What Happens When States Take Over School Districts?
State takeover districts have been lauded as the savior of children left behind by inept local school boards — and derided as anti-democratic fireworks shows that don’t address the root causes of poor education. Three panelists took an hour during EWA’s National Seminar in Nashville to get beyond the flash and noise and discuss the real challenges of state school takeovers, a process all acknowledged is disruptive.
Andre Perry ran a charter network in Louisiana’s Recovery School District before leaving for academia. Chris Barbic is superintendent of the Achievement School District in Tennessee. Dan Varner runs Excellent Schools Detroit, an organization that reviews the city’s schools.
The core question for the panelists at the May EWA session: “What do you do about really terrible schools?” said moderator John Merrow of PBS, who filmed the documentary “Rebirth: New Orleans” about the Recovery School District.
The panelists compared notes on their state takeover districts’ similarities and differences. All three began by focusing on the city in the worst straits: Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans. The Michigan and Tennessee districts are modeled on the 10-year-old Recovery School District, with some modifications. For instance, they measure eligibility on a curve — the bottom 5 percent of schools are eligible for takeover — instead of setting an absolute cutoff for test scores and graduation rates. They are smaller, starting with just a handful of the eligible schools; in New Orleans, the state took over 80 percent of the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina.
The newer districts are also less focused on charter schools. Louisiana administrators chartered out the takeover schools, completing the process this summer. But the ASD has some conventional schools, Barbic said, and only three of Detroit’s 15 takeovers have been charters. In addition, the Tennessee takeovers remain neighborhood schools, zoned for children who live nearby, though families may opt in or out. Detroit and New Orleans have citywide open access.
Barbic said school-based authority was critical, not chartering per se: Give neighborhood schools the freedom to innovate, and hold them accountable for results, and they will improve.
Perry agreed that chartering was a means, not an end. “They’re created so you can implement specific turnaround strategies (and) theoretically it’s supposed to give you the space” to make changes, he said. But “it’s not the strategy.”
All three cities are wrestling with the question of how to staff takeover schools. Perry critiqued what happened in New Orleans: The faculty was laid off en masse and the state signed contracts with Teach for America and similar new-teacher programs. Those programs initially hired without consideration for diversity or who was likely to stay, Perry said, resulting in “wildly divergent populations” between teachers and students. The laid-off teachers’ lawsuit is still working its way through the courts, saying they should have been given first consideration.
However, Barbic and Varner said teacher retention wasn’t entirely up to the district. Though teachers at the Detroit and Tennessee takeover schools are guaranteed consideration for rehire, most have chosen not to apply. Barbic estimated a retention rate of 30 percent at the very most. He said the faculty at ASD’s conventional public schools is perhaps 10-15 percent Teach for America, with some charters higher.
Barbic thought having several public employers was good for teachers. The best “have become rock stars overnight,” he said. With competition for their services, “great teachers are going to be elevated to the stature they deserve.”
The goal of disruption, freedom and new staff is to fix schools. Merrow asked how these districts are supposed to measure success; in short, to show whether the takeover worked. For Barbic, the superintendent, the answer was simple. For Perry, the academic, it wasn’t.
“Student growth and achievement” on standardized tests, Barbic said, outweigh all the other factors he tracks: for example, whether students return to their school in the fall and whether the percentages of poor and disabled students match the city norm. “We can’t have happy kids playing instruments but two percent are reading proficiently,” he said.
Varner thought the question was “a very powerful one for all of us to be discussing as a community. I don’t think it’s ultimately answerable.” His best stab: The state should set a minimum set of standards; beyond that, schools should decide what constitutes success.
Perry, however, said broader measures were crucial. “The point of improving the schools is to improve the community,” he said. New Orleans has seen “test scores go up (but) all these other quality-of-life indicators remain the same,” such as the unemployment rate among black men.
The final takeaway from the panelists: the challenges facing schools in the state takeover districts are substantial, and the effort required to improve those campuses shouldn’t be understated. As Barbic put it: “If it was easy to turn these schools around they’d be turned around already.”