States

Rhode Island the Latest State to Plan a District Intervention

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 21, 2019 7 min read
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A pipe that leaked raw sewage on children. An English-language teacher who worked with Spanish-speaking students but did not speak Spanish. Students hiding from their peers to avoid fights.

After these and a legion of systemic problems were publicized this summer in a report on Providence schools from Johns Hopkins University, the state education department has moved to assume broad powers over schools in Rhode Island’s capital city. The department plans to step in sometime this fall.

But if the intervention goes through, Rhode Island’s education leaders will likely encounter many of the same challenges other states have faced, and sometimes failed to overcome.

State Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green said she is looking to the state’s institutions of higher education and neighboring Massachusetts, among others, for guidance and assistance.

“There’s been a lot of challenges with state takeovers. But I don’t really view it as a takeover,” Infante-Green said, although the state’s proposed order would allow her to “immediately take control” of the district. “Instead, I view it as a collaboration with the community.”

The unfolding Providence story is just the latest in a string of developments this year related to state interventions that illustrate both the attraction, and the challenges, of the high-profile approach.

See Also: Total Dysfunction in Providence, R.I., Schools? Here’s Some Context You Need to Know

• Last spring, the first two districts—Humphreys County and Yazoo City—were brought under the control of the Mississippi Achievement School District, which was enacted by the state legislature in 2016. The districts will be under state control for the 2019-2020 school year. State board of education member John Kelly told the Associated Press in April that for these districts, “I just believe we have to try something different.”

• Ohio lawmakers agreed to a one-year moratorium on placing any more schools within the authority of state Academic Distress Commissions, even though several local districts were potentially on tap to qualify for state intervention based on low academic performance.

• Tennessee recently announced that for the 2019-2020 school year it would not place any more schools in the state Achievement School District, according to the state education department. The decision came in the wake of a study by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University showing that over a six-year period, schools in the ASD did no better or worse than comparison schools.

• In Texas, multiple media reports indicated the state education department has recommended that the state replace the school board for the Houston district, the seventh-largest district in the country. (The department declined to comment on the report’s findings, a final version of which hasn’t been released.)

‘Sense of Urgency’

In total, state takeovers of some kind—covering either individual schools or districts—were allowed in 13 states as of last year, either through statute or in their Every Student Succeeds Act plans, according to the Education Commission of the States. More broadly, roughly half of states allow for some sort of “alternative governance,” ranging from “innovation” and “transformation” zones to “performance compacts” between the state and struggling districts.

Taking the Reins

Here’s a snapshot of recent developments involving states and their role in the turnaround of troubled or low-performing schools and districts.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island is poised to intervene in the Providence school district after a report this summer revealed systemic and alarming problems in the district around academic performance, school culture, and basic building conditions. Angélica Infante-Green, the state education commissioner, says her plans amount to a state-district collaboration rather than a state takeover. But if her proposal goes ahead, she’ll have broad control over Providence’s budget, personnel, and other district matters.

Ohio

The state legislature voted to institute a one-year moratorium on new “academic distress commissions,” which consist of largely state-appointed members to overhaul struggling schools, for the 2019-2020 academic year.

Tennessee

The state announced in July that for the upcoming school year, it will not add any schools to its Achievement School District for low-performing schools, on the heels of a recent report from Vanderbilt University that found ASD schools did not significantly improve compared to certain non-ASD schools over a six-year period.

Texas

A long-running conflict over the Houston district reached a new level earlier this month, when reports emerged that the state education agency recommended that the state replace the district’s school board. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, called for the state to take over the district’s school board earlier this year.

Source: Education Week

The tactic is generally not meant to last over the long term.

“I do think people are trying to be more cautious in approaching this. There’s more of a will to have these conversations” in recent years, said Carlas McCauley, the director of the Center on School Turnaround at WestEd, a research and consulting firm, who previously oversaw School Improvement Grants at the U.S. Department of Education. “I haven’t met a state that wants to be in the business of turning around schools. But they sometimes feel like they don’t have a choice.”

What it means exactly for a state to take over or somehow intensively intervene in schools can vary significantly. State-appointed officials can assume powers typically held by local school boards. In some cases, charter schools are given more latitude to open or expand, and philanthropic groups can also step in, often leading to controversy.

Infante-Green says an audit of the system is at the top of her to-do list. In the near term, she also wants to address relatively specific, but in her view vital, issues. Those include the creation of a new policy, which would apply statewide but targeted particularly at Providence, that addresses problems identified in the Johns Hopkins University report with students’ cellphone use in school; the creation of a cultural toolkit as a school resource; and creating a new system to help students feel and be safe going to and from school.

“It has to be developed with the community. Everybody signs off on it,” she said. “You want to do this fast enough, but slow enough at the same time. There’s a sense of urgency. But at the same time, we have to be very thoughtful and methodical.”

Her office hasn’t determined yet what role charters could play in her Providence efforts.

Attracting and Keeping People

The Johns Hopkins report doesn’t represent the first time Providence’s schools have been subject to a sweeping, often-critical report.

A 1993 Providence study reported poor communication between staff, complaints of “boring, passive classes,” and dissatisfied parents, among many problems.

The Johns Hopkins report is a good foundation for the work in Providence, and “has a chance to provide an example that will be much more scalable, attractive, of interest, to other cities,” said Douglas Harris, the director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, who has studied the state takeover of that city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina.

But that will depend on several factors, Harris stressed. Echoing Infante-Green, he said Providence will have to work closely with community partners and create a process that relies on a broad base of input and support (unlike much of what took place in New Orleans schools after Katrina, he noted). Leadership for the effort can’t reside with one state education official. And they’ll have to make Providence schools an attractive place for new teachers and principals who can improve the system.

“Don’t presume that people are going to come out of the woodwork to want to be a part of it,” said Harris, who is also an economics professor at Tulane University. “You have to deliberately create the pipeline of people.”

The same goes for the other end of the process. McCauley says that too often, he’s seen a state work in a district and find an “incredible turnaround leader” who improves a school while building deep connections to the community. When that leader leaves, in many cases “the district hires someone who doesn’t have the competencies. There’s a lack of knowledge about what’s happening in that school to identify the next leader,” McCauley explained. “You’re being asked to continue it, yet you have not been part of what has worked in the school.”

Time, Preparation, Experience

At least one state is rethinking what goes on before, and during, an intensive state intervention.

Ohio’s Academic Distress Commissions, created in 2007 and already revised once in 2015, operate in three school districts, including East Cleveland and Youngstown. But even if the state begins using them in new districts next fall after the end of the moratorium, their setup might look different.

In a report released in March before the moratorium kicked in, Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria shared an extensive set of recommendations for the policy. In general, the report stated that while the current structure of distress commissions “may produce some positive results, the potential for significant opposition makes it tremendously challenging for it to function in a way that leads to successful district turnaround.”

His first recommendation read in part that when schools get their first F grade from the state, before commissions even step in, “the state should engage with underperforming districts earlier and assess current district capacity and performance.”

For the commissions themselves, the superintendent recommended more time for developing turnaround strategies, and a greater focus on creating improvement plans for individual schools.

Such work reflects that there’s a growing body of experience that can help states conceive and rethink their strategies, Harris said, even though each turnaround situation for states is unique.

“I think it’s changed in the sense that we have many more cases, and the cases are all different,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as R.I. Latest State to Orchestrate District Intervention

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