Beware of ‘turnaround’ school districts

The Post and Courier: Beware of ‘turnaround’ school districts

[see original submission with hyperlinks embedded below]

South Carolina has a shameful history regarding vulnerable populations of students being served in our high-poverty, racial minority areas of the state, notably our Corridor of Shame along I-95.

That neglect eventually prompted a court battle in SC over adequately funding high-poverty schools. That case has finally been settled, and now SC political leaders are faced with how to address school funding; low achievement among impoverished students, racial minorities, English language learners, and special needs students; and teacher recruitment and retention in those high-needs schools.

In the Post and Courier, Paul Bowers has reported that some are advocating for charter takeover of these struggling districts, strategies made politically appealing from New Orleans to Tennessee to Michigan. Nearby Georgia and North Carolina are also considering takeover plans.

However, these so-called “opportunity” or “achievement” districts have two serious problems that warrant SC not making such commitments. First, advocacy for takeovers is mostly political cheerleading, and second, a growing body of research has revealed that takeovers have not achieved what advocates claim and often have replicated or even increased the exact problems they were designed to solve, such as race and class segregation and inequitable educational opportunities.

Three important reports on takeovers include the following:

Although media and political claims about the recovery of education in New Orleans post-Katrina have promoted success, Adamson, Cook-Harvey, and Darling-Hammond have concluded:

Based on respondents’ experiences and district data, as well as a review of existing research, policies, and documents, we find that the New Orleans reforms have created a set of schools that are highly stratified by race, class, and educational advantage, operating in a hierarchy that provides very different types of schools serving different “types” of children.

In other words, the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans created by firing the entire public school teacher workforce and forming an all-charter school system has continued to suffer low test scores, while the new school system remains deeply segregated and inequitable.

Further, in Education Week, Kent McGuire, Katherine Dunn, Kate Shaw, and Adam Schott argue:

Imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, but it’s not an appropriate prescription for the challenging work of providing individualized support to schools that need it.

[B]oth Georgia and Pennsylvania are poised to implement sweeping school turnaround plans in the form of state takeovers. These plans draw inspiration from systems operating in very different contexts elsewhere in the country and are based on a fundamental misreading of the evidence on effectiveness of these models. Just as concerning, the proposals double down on unproven governance strategies that reduce community voice in education and apply a cookie-cutter approach to the specific challenges confronting individual schools.

Takeovers in several states — similar to embracing charter schools and Teach For America — have simply shuffled funding, wasted time, and failed to address the root causes of struggling schools: concentrated poverty and social inequity.

Yes, SC must reform our public schools, and we should shift gears to address our vulnerable populations of students first. But charter takeover approaches are yet more political faddism that our state and children cannot afford.

Continuing to double-down on accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing as well as rushing to join the political reform-of-the-moment with clever names is inexcusable since we have decades of evidence about what works, and what hasn’t.

SC must embrace a new way — one committed to social policies addressing food security for the poor, stable work throughout the state, and healthcare for all, and then a new vision for education reform built on equity.

All SC students deserve experienced and certified teachers, access to challenging courses, low class sizes, fully funded schools, safe school buildings and cultures, and equitable disciplinary policies and practices. These are reforms that must be guarantees for every public school student regardless of zip code, and they need not be part of complex but cleverly named programs.

It is well past time for SC to reject falling prey to political advocacy disguised as education reform. Adopting the takeover experiment already discredited across the U.S. would be a calloused choice to continue to neglect our vulnerable students and the schools that serve them.

See this reader of research and analyses of that advocacy and evidence:

See also the Quality Education Project.

Originally published at radicalscholarship.wordpress.com on March 15, 2016.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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