States' newfound freedom to fix or replace struggling schools: Advice for state boards

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I wrote last month about states’ lengthy struggle to turn around low-performing schools. Most federally funded strategies have been unsuccessful, and states have hired specialists and retrained school staff instead of instituting fundamental reforms.

But states have the freedom under ESSA to try creative strategies to fix their worst schools, as Nelson Smith and I argue in the latest issue of NASBE’s The Standard. The law grants them significant deference, and $1.1 billion in the current fiscal year, to achieve this goal. States should wield these to adopt or adapt three approaches already in use for going beyond cosmetic remedies for troubled schools. And state boards are among the entities best poised to effect this change.

The first approach—a particularly promising one—is charter expansion, wherein schools identified for comprehensive or targeted support are replaced by or converted into charter schools. Second is a state turnaround district, in which the state withdraws control of struggling schools from their home districts and creates a state-managed entity that assumes responsibility for getting those schools to an acceptable level of performance over some period. And the third approach includes state-led but district-based solutions, where a state-appointed individual or entity essentially assumes plenary power over a district (or subdistrict) and decides what solutions fit each individual school.

Rigorous evaluations show that these efforts can improve student outcomes when done well. But they can fail to produce gains when not designed, implemented, or run effectively, or when they don’t match a locale’s unique characteristics. So state leaders must keep in mind that each approach has advantages and drawbacks, and they shouldn’t try to cut and paste a method that worked elsewhere without careful consideration of local context. Moreover, these methods are not mutually exclusive, and smart policymakers may adopt more than one approach to suit schools in different corners of their states.

Board members in many states are already operating with ample leeway to propagate these reforms. And for those who aren’t, every new state budget, every state superintendent’s contract negotiation, and every annual list of state board priorities is an opportunity to review progress and fill gaps. ESSA frontloads responsibility on local officials, so the challenge for state policymakers is to achieve the right sequence of carrot and stick. They must persuade, cajole, and challenge districts into taking effective action, but they also need local leaders to know they will use those “rigorous interventions” ESSA demands if failures persist. And when undertaking any of the aforementioned avenues toward better school-improvement strategies, state board members ought to keep a few basics in mind.

1. Follow the money. In a January 2018 letter to state education chiefs, the U.S. Department of Education said that states with existing School Improvement Grants—the maligned method of turnaround under No Child Left Behind—could either keep current plans and reporting in place or use those funds to support the range of possibilities afforded by ESSA’s more wide-open rules. State boards should monitor how old and new funding streams for school improvement are being used for maximum effect.

A second financial consideration is whether state education agencies are creatively leveraging ESSA’s mandated turnaround funding with two other discretionary funding streams: a voluntary 3 percent Title I set-aside that can be used for “direct student services” and a Title IV block grant for student support and academic enrichment.

2. Address the supply side. All of these models require extraordinary commitment to recruiting, hiring, and cultivating talent. Whether a state opts for chartering, a turnaround zone, or a partnership, schools need to be ably led and staffed with terrific teachers. And because schools in need of turnaround often cluster in particular cities and regions, it is important to build the whole talent pool and not just the district or charter portions of it. State boards should query how these plans are coming along. They should also ask whether officials are forming partnerships with organizations that specialize in human capital development—starting with local colleges and universities, but also including reform-focused nonprofits such as New Schools for New Orleans, the Mind Trust in Indianapolis, and the Tennessee Charter School Center.

3. Use the power of the question. This term is of key importance here. Because state-led turnarounds inevitably disrupt the usual hierarchies of accountability and power, they can get mired in turf battles. State boards can not only hold their own direct reports accountable—demanding honest answers about expectations and results—they can give district leaders and stakeholders a forum for input and advice. Periodically, they can also put tough questions to all parties: Is this thing working? Is it producing results for children? Is it being run in a fair and equitable manner?

ESSA does not provide a road map for turning around struggling schools, and that’s a good thing. It instead gives state boards multiple means to improve the lot of students who need better options fast, and do so in ways that fit unique local circumstances.

This essay was adapted from an article titled “What Are the Options?” written with Nelson Smith in the May 2018 issue of NASBE’s The Standard.

Brandon L. Wright
Brandon L. Wright is the Editorial Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.