by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
State governments have become increasingly impatient with failing schools over the past decade. Since 2003, three states have implemented state-run school districts that take over failing schools with the goal of turning them around: Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan.
Those districts have had mixed success.
To discuss their districts and give advice to other states considering the turnaround district approach, leaders of the three existing turnaround districts met Monday at a Fordham Institute event to discuss a recently-published Fordham report, “Redefining the School District in America.”
Louisiana was the first to try the turnaround method, as most of its schools were taken over in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Today, although it’s risen only from the bottom of Louisiana to the middle-of-the-pack, New Orleans has greatly improved student proficiency and higher ACT scores. Phased in over several years, every New Orleans school in the turnaround district is a charter school. …
… In Tennessee, many of the turnaround schools are in Memphis. There, student proficiency is up and most parents are satisfied with their turnaround school. Roughly 80 percent of the schools are charter schools.
There is some debate over whether student growth should be the biggest indicator of student achievement, or whether grade-level proficiency should be. Chris Barbic, superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, said proficiency levels are the right indicator of bad schools. “These are schools where this didn’t happen overnight, that this has been a problem for decades,” Barbic said. “At some point we have to say enough is enough and that our kids and families deserve better.”
Michigan’s turnaround district has now operated schools for three school years. Only one-fifth of its schools are charters. Students in the district feel safer in school now, but ACT scores and other achievement measures haven’t climbed yet.
Veronica Conforme, chancellor of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, stressed the importance of listening to those who would be affected by a turnaround district’s changes. “Tons and tons of engagement and listening,” Conforme recommended. She mentioned that some parents didn’t know how bad their schools were doing compared to others. “Explaining it and then taking the time and engaging in that conversation about what it looks like is … extremely valuable, and the things that you will learn and the people that you will listen to will allow you to roll this out and implement it in a better way.”