Three Ways of Fixing A City School System: Leaders Weigh in

By Carolyn Phenicie

I t’s the seemingly eternal tug-of-war in American education.

A hallowed tradition of local autonomy against the urgent need to fix a failing system.

The Every Student Succeeds Act versus No Child Left Behind.

It’s not an either-or choice, district leaders from around the country suggested Monday evening. There can be good in both.

The path of reform in distressed cities like Detroit, Memphis, and Newark, N.J., has diverged considerably on this issue, according to those cities’ top education officials, who spoke at a Johns Hopkins University School of Education panel.

Detroit is at a restart, forced to start again after recent initiatives failed to turn around low-performing schools or rescue the district from financial duress. Newark has implemented system-wide, high-impact — and wildly publicized — changes in recent years, while Memphis has entirely restructured the way it delivers education.

In Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan, as part of a broader school rescue package, seeks to reinstate a locally elected school board. The district is currently split among traditional public schools overseen by a state-appointed emergency manager, charter schools, and a state-controlled “education achievement administration” that runs the lowest-performing schools. The rescue package, currently working its way through the Michigan legislature, also would return the low-performing schools to district control and provide a badly needed financial bailout.

“Community buy-in is the ballgame,” said Richard Tao, the mayor’s senior advisor, when asked why Duggan is advocating for an elected school board instead of mayoral control.

“Parents have voted with their feet away from the district, and not simply away from the district, but away from our city,” Tao said. Of the 113,000 school-age children who live in Detroit, 27,000 go to school outside the city. “We view it as critically important to make sure that those parents feel engaged. The way that we think, we could be wrong, is you’ve gotta bring back an elected school board.”

Chris Cerf, the superintendent in Newark, said that although local control is a great goal, locally elected school boards can be easily swayed. Because so few people vote in school board elections, “vulnerability to interest groups is massive,” he said.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tasked Cerf — the successor to Cami Anderson, who increasingly lost support among Newark residents and teachers unions — with setting the district on the road back to local control after more than 20 years under state oversight. (There is a board currently in Newark, but its power is nominal; it opposed many of the city’s reforms and joined in asking for Anderson’s resignation.)

Everyone involved in schools says they’re focused on the best interest of children, Cerf said, but school power structures are really a Venn diagram of the interests of elected officials, staff, vendors, and countless others. Sometimes those interests overlap with what’s best for kids and sometimes they don’t.

“As committed as I am to democracy writ large and local control, that’s another interest,” he said.

So what should happen when a locally elected board is acting in a way that disadvantages children? “I’m telling you sometimes it needs to be done from the policy side and not to rely on the generation of consensus and harmony,” he said.

The Detroit plan now with the legislature also includes the creation of a local commission, appointed by the mayor, that would oversee academic standards and regulations for opening, closing, and restructuring schools, including charters, Tao said.

“For us, it’s a matter of balancing,” he added — ensuring that good work continues under future leaders.

The panelists discussed the Every Student Succeeds Act as well, which they responded to differently.

Cerf said he thinks the work of the last decade — like stronger teacher evaluations, and the importance of testing — has become embedded in the national mindset. That’s important, he said, given the potential consequences of the new law.

“The idea of let’s give it back to the states and localities, well we all know what happened for 50 years when we did that. It’s called a least common denominator solution,” he said.

Tao said leaders in Detroit liked the emphasis on devolving power, not just from the federal government to states but states to local districts.

The state takeover of Detroit schools has by most measures not been successful, he said. The student-to-teacher ratio is higher, there’s about 50 percent fewer students in district-run schools, and test scores are lower relative to the state average than they were before the takeover. The results from the education achievement authority aren’t much better. One fourth-grader in the whole authority, which controls 15 schools, passed the state math exam, Tao said.

“The intent wasn’t bad at all but sometimes the results can be a little bit troubling,” he said of the EAA.

Jamie Woodson, a former Tennessee legislator and currently the chief executive officer of Tennessee’s State Collaborative on Reforming Education, said the new law presents each state with new opportunities for leadership.

“Are we going to throw our hands up to say we don’t have the federal government deciding — or to blame — which has been very helpful as a lever?” she asked.

In Tennessee, she said, results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress startled leaders into the realization that although state tests put 91 percent of children at proficiency, the actual figure was only about a quarter.

There was a “tremendous disconnect” between what the state was saying students could do and the difficulties they faced in colleges and the workforce, she said, calling the results a “real slap in the face public moment.”

Although there were problems statewide, many of the worst schools were concentrated in Memphis, which has since merged with suburban Shelby County. The state responded by passing charter-friendly legislation, creating an achievement school district to focus on struggling schools, and instituting an “innovation zone” for more local turnaround efforts. The achievement district and innovation zone both became models for other states.

Four years into the work, the state hasn’t met the goal of moving its bottom five percent of schools statewide into the top quartile, but “we’re seeing, over multiple cohorts of students, historic progress for our state,” she said.

In the end, she said, school turnaround takes time. “Innovation is really hard and if you think of these strategies as silver bullets you will be disappointed,” she said.


Originally published at www.the74million.org.

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