At the May 22 meeting of the Florida State Board of Education meeting, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and some board members expressed frustration with the state of Duval County Schools. "At what point do you say, ‘Maybe we should put them in receivership. Maybe we should have legislation that allows us to go over there and take over,’ ” he said.
Since policy writers and thinky tanks first started pushing the idea of identifying "failing" schools, the search has been on for a way to fix those schools. A popular choice has been the school takeover model, where the state strips the local school district of authority and then waves some sort of magic wand to make things better.
The Obama administration used School Improvement Grants as a tool, offering federal funds to schools that were "failing," but those funds came with very strict rules about how they could be used. This is a good example of the Takeover By Puppetry model, in which the local officials are left in place, but they are only allowed to make certain government-approved moves or must only implement consultant-approved steps. The SIG program spent in the neighborhood of $7 billion. USED's own report found that it "had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment."
The more direct takeover approach has also been tried. Tennessee formed the Achievement School District; in this model, the state takes control of "failing schools" and lumps them into a state-run district. The initial promise was that schools from the bottom 5% would be catapulted into the top 25%. After a few years, they were not even close to achieving their, so they rewrote the goal. The head of the ASD moved on to another job. Versions of the ASD have been tried in several states and in cities (e.g. Philadelphia) and in almost all cases, they've been rolled back or shut down because they cost a lot of money and achieve few worthwhile results.
At this point, school takeover is one of those ed reform techniques that has been tested enough times that there's no longer any mystery about whether or not it works. Mostly it doesn't. Here are the most common reasons that takeovers don't turn a problem school into an oasis of success.
1) The Wrong Measure of Failure
How are we going to decide which schools are in need of taking over? The most common answer is by standardized test scores--which is a lousy answer. This bad definition is important because it biases the process in favor of bad solutions. A school may have a hundred problems, but if all we're focused on is the test scores, too may real problems will be unaddressed. Worse, many important elements of children's education will be swept aside to make room for more test prep--the exact opposite of what students in struggling schools need. This is like calling AAA because you're stranded beside the road with three flat tires, a busted radiator, an empty gas tank, and failing brakes--and AAA sends someone to wax the car.
2) The Wrong Diagnosis
Takeover programs focus on school governance. The thesis of a takeover is that the school board, the administration, and probably the teachers, are the root of all the problems at the school. If we just take them out of the way and replace them with shinier people, then everything will just fall into place. Somehow, all these people who work in the district either don't know how to raise test scores, or they just don't care. Resources for the district, issues in the community, systemic lack of support for the school, poverty--none of that is on the table. The belief is that when the old bureaucracy (including unions) is swept away and replaced, preferably by a visionary CEO type who will whip the troops into shape, then everything will run so much better. Often the unspoken premise is, "If we could just run these schools like charter schools..." Here's what Chris Barbic, who was supposed to be the visionary CEO of the Tennessee ASD, said as he was leaving the job:
Let’s just be real: achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment. I have seen this firsthand at YES Prep and now as the superintendent of the ASD. As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.
3) The Wrong Pool of Expertise
Another premise of state takeovers is that somebody in the state capital knows more about how to educate the students in that district than the people who live in that district, that some career politician knows more about running a school than a career educator. The level of arrogance here is Grand Canyon caliber; the takeover model almost never includes a step in which the takeover expert sits down with local folks and says, "You guys know the community, the students, the history here, so I need to listen to you to understand where we are." On occasion he goes through those motions, much like the corporate boss who holds meetings about a decision he's already made because he heard somewhere that's how you get "buy in."
Lorain, Ohio, is a too-typical example. CEO David Hardy is a Teach for America alumnus with a grand total of two years spent in a classroom. Since then he's worked in a variety of education related jobs, but never stayed in one job longer than three years. To even imagine that takeovers have a hope of succeeding, one must imagine takeover bosses who are education experts, who know more than anyone already in the district could possibly know. Who are these education management superstars, and where have they been hiding all these years if not in perfectly good jobs that they have no reason to leave? Too often, takeovers elevate educational amateurs to power they don't know how to use. The newly proposed Senate model sets up a $20 million gravy train for state-approved outside consultants; is there any reason at all to assume these consultants have the necessary expertise?
As for charters, if they did in fact know the secret sauce for school achievement, we'd all have heard about it by now (and some charter operators would be getting rich packaging it). But charters don't know anything that public education folks don't; the secret sauce is more time, more money, and fewer students who don't fit the school's mold.
4) The Wrong Motivation
Too often, school takeover is about turning a public school over to a private charter operator. Former House Speaker Corcoran (whose wife works in the charter sector) reportedly seems miffed that the Duval County Superintendent is unwilling to bring in consultants and/or charters to fix up her schools. The proposed Ohio Senate bill, which switches the state from hard takeovers to puppet-style takeovers, was crafted by a committee that includes representatives of the business sector, a think tank that does charter authorizing business in Ohio, and some other ed reform advocates.
Some systems are stacked in favor of keeping the takeover pipeline flowing. Tennessee used a popular definition of "worst schools" which is "those who score in the bottom 5%." This guarantees a perpetual source of takeover schools, because no matter how your state is doing, someone is always in the bottom 5%. School takeovers can be about a sincere desire to intervene in a troubled district, but they can also be about exploiting a manufactured crisis that cracks open an attractive market for those who want to make money from privatization.
5) The Wrong Timetable
Even if a takeover has settled on the narrow, meager goal of simply raising test scores, takeovers often feature a wildly unrealistic timetable. Changing a school's entire culture, while the slow march of years slowly feeds your students through the system, is a long process. It takes four years to swap out the complete student body of a high school. Takeovers might transform a system in five or ten years. Takeover proposals often call for far less; the Ohio proposal wants it done in two or else the school can be re-taken over by a different model.
The idea that someone can parachute into a district and suddenly reverse years of problems (including problems they ignore) quickly and easily is either naivete or a cynical mask for a hostile takeover. It puts the state in the odd position of saying, "We have known all along how to fix a school district--we've just been keeping it to ourselves while we watch you," when in fact they don't really have a clue. Struggling schools can be turned around, but this is not the way.