A Mixed Record for Reconstitution Flashes a Yellow Light for Districts

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They call it a reform of last resort, but last year at least half a dozen big districts resorted to it anyway. Reconstitution--the practice of restaffing a troubled school from scratch and starting over--seemed to be catching on.

But this year, almost none of those districts is planning an encore. Even San Francisco, which has reconstituted 10 schools in the past four years, has returned the powerful accountability tool to the toolbox.

"Reconstitution can always come back, but the district and union are going to try a different way," said John R. Flores, San Francisco's coordinator of school intervention.

In Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Philadelphia, and Prince George's County, Md., school and teachers' union leaders are singing a similar tune. All those districts reconstituted schools last year, or in Philadelphia's case, tried to. Now all are pursuing other strategies to shake up their low-performing schools--at least for the time being.

"It's something that sets schools and teachers in such a tizzy," Philadelphia schools spokeswoman Barbara A. Grant said of reconstitution, "that you have to wonder if there's a less painful way to accomplish the same goal."

Outside of San Francisco, the overall effectiveness of such school makeovers has rarely been studied. But state and local policymakers continue to express strong interest in the strategy as they seek solutions to stubbornly poor performance in certain schools. So writing reconstitution off as yesterday's news would clearly be premature.

Still, pressure to rethink the idea--which typically disperses much of a targeted school's staff to other jobs in the district--is coming from several fronts. In some districts, including Chicago and San Francisco, the practice has become a central issue in labor negotiations. In others, such as Cleveland and Philadelphia, adverse rulings in disputes with teachers' unions have forced school leaders to retrench. And the rocky time districts such as Prince George's County have had during their foray into reconstitution has sent them back to the drawing board.

But whatever the reasons for putting the practice on ice, no one is happier about it than local teachers' unions.

"Reconstitution is the Clint Eastwood approach to reforming schools," said Kent Mitchell, the president of the United Educators of San Francisco. "You just pull out a gun and blow them away."

Fresh Start Sought

The theory behind reconstitution is that some schools have been so dysfunctional for so long that the best hope for turning them around is to clean house and start over.

In practice, how districts have taken on that housecleaning process--and how well it seems to have worked--has varied widely. In some cases, virtually all employees have been reassigned, while in others the majority have successfully reapplied for their jobs after agreeing to cooperate in the turnaround effort.

Over the past decade, Atlanta, Houston, Milwaukee, Paterson, N.J., and San Antonio, among others, have resorted to some version of reconstitution. In San Francisco, the practice became institutionalized in recent years as part of a desegregation case.

As the hunger for high-impact accountability measures grew and the visibility of San Francisco's strategy rose, last year saw a spate of first-ever reconstitutions in cities around the country. ("Reconstitution Gaining New Momentum," Sept. 24, 1997.)

That officials in some of those districts are now having second thoughts should come as no surprise, said Gary A. Orfield, a Harvard University scholar who has studied San Francisco's reconstituted schools.

One problem, he said, is that some districts may have rushed into reconstitution as a seemingly straightforward--if radical--reform, without committing the proper time and resources to making it work. Another, he said, is that the negative effects--such as a loss of seasoned staff members to help mentor new recruits--are often quickly and painfully apparent.

"Your benefits don't come until three or four years down the road, but the costs are immediate, so it's very difficult politically," Mr. Orfield said. "What seems like a simple idea turns out when you do it to be a lot more complicated."

In Chicago, administrators used reconstitution for the first time last year, overhauling seven high schools as part of a broad crackdown on failing schools. This year, district leaders decided to hold off on any more, even though an advisory council urged them to shake up 15 more schools, either through reconstitution or similarly aggressive means.

"Last year, we felt very strongly that we had some schools that were showing continuous decline and that we had to do something radical," said Cozette Buckney, Chicago's chief academic officer. "Now we have an opportunity to look at what we did. Closing and opening so rapidly, to us, is not the best way to do it."

Ms. Buckney said the 430,000-student district is now negotiating with the city's affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers on an interim step between putting schools on probation and reconstituting them.

"There are many things we can do to address the deficiencies of students and staff without totally closing a school and starting all over again," she said.

Thomas H. Reece, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, couldn't agree more.

"I do give them credit for, if not admitting publicly the mistakes that were done before, at least not doing them again," he said of the district's leadership.

Union Pushes Alternatives

Galvanized by reconstitution's rise in popularity, Mr. Reece's parent organization, the AFT, has launched a counteroffensive. It is portraying the practice, in the words of union President Sandra Feldman, as "a simplistic response to a complicated problem."

