Turnaround Districts: Lessons from Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan

Turnaround Districts: Lessons from Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan

So-called “turnaround school districts,” inspired by Louisiana’s Recovery School District and its near-clone in Tennessee, have been gathering steam, with policymakers calling for them in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and other states scattered from coast to coast. But just how promising are these state-run districts as a strategy to bring about governance reform and school renewal? What lessons can we take away from those districts with the most experience? Can their most effective features be replicated in other states? Should they be? What are ideal conditions for success? And why has Michigan’s version of this reform struggled so?

Elsewhere in this issue, you read about the "Youngstown Plan," sharpening the teeth of Ohio’s Academic Distress Commission (ADC) protocols for persistently troubled school districts. While newspaper editors and citizen groups in Youngstown have been calling for something stronger than the existing ADC for a while now, it is a singular moment of opportunity that has facilitated the new plan’s rapid adoption. The re-retirement of former Youngstown Superintendent Connie Hathorn and the instatement of a six-month interim supe is a perfect setup for this transition. Youngstown has been in academic and financial trouble for decades, and the district has been formally under the ADC’s thumb for the past five years, yet the needle of success has barely budged.

Meanwhile, in Ohio’s other current ADC district, Lorain City Schools, a new superintendent was named the same day the Youngstown Plan passed. As the vote concluded, the chair of Lorain’s ADC sounded a warning that the new legislation could also become the “Lorain Plan,” which would include the selection of a new CEO and the creation of a new commission light on local appointees. He’s right: Lorain’s ADC, like Youngstown’s, has struggled mightily to...

Turnaround Districts: Lessons from Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan

Turnaround Districts: Lessons from Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan

Last week, Ohio policymakers took a bold step toward strengthening education in persistently low-performing districts. House Bill 70, which passed both legislative chambers, grants significant new powers and responsibilities to the state’s academic distress commissions. Among the key provisions is a call for an appointed chief executive officer who would lead each district’s reform efforts.

Created by the state in 2007, academic distress commissions are triggered when districts fail to meet basic academic standards. Presently, two districts—Youngstown and Lorain—are overseen by separate commissions. These are the key features of the commission, as specified under present but now soon-to-be retired state law:

  • They are directed to assist the district.
  • They consist of three members appointed by the state superintendent and two appointed by the president of the district board; the state superintendent designates the chair.
  • They must adopt an academic recovery plan for the district, to be updated annually;
  • They are vested with certain managerial rights, such as appointing and reassigning school administrators, terminating contracts, and creating a budget; however, state law does not require a commission to exercise these rights.

Unfortunately, these arrangements were largely toothless. The commission existed only to assist the district and to draw recovery plans—not...

This special edition of the Cowen Institute’s annual report marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a horrific event that devastated New Orleans and its people—yet also offered a unique opportunity to rebuild one of the poorest-performing school districts in the country. Authors Vincent Rossmeier and Patrick Sims offer a comprehensive look at the city’s progress thus far, as well as the unusual circumstances that have turned the Big Easy into a petri dish of education innovation.

The New Orleans system is unique for a number of reasons. Ninety-three percent of its public school students attend charters, making it the most decentralized education system in the country. (Detroit comes in second with 55 percent.) It relies heavily on nonprofit services, such as arts education, after-school programming, professional training, family services, and more. And while each charter management organization (CMO) operates autonomously, all schools in the Recovery School District work together to coordinate services that require economies of scale or are needed by every child in the district. These include a centralized enrollment system, city-wide transportation, standards of discipline and expulsion, and shared funding to special needs services and facility maintenance (demonstrating that commonsense policies can find a home in...

Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law in 1991, nearly twenty-five years ago. And it’s been fifteen years since we published Charter Schools in Action, which described this educational innovation as a promising path to stronger student achievement and an engine “to recreate the democratic underpinnings of public education and rejoin schools to a vigorous civil society.”

Since 1991, forty-three states and the District of Columbia have allowed for the existence and operation of these independent public schools of choice. Today, some 6,700 of them serve nearly three million students, almost 6 percent of U.S. public school enrollment. They are the fastest-growing school choice option in the country and already educate more than half as many children as attend private schools, which have been around for ages. They are, in fact, as close to a “disruptive innovation” as American K–12 education has ever seen. They have created a new market and an alternative delivery system that affords long-neglected families access to potentially higher-quality schools than they find within the traditional district structure.

