States Train Sights on School Districts for Interventions

By Lynn Olson — January 28, 2004 8 min read
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After years of trying to fix troubled schools one at a time, a number of states are weighing stronger measures for intervening in low-performing school districts. The shift is seen as an outgrowth of existing state accountability systems and a response to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

During the 1990s, states seized control of troubled districts in such cities as Cleveland; Compton, Calif.; and Newark and Paterson, N.J. But while such interventions aren’t new, most state accountability systems have focused on rewards and penalties for individual schools, rather than for their districts.

Now, states are turning in a bigger way to district-level strategies, in part because as their own accountability systems mature, they are finding that low-performing schools often are clustered in a handful of school systems that are either unable or unwilling to help them improve.

For example, the Virginia board of education decided to seek more authority to intervene in districts after a series of academic reviews of individual schools.

“It became obvious that, in many of these schools, the problem was not simply an individual school; it was a system problem that originates at the central office,” said board President Thomas M. Jackson Jr. A bill introduced last week in the Virginia legislature, House Bill 1294, would allow the state board to go to court to force uncooperative districts to carry out plans to improve student achievement.

“As is true with certain dysfunctional families, there are dysfunctional school systems,” Mr. Jackson added, “which, ultimately, are going to require judicial intervention to break the logjam.”

District-level intervention has been proposed recently in other states as well. In those moves:

  • Louisiana’s state board of education approved a plan to pluck up to 14 chronically low-performing schools from the New Orleans system and place them in a state-run “recovery district.” The board is seeking applications from outside groups—including universities and nonprofit organizations—to operate the schools as charters.

  • A Massachusetts task force appointed by Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, submitted proposals for dealing with districts declared underperforming. The state board of education identified the first two such districts—the Holyoke and Winchendon schools—late last year.

  • At the request of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Cheri Pierson Yecke appointed a working group to consider steps to take in underperforming school systems.

  • North Carolina officials have expanded an assistance program for districts with large proportions of low- achieving students to 10 school systems, up from one last year.

‘Dysfunctional Systems’

In Louisiana, state board members grew concerned about a handful of schools that have remained “academically unacceptable” since the state accountability system there was launched in 1999.

“These are schools that have not made progress,” said Robin G. Jarvis, the director of school standards, accountability, and assistance for the Louisiana Department of Education. While districts have taken measures to work with such schools, she added, the state decided it needed to step in “a little more rapidly.”

Last October, voters in Louisiana approved a constitutional amendment that gave the state board the power to manage and operate such public schools directly. Act 9, passed by the legislature, also permits the board to create and operate a separate “recovery district” for such schools.

The state can place low-performing schools in the recovery district if their home district fails to submit reconstitution plans for them, if the state board of education does not approve the plans, or if the local school system fails to carry out the plans as agreed.

In addition, schools that have been rated “academically unacceptable” for four years in a row can be put in the recovery district.

Initially, many state accountability systems tried to bypass districts entirely and work directly with schools, observed Heinrich Mintrop, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. In part, he said, states took that tack because they saw districts as part of the problem.

Federal Nudge

But, increasingly, he said, states have come to recognize that providing rewards and sanctions for individual schools is not enough. Such schools also need what is known as capacity-building—such as curriculum reform, more aggressive teacher recruitment, and better professional development.

“Those are prime things that a district needs to do,” Mr. Mintrop argued. “A school alone can’t do those kinds of things.”

“I think it’s happening because states and researchers and policymakers are beginning to figure out that districts, indeed, do matter,” agreed Jennifer O’Day, a principal research scientist at the American Institutes for Research’s Palo Alto, Calif., office.

Districts can make a difference through their action and through their inaction, she added, and in ways that are not always purposefully tied to instruction. As an example, she noted that human-resource policies can have a big impact on how effectively teachers are distributed across schools.

Experience also has shown that savvy districts can improve schools, in places such as Charlotte- Mecklenburg, N.C., and Sacramento, Calif.