As part of that effort, the union last year produced a policy guide on redesigning failing schools that took sharp aim at San Francisco's brand of reconstitution. At the same time, it urged strong action against chronically low-performing schools and laid out the union's vision of how such intervention should take place.

The guide urged local unions "to ensure that teachers and other school staff are treated professionally, are involved in decisionmaking, and are part of the solution."

It also stressed the need to give schools support to improve on their own. And it said any intervention strategies should be based on solid measures of performance; provide thorough analysis of individual schools' problems; involve proven, research-based reforms; and commit sufficient resources for retooling teachers.

Some local union leaders are drawing on the AFT policy as they seek to influence intervention plans in their districts. Tom Mooney, a vice president of the national union and the chief of its Cincinnati affiliate, used the policy as a basis for a plan he is now discussing with officials there even though that city has yet to reconstitute any schools.

"I think this AFT policy is making sense to a lot of people," said Mr. Mooney, who was the chairman of the task force that produced the national union's policy. "It's very aggressive but more sensible and educationally sound than reconstitution."

In January, the AFT held a workshop in Miami for union and district officials from eight cities where intervention in failing schools had become a key issue.

For the Cleveland contingent, that retreat gave both sides a needed chance to air their differences, said Livesteen E. Carter, the district's chief academic officer. The experience helped lay the groundwork for an intervention plan agreed to last month that will give union officials a voice in identifying schools for potential reconstitution.

As a model for how unions and districts can collaborate to improve beleaguered schools, AFT leaders point to New York City.

Under New York's version of reconstitution, known as redesign, the protections afforded staff members are generally greater than in other districts where such shake-ups have taken place.

For example, half the staff at a redesigned school in New York must be drawn whenever possible from employees already in the school, with preference being given by seniority. Union members sit on the school-based committee that selects the new staff, and teachers who do wind up transferring out are given first priority elsewhere.

Interestingly, New York is the only one of last year's crop of districts engaged in some form of reconstitution that is doing so again this year.

Threat of Shake-ups Persists

But even as union leaders come forward with alternatives, some school officials are continuing to propose new accountability schemes that feature reconstitution. In recent months, for example, administrators in St. Louis; Columbus, Ohio; and Santa Ana, Calif., have put forward plans that feature reconstitution as a possible sanction for schools that fail to improve over time.

In other districts, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and the District of Columbia, administrators have launched high-profile efforts to improve low-performing schools that could end in reconstitution in the years ahead.

And among those districts that have resorted to reconstitution in the past, but have held off this year, the watchword is never say never. Philadelphia officials, for example, say they intend to keep a close eye on the performance data from the 13 schools on their watch list to make sure that forgoing reconstitution continues to make sense.

S.F. Shifts Gears

In San Francisco, the district most closely associated with reconstitution, no one is writing the policy off just yet.

But for the first time in five years, Superintendent Waldemar Rojas has no plans to reconstitute any schools.

Instead, union and school leaders are nearing final agreement on a plan to give schools more time to reform themselves before reconstitution would become an option. The plan draws liberally from the principles laid down in the AFT policy, said Mr. Mitchell, the head of the local union, a united affiliate of the AFT and the National Education Association.

San Francisco's first foray into reconstitution came in the 1980s in response to a federal desegregation case.

Then, in 1992, a court-approved agreement in the case actually required the 63,500-student district to reconstitute schools each year. That directive followed a report from a monitoring panel headed by Mr. Orfield that found higher achievement among black and Hispanic students in schools that had been reconstituted in the 1980s.

Critics say that those gains were due primarily to factors other than the restaffing and maintain that the 10 schools overhauled since 1994 have only a mixed record of improvement.

Nonetheless, some have shown strong signs of success, such as Visitacion Valley Middle School, where Mr. Flores is principal. Since being reconstituted in 1994, the school's climate has improved markedly and test scores have risen consistently.

But now, Mr. Rojas said, "the focus is to spend a lot of time and energy revisiting the original reconstituted schools to ensure that they are building strong and solid academic bases."

The new approach being negotiated with the union would require local school councils made up of staff members, parents, and others to formulate improvement plans with measurable goals for student achievement.

At present, questions surrounding staff transfers remain under discussion.

Any final plan to put the brakes on reconstitution needs approval from the federal judge. Moreover, even Mr. Mitchell said he could envision times when its use would be justified "as a tool of absolute last resort."

Still, both he and Mr. Rojas seem convinced that the city is entering a new chapter in its push to improve schools.

"Reconstitution is not an event," Mr. Rojas said. "It is the beginning stage of a building process."

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Pages 1, 17

Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as A Mixed Record for Reconstitution Flashes a Yellow Light for Districts
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