Yet for all its promise, impressive growth, and visibility in the public square, the charter movement has ample room to improve. The first quarter-century of chartering has...

For decades, policymakers have piled regulations onto public schools. This top-down, input-driven approach made sense back in an era when too many students weren’t receiving even a rudimentary education and nobody was as fussy about academic results. As Netflix’s Reed Hastings once said, the only thing worse than a regulated monopoly is an unregulated monopoly.

But times have changed. We now realize that students need strong minds, not just strong backs, to compete for jobs in a competitive and knowledge-based economy. Rigorous academic expectations are the coin of the realm in contemporary education policy, but there is also near-universal consensus that youngsters deserve schooling experiences tailored to their individual needs, gifts, and interests. And parental choice is no longer a distant dream of Milton Friedman’s; it’s a reality in most urban communities in America.

These powerful forces demand a radically different approach to public education—and especially to the old regulatory regime that ruled it. States must demand that schools raise their academic performance to prepare all students for success in college or a career. In return, educators should have the autonomy to design instruction aimed at achieving these ambitious goals and to customize their approaches to accord with their pupils’...

Years into America’s quest to fix its failing schools, everyone agrees that it is extraordinarily hard work to turn them around. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying.

Indeed, the federal government has spent over $5.7 billion on school improvement grants (SIG) to date and has very little to show for it. Data from 2013 indicated that roughly two-thirds of schools that received SIG funds saw incremental gains in student proficiency—in line with the performance trend for all U.S. schools, including those that didn’t get SIG dollars. Even more disappointingly, one-third of SIG schools did worse after receiving the funding. (A small percentage stayed the same.)

A May 2015 study helped to explain these sobering results. It found that most states lack the expertise to turn around persistently failing schools. In fact, 80 percent of state officials reported “significant gaps” in this realm.

Even when we stumble upon promising strategies, the old familiar barriers make implementation difficult. In 2012, for example, the Center on Education Policy found that a majority of state officials believed that replacing the principal or staff of low-performing schools was a key element in improving student achievement there. Yet many also reported that...

Over the past year, Ohio legislators have been focusing on the state’s need to deregulate its education system. The Ohio Senate recently passed Senate Bill 3 (SB 3), legislation focused on deregulation and flexibility for high-performing districts. Governor Kasich has also brought up the subject. But what exactly does deregulation mean? How can the state and local districts deregulate without sacrificing accountability, and which areas are ready to be cut free from red tape?

To answer these questions, Fordham commissioned its newest publication, Getting Out of the Way: Education Flexibility to Boost Innovation and Improvement in Ohio. This report highlights the key issues policymakers need to consider when loosening the regulatory grip on public schools, and also offers several recommendations for local and state leaders.

One of the report’s authors, Education First’s Paolo DeMaria, presented the findings and recommendations at a breakfast event on June 11. DeMaria began his presentation by explaining why deregulation matters and why this is an ideal moment to pursue deregulation. (For news coverage of the event, see here and here.) After summarizing how some Ohio districts already utilize deregulation to innovate, DeMaria outlined his recommendations. (For more on the...

In Redefining the School District in America, Nelson Smith reexamines existing recovery school districts (RSDs)—entities in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan charged with running and turning around their states’ worst schools—and assembles the most comprehensive catalog of similar initiatives underway and under consideration elsewhere.

Among more than twenty recommendations gleaned from both failed and successful attempts to create and implement RSDs, Smith recommends that those who go down the turnaround path should:

  • Call your lawyer. A close reading of the state constitution is essential. Some states are so wedded to traditional forms of “local control” that setting up a state district will require fancy legal footwork, if not a constitutional amendment.
  • Decide the endgame—for both schools and the turnaround district. Apart from setting goals for school performance, other decisions must be addressed—and the earlier, the better.
  • Expect course corrections. Running a statewide district is a huge, complex undertaking full of political, financial, and logistical challenges—not to mention the myriad crises and complications that always arise in institutions serving real children. Sometimes even turnaround efforts need to turn around.
  • Give the locals a chance. After taking over failing schools, reformers sent by the state may want to clean house and start fresh with
  • ...