Five key factors to the success of Cleveland’s school transformation plan

Cleveland has taken
a significant step toward becoming one of the nation's school-reform leaders
with the introduction this week of Mayor Frank Jackson’s "Plan for
Transforming Schools.
" The plan builds on the experience of cities
like New Orleans, Indianapolis, and New York City and seeks a portfolio
approach to school management that includes:

1)   
Significantly
increase the number of high-performing schools, both district and charter, while
closing failing schools;

2)   
Maximizing
enrollment in Cleveland’s existing high-performing district and public charter
schools;

3)   
Investing
in promising schools by giving their leaders additional resources, the freedom
to build high-performing teams, and the ability to make financial and
instructional decisions based on their students’ needs;

4)   
Seeking
flexibility in the hiring, retention, and remuneration of teachers (this change
will require a change of state law); and

5)   
Sustaining
both district and public charter transformation schools through a set of
innovative legislative reforms and a levy request that would provide new
dollars for both district and effective charter schools.

In recent years
Cleveland has embraced a series of reforms - including a highly touted
transformation plan in early
2010
put forth by then superintendent Eugene Sanders, and largely crafted
by current district head Eric Gordon - while the city has seen a steady growth
in both the number of charter schools and children receiving public vouchers to
attend private schools. Despite these efforts student achievement in Cleveland
is still atrociously low (only 30 percent of fifth graders are proficient in
math), and 55 percent of the city's schools (charter and district) were rated D
or F by the state in 2011. Telling, more than 30,000 children have abandoned
the city's schools in the last decade alone for other options.

Jackson’s plan would
turn things around by making education more high-profile and increasingly the
responsibility of the mayor (Cleveland’s mayor has had control of the school
board since the late 1990s). Further, the plan focuses on school quality
regardless of school type and will reward strong schools (charter and district
alike) while seeking to close or turnaround broken schools (charter and
district alike). This focus on performance is to be backed up with new dollars
for high-flyers.

Mayor Jackson
and his team (including district CEO Eric Gordon) are to be commended for
undertaking a bold plan that offers hope of actually turning around the city's
long-suffering schools. It will, however, face at least five challenges.

First, for the
plan to fly it needs the General Assembly in Columbus to pass legislation that
will give the mayor more flexibility over things like teacher contracts and
closing failed schools. Republican lawmakers were battered with their last go-around
with the unions over Senate Bill 5 and some may need to be bulked up to support
the same teacher reforms for Jackson’s plan.

Second, the
teacher unions have not been part of the planning process and they have a history
of rejecting or at least watering down reforms that seek to make changes to
things like "last- in/first-out rules," and requiring teachers in
failing schools to reapply for their jobs.

Third, the plan
seeks to pay for the reforms through a district levy. Cleveland hasn't passed
an operating levy in 16 years, and taxpayers in Ohio have shown little appetite
for new spending on schools in recent years.

Fourth, key to
the plan's success is improving the quality of the human capital available to
schools; especially the 55 percent rated D or F. Cleveland will benefit from
the presence of Teach For America, which is expected to place corps members in
Ohio for the first time in August. Further, Cleveland has access to teachers
from the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program. However, unlike places like
Indianapolis and New Orleans, Cleveland currently lacks the talent pipelines
for school leaders such as New Leaders for New Schools, KIPP or homegrown
incubator efforts. This is a void Cleveland's reformers should seek to address
ASAP.

Fifth, and
finally, Jackson’s plan does not provide much detail per mechanics. For
example, the plan speaks boldly of closing or turning around truly troubled
schools - the district has four elementary schools that have been rated F for
at least five consecutive years and an equal number of broken charters - but
the plan does not seek to create an entity for forcing the closure or
turnaround of these schools. The plan calls for the creation of the Cleveland
Transformation Alliance that will be made up of business leaders, educators,
community partners, and parents to push for accountability and transparency.
This will surely help parents in failed schools get better information about
their plight and provide information on better choices. But, there doesn't
appear to be a sort of School
Recovery District
in the plan that would have the mandate and resources to
close or force dramatic changes in troubled schools.

Despite the
challenges, Cleveland is embarking on the boldest citywide school reform effort
that state of Ohio has ever seen. Their success or failure will resonate
throughout the state and likely beyond. All school reformers should be rooting
for Cleveland's success and offering whatever help they can.

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