Moreover, as the National Governors Association points out in a 2003 report, “Reaching New Heights: Turning Around Low-Performing Schools,” unless districts are on board, they can hamper or entirely derail state efforts.

At the same time, the federal No Child Left Behind law, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has prompted states to adopt strategies for intervening in low-performing districts.

The law requires states to identify districts that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” and to take corrective actions in those that do not improve.

States also are finding that they have limited capacity to directly help the large number of schools identified as failing to make adequate progress under the federal law.

“No Child Left Behind obviously has put a lot of added emphasis here,” said J.B. Buxton, the senior education adviser to Democratic Gov. Michael F. Easley of North Carolina.

“When you begin to go from identifying roughly 15 schools you have to go into every year, and another 50 you have to give voluntary assistance to, to somewhere like 300 to 500 schools,” Mr. Buxton said, “you’re no longer talking about a school-assistance strategy. You’ve talking about a district- assistance strategy.”

“What we know is if we don’t get about the business of building the capacity of our districts, and the leadership in our districts, to not only turn around schools but also to lead continuous improvement efforts themselves,” he said, “we’re just forever on the treadmill.”

Under its Local Education Agency Assistance Program, or LEAAP, the state is sending teams to work with central-office personnel in North Carolina districts with large proportions of low-achieving students, just as it has done previously with individual schools.

“I think that No Child Left Behind has nudged states into doing what they might have done otherwise,” said Commissioner Yecke of Minnesota. “The fact that there are some underperforming districts is not a secret. They exist across the country. And the question that we have to ask ourselves is, how long should parents wait?”


But not everyone is enthusiastic about states’ newfound commitment to intervene in districts.

School board members in New Orleans have criticized state plans to remove individual schools from their control. In part to prevent that from happening, district Superintendent Anthony Amato has unveiled a plan to form a separate “renaissance district” in the 80,000-student school system to provide support for academically unacceptable schools.

Among other provisions, the plan would focus on recruiting fully certified teachers for those schools, reducing pupil-teacher ratios, and adopting research-based literacy and math curricula.

In Virginia, the state school boards’ association has come out swinging against the legislative proposal introduced there.

“It’s unnecessary,” said Frank E. Barham, the executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association. “There’s been no demonstrated need for this at this point in time.”

The legislation would give the Virginia board and the state department of education the authority to conduct academic reviews of underperforming districts, similar to those now conducted of individual schools. School districts would have to draw up corrective-action plans to raise student achievement and submit those plans for approval by the state board. If a district failed to carry out its plan, the state board could petition the courts to compel compliance.

Virginia’s constitution gives control of schools to local school boards, and gives the state board of education a “supervisory” role only. It does not permit the state to take over low-performing districts.

Mr. Jackson, the state board president, said only a handful of Virginia districts would likely be affected by the legislation.

But Mr. Barham said the state already has the authority to report districts that are not implementing the state’s standards of quality to the state attorney general. The attorney general can ask a judge to compel compliance.

“And if they don’t comply, there’s a provision in the code for them to fine, suspend, or replace the superintendent,” Mr. Barham said.

He also argued that the state board of education, which is appointed by the governor, should not have the authority to discipline locally elected school boards. And he questioned the record of other states at improving low-performing districts in which they’ve intervened.

“I don’t know where that’s worked in any other state,” Mr. Barham asserted.

‘Dual-Pronged Approach’

Indeed, past efforts by states to take over low-performing districts have led to mixed results. In general, states have been more successful at cleaning up financial and management problems than in boosting student performance.

For her part, Ms. Yecke of Minnesota is not eager to run school districts directly. “That’s not where I want to go in this state,” she said. “We’re a very strong local- control state, and I believe that there are steps that we can take before we become the state board of education for a district.”

The key, she said, is to recognize that districts play two functions: administrative and instructional. “I think the earlier state takeovers focused strictly on the efficiency piece,” she said. “And we have to make sure that we have a dual- pronged approach.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as States Train Sights on School Districts for Interventions


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