Shock Therapy

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Once considered an act of near desperation, the practice of ousting a school's staff and starting from scratch--a strategy known as reconstitution--is gaining national currency as a way to resuscitate failing public schools.

Newly reconstituted schools opened this year in Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and suburban Washington, D.C. In Philadelphia, the district tried to reconstitute two high schools this summer but failed in the face of teacher-union opposition. And in New York City, officials used their own less-drastic version of the concept to shake up 10 schools last year and 20 more this summer.

The overhauls come at a time of growing demand for solutions to the seemingly incurable ills of many urban schools. These pressures are prompting more superintendents to look for accountability measures with a capital A. Few fit the bill as well as reconstitution. "Here are these schools that have not only not reformed, but they haven't even met traditional standards," says Frank Smith, a professor of educational administration at Teachers College, Columbia University. "I think people are just losing patience and saying these kids can't wait."

In targeted schools, the entire staffs--teachers, custodians, support workers, and administrators--typically have to reapply for their jobs. The number of teachers who wind up staying range from only a handful to as many as two-thirds, depending on the district and school.

  • In Cleveland, the state-appointed superintendent announced he was cleaning house at two elementary schools just three weeks before the start of school this fall. Despite protests from parents and grievances from the teachers' union, more than two-thirds of the teachers at the schools were replaced.
  • Chicago school officials announced in June that seven of the city's most poorly performing high schools would be reconstituted over the summer. What's more, the 424,000-student district scaled back the job protections of teachers who lose their positions. This, more than the shake-ups themselves, led to the worst breach to date in the largely amicable relationship the district had enjoyed with the teachers' union since Mayor Richard Daley installed the current administration in 1995. Nearly two-thirds of the affected teachers were rehired by their old schools.
  • In Denver, the whole staffs of two elementary schools were ousted, with only a handful of teachers being rehired at each school. Although the teachers' union initially balked when news of the possible overhauls broke last winter, union leaders then took the unusual step of cooperating closely with administrators of the 62,000-student district.
  • Administrators in Prince George's County, a suburban Washington, D.C., district of 125,000 students, ordered the staffs of four elementary schools and two middle schools to reapply for their jobs. In the end, slightly more than a third of the teachers and administrators returned to their original schools. Officials said they were trying to boost achievement at the schools before they became candidates for reconstitution by the state of Maryland, which has put 50 schools in Baltimore on notice.
  • In San Francisco, the district and the teachers' union agreed last spring on a tentative plan for modifying the district's reconstitution policy. But as talks continued, superintendent Waldemar Rojas reconstituted one high school and an elementary school over the summer. The shake-ups were less sweeping than those at eight other schools in the district since 1994. At the high school, for example, 45 percent of the teachers were allowed to remain, and teachers are being given more say in charting the school's new course.

In all these districts, school leaders are betting that reconstitution will foster a new, student-focused culture in schools where failure had come to be accepted. "It's a drastic and dramatic tool," Rojas says. "But if you've got cancer, you've got to get it all."

San Francisco officials have now revamped 10 schools since 1994 under their district's court-ordered desegregation plan, despite fierce objections from the teachers' union. ["Do Or Die," March.] Over the past five years, San Francisco has seen standardized-test scores districtwide edge upward every year, gains that officials attribute in part to reconstitution. Although experts say the jury is still out on the strategy's effectiveness, Rojas believes this track record is emboldening other educators to take the plunge. "When somebody finds something that has a glimmer of hope and success, they're going to try it," he says.

But now that the idea has caught on, Rojas and other supporters of San Francisco's brand of reconstitution are worried. "I'm concerned that it will be picked up as a panacea and done incorrectly," Rojas explains.

Robert Green, a Michigan State University professor who has been involved in San Francisco's desegregation case, says educators who have tried reconstitution should get together soon to trade notes on what enhances and detracts from its effectiveness. "My fear is that school districts will jump on the reconstitution bandwagon without seriously considering the issues," Green says.

Teachers' unions share his concern. San Francisco teachers have fought the practice from the beginning. And this summer, Sandra Feldman, president of the New York City teachers' union and its national parent, the American Federation of Teachers, weighed in on the issue. While seeking to position the 950,000-member AFT as a proponent of fixing failing schools, Feldman argues that reconstitution, at least the way it is playing out in most cities, is not the way to go about it.

Feldman holds up New York City as a model for how unions and districts can work together on troubled schools. There, administrators and union officials negotiated a process for redesigning schools that have been identified by the state as unacceptable. Under the agreement, such schools can replace roughly half their teachers with newcomers. Teachers who choose to leave such schools are given priority in seeking other posts. New Yorkers studiously avoid the term reconstitution, as do educators in Denver, preferring to call their shake-ups "redesigns."

In none of the schools reconstituted in the various districts this summer were teachers summarily thrown out of jobs. For the most part, the displaced teachers ended up elsewhere in the systems.

Still, with the exception of Denver, the overhauls are being fiercely resisted by teachers' unions, even in places where labor-management relations have been calm. That is certainly the case in Chicago, where reconstitution comes closest to threatening displaced teachers with unemployment. Teachers who are not rehired will have 10 months to find another job in the system before being taken off the payroll. Moreover, they will be expected to work as substitutes during that time, with one day off a week for job hunting.

The 33,000-member Chicago Teachers Union has filed grievances on behalf of the affected teachers. "We had believed there was a cooperative working relationship, and we have fostered and supported that," CTU official Pamelyn Massarsky says. "But they spit in our face, and we know it's not raining."

Paul Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, downplays the rift with the union. "There are certainly many union activists who are going to grandstand on this," he says. "But the bottom line is, we have 27,000 teachers and we respect their collective bargaining rights."

In Philadelphia, the teachers' union took a stand against reconstitution and won. After superintendent David Hornbeck announced in February that he would transfer up to 75 percent of the faculty at two high schools, the union went to court, charging that the move violated the teachers' contract. In July, an arbitrator ruled in the union's favor.

Although the ruling was a setback for the district, the principals at the two schools began wide-ranging reforms anyway, and many teachers took voluntary transfers. So Hornbeck does not consider his plan to have been entirely thwarted.

Despite union resistance, there are few signs that reconstitution is going away. Christine Johnson, director of the urban initiative of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, notes that she has recently heard from several states and districts interested in reconstitution. Says Johnson, "There is a public outcry for accountability with teeth."

--Caroline Hendrie

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