisted on more drastic action. The overhauled Youngstown ADC was appointed in December 2015, and CEO Krish Mohip was hired in June 2016. By September of that year, Mohip had unveiled the district’s new strategic plan for 2016–19.

In just a few short months, the final full year of implementation of the district’s strategic plan will begin and bring the district one step closer to a decade’s worth of ADC management. There have been a few bright spots, mainly in attendance rates and student GPAs. The district is still waiting for state test results from this academic year. But for the most part, it seems as though big improvements still elude Youngstown.

So what’s holding it back? To find out, I compared the six habits of highly effective turnaround efforts to the Ohio Department of Education’s (ODE) 2017 review of the Youngstown ADC, which offers a detailed look at both the strengths and weaknesses of the district’s efforts thus far. Here’s a look at the five most significant areas where on-the-ground realities in Youngstown don’t match up with best practices.

1. Questionable curricula and inequitable access to rigorous coursework

One of the six habits of effective turnarounds is the implementation of rigorous standards, assessments, and curricula—the lattermost of which, when content-rich and high quality, can improve student outcomes in a cost-effective way. Louisiana, for example, does all of these things well in its New Orleans Recovery School District, one of the more successful turnaround efforts in the nation.

Unfortunately, Youngstown hasn’t followed Louisiana’s curriculum-lead. In its most recent review, ODE notes that the district “lacks a current comprehensive curriculum development, review, and revision process.” This is problematic because “teachers may lack guidance and support on the use of curriculum materials, pacing guides, and balanced assessments to plan instruction and accurately monitor student achievement.” Even more troubling, the district “does not evaluate the effectiveness of resources and programs” and “does not use student performance data from assessments to determine the impact of existing programs and resources on student achievement.” The upshot is that teachers and administrators in Youngstown have no idea whether their resources, programs, and interventions even work.

That’s bad enough, but ODE also indicates that “the district does not ensure that all students have equitable access to curriculum, programs, and services.” Students who attend certain schools, like STEM schools, have access to a more rigorous and challenging curriculum than what is offered in the district’s traditional middle and high schools. In other words, there isn’t just a gap between the students in Youngstown and other Ohio districts—there’s a gap within the district itself.

2. Unclear or nonexistent accountability for adults

Highly effective turnarounds treat accountability for adults as non-negotiable: There are clear expectations for the performance of every adult role. School leaders evaluate and have the ability to reward effective instructors and remove those who consistently underperform. Yet throughout its review, ODE references Youngstown’s lack of adult accountability. The department notes that “there is no evidence that the district follows the evaluation procedures defined in district policy or negotiated agreements.” This includes district administrators (“The evaluation process for district administrators is not consistently linked to the district’s strategic plan goals and metrics of progress”), school leaders (“the district provided limited coordination or oversight to building leadership teams to ensure individual school improvement plans were developed, implemented, monitored, and aligned to the district strategic plan”), and teachers (“some teachers who wrote student learning objectives and assessments also were on the team to evaluate their own learning objectives and assessment measures”).

3. Too little focus on teacher development

Common sense suggests and research shows that teacher and principal quality are significant factors in student achievement. That’s why effective turnarounds implement systems that monitor and improve instructional quality. To the district’s credit, ODE acknowledges that administrators monitor instruction weekly and provide feedback to teachers. That’s an important part of teacher development. But ODE also asserts that, in Youngstown, “there is a disconnection between the effectiveness of teaching staff and the student achievement rating on the district’s report card.” Although part of this is due to the lack of adult accountability, it can also be attributed to the district’s lack of quality professional development for teachers. ODE notes that personalized professional development is needed for teachers in myriad areas, including formative and summative assessments, the Ohio Improvement Process, the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) framework, the teacher-based team model, the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, instructional strategies, analyzing data, writing law-compliant IEPs, and creating and utilizing assessments that assess higher-order thinking skills.

4. Ignoring the potential of school choice

Choice programs across the country demonstrably improve student achievement and growth. Camden, in particular, shows how school choice can enhance system-wide turnaround efforts. It’s no silver bullet, but it is a helpful tool for leaders who are looking to expand high quality options for students. House Bill 70 recognized this potential and allows the ADC, in consultation with the state superintendent, to create an independent entity to act as a high quality school accelerator that is designed to promote effective schools, recruit top-notch sponsors for charters, and attract new schools.

So far, the Youngstown ADC has not created an accelerator. That isn’t necessarily a problem, since an accelerator might not be what’s best for the district’s specific context and needs. But ODE’s report pinpoints a few other choice-related problems. For instance, ODE notes that the district doesn’t ensure students have equitable access to curricula, programs, and services. Having a variety of schools—not just those run by the district—could help to immediately alleviate this problem for some families. Furthermore, the department recommends that the district “ensure that all families have access to information on educational opportunities to enable informed choice and district accountability.” This indicates that Youngstown families lack basic information about the few choices they do have. 

5. Failing to take advantage of the “big yes”    

House Bill 70 awarded a considerable amount of power to the CEO of an ADC. From day one of his or her tenure, a CEO is empowered to determine curriculum and assessments, replace administrators, conduct employee evaluations, provide staff professional development, and set the district budget and calendar. This kind of authority and autonomy—referred to as the “big yes” in a 2009 brief written for the U.S. Department of Education—is a vital part of making turnarounds effective and sustainable.

Unfortunately, Youngstown’s CEO Krish Mohip has exercised this authority inconsistently. One need look no further than the first three issues outlined above for examples. If the district lacks a content-rich curriculum, it’s because the CEO has not picked one. If the district does not hold adults accountable for progress, it’s because the CEO has not implemented a solid employee evaluation system. The same is true for professional development, another area that falls under the purview of the CEO.

To be fair, some of Mohip’s reluctance to exercise his authority is probably because he wants to implement reforms alongside the community instead of issuing them from the top-down. Community engagement is, after all, another habit of highly effective turnarounds. There are also a host of issues—transportation woes, serious flaws in the district’s services for students with special needs, and legal drama—that predate both Mohip and the current ADC. But after almost a decade of poor performance and dysfunction, Youngstown’s students deserve to have radically transformed schools as soon as possible. That transformation might happen faster if Mohip would only take advantage of the authority that’s been vested in his position.

 
 
Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.