When enough is enough

The revised federal School Improvement Grant program shifts the state role from one of solely compliance to one of support AND compliance. As a result of this role change and the goal of long-term and sustained improvements, many states are beginning to focus on not only the low-performing schools, but also on the low-performing districts.

The district sets the tone for its schools and while some schools are able to make drastic improvements in spite of a dysfunctional district office, success is much more likely with district leaders who are fully on board. In my experience, district offices often push against any change to the status quo and the dysfunctional bureaucracy can be a barrier to any positive change for students.

Some district staff members may think these reforms will blow over, just like past reform efforts or past leadership changes, but they should understand that some things will not go back to “how things have always been done.” They can push against the changes, they can stand in the way of strong principals, strong SEA staff and the community, but they will be held accountable for their actions and inactions.

In order to turn around  districts there are two streams of thought: state takeovers and a newer supportive reform model.

While many state laws restrict the ability of the state education chief from “taking over” a school for any reason (underperforming or not), laws across the country are changing. I strongly support local control, but if a district continues to have under-performing schools, after millions of dollars and significant outside help have been provided, that district has demonstrated that it cannot effectively manage the school. These districts have had, and in some cases wasted, numerous chances to turn the schools and themselves around.

Successful “state takeovers” are rare, which is not too surprising as SEAs were not designed to run schools and districts. But, it’s likely that more state takeovers will occur as capacity at the SEA increases, and as districts encounter changing accountability requirements. The success of future takeovers is uncertain, but it is clear that some districts require this level of intervention.

In contrast, some states recognize both the lack of capacity at the district and the scarce supply of successful state takeovers. As a result, a few states are developing new ways to require district changes and to support the implementation of those changes. Similar to the creation of Lead Turnaround Partners working with schools in improvement, districts may also require external assistance to develop comprehensive district reforms, assist and monitor implementation, and to ensure compliance. While these external implementers may not have decision-making authority in the districts, such efforts should be closely watched across the country.

Some districts may require the former, but others may succeed with the latter. In the end, it may not be an either or, but low-performing districts may require both of these models – as well as additional models ones not yet created.

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