Fixing State Interventions in Struggling School Districts

By Sean Cavanagh — September 13, 2010 2 min read
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Why do state interventions in struggling school districts fail?

A report released today by the Center for American Progress examines the educational, political, and organizational shortcomings that undermine state efforts to turn around low-performing schools, fix-it strategies that have received a lot more focus and scrutiny in the No Child Left Behind era.

State efforts in local schools often unravel because state and district officials do not make the overall purpose of an intervention clear to the public, which sows mistrust and unrealistic expectations. States also tend to rush to select models for fixing schools, rather than taking a closer look at factors that may be impeding progress, such as the starting points of the students, the instructional skills of the teachers, and the lack of high-quality professional development, according to the report, titled “Levers for Change: Pathways for State-to-District Assistance in Underperforming School Districts.”

States have a better record of performing “triage” during emergencies than in building the foundation for educational improvements, writes the author of the report, William J. Slotnick. And they’re not particularly good at building the capacity of local communities to sustain the academic changes they make. States can help themselves, he explains, by devising clear “exit strategies,” or criteria for judging successful interventions. They can also use school sites as hubs to promote community and grassroots involvement in turning around schools. In Newark, N.J., the site of a major state intervention, 9,200 parents became involved in school site planning, Slotnick says.

“The traditional state department of education is simply not up to the challenge of providing effective state-to-district assistance in underperforming school districts,” he writes. “If every system is perfectly designed for the results that it is getting, state-to-district assistance is the poster child for recurring flawed practices.”

The author is the founder and executive director of the Community Training and Assistance Center, which works with states, districts, and organizations, particularly in low-income communities.

He traces the history of state interventions in struggling districts. Up through the mid-1990s, 60 percent of state takeovers of districts were triggered by financial messes in school systems, he explains. But by the late 1990s, 67 percent of all state interventions were “comprehensive,” or set in motion by some combination of financial, managerial, and academic shortcomings.

No Child Left Behind called on states to “lead the charge to meet the goals of the federal government,” he explains, requiring states to take corrective actions in schools. The recent federal economic stimulus continues to encourage states to intervene in struggling districts, by providing money for restarting, closing, transforming, or turning around schools.

“If states are truly to become the catalysts for systemic change at the district level,” Slotnick concludes, “then their strategies need to be based on what has been learned from the national experience to date in state-to-district interventions.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.