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Digging a Deeper Hole: School Restructuring Isn't Working in Maryland

According to the Center on Education Policy's report released December 6th, Making Mid-Course Corrections: School Restructuring in Maryland is not working.

In 2006, 233 schools were in some stage of improvement under NCLB, roughly 16 percent of the state's 1,444 total. Seventy-three, or 5 percent were planning or implementing restructuring - 58 under the jurisdiction of Baltimore City Public Schools. All of the schools in implementation were in Baltimore City or Prince Georges County Public Schools.

More schools are entering the restructuring process, few are coming out the other side. In the fall of 2004. 46 schools were in restructuring implementation. Over the next three school years, 36 schools entered the implementation phase. Twelve more raised student achievement enough to get out of the "in needs of improvement" dog house. Another sixteen in the restructuring planning phase made AYP and avoided implementation in the next year. Today, 64 schools are in implementation restructuring.

The report doesn't show exactly which schools have entered and exited over time, so it is hard to say precisely how many have been in some kind of restructuring status for how long. Somewhere between 34 and 44 have been in restructuring implementation since the fall of 2004, between 53 and 63 since the the fall of 2005. Any way you slice the data, restructuring is starting to look like a black hole.

The policy question is whether the implementation of restructuring under NCLB will de facto constititute a terminal status for failing schools, or become a real way station to school improvement. The Maryland experience suggests the former.

Schools doing the best job of leaving children behind are being permitted to keep on keeping on. Does the CEP study tell us why this is happening or how to change course?

Not exactly:

No definitive explanation has emerged for the lack of progress in Maryland’s restructuring schools. The state of Maryland and the four districts profiled in this report are all taking active steps to improve the results of restructuring. It appears as though everyone is attempting to learn from the early experiences of schools in restructuring to increase the likelihood that these schools will make substantial academic progress in the future.

The report offers clues, from the problems caused when new superintendent implement new ideas of reform before the last superintendents have a chance to take effect; the inabiity of central office staffs to get the human, financial and material support to a school in need before the school year is well underway; poor two-way communications among all the stakeholders; the ongoing social disruption of deciding to restructure by re-interviewing staff rather than replacing them as a whole; the problematic nature of turn-around advisors and outside technical "support" from the district and state ("I'm from the IRS and I'm here to help."); the willingness to blame social conditions outside the school; to the confusion inherent in the simultaneous implementation of multiple emergency approaches approaches (tutoring, curricular reforms, placing a priority on the identification of highly qualified staff, integrating faculty support teams, etc., etc.)

One thing is very clear to me. After five years of failing to make AYP puts a school into restructuring, another three to four years of failure should leave reasonable people with no reasonable doubt that the school is educationally bankrupt. The prospect of its emerging from restructuring as a going concern from the standpoint of student learning is simply too small to matter.

Understanding "why?" is not really the most important issue facing school administrators. The vital need is giving students who would otherwise attend the school a better chance of demonstrating proficiency on state tests against state standards of what they need to know and be able to do. They need an entirely new school.

As a practical matter, the existing school needs to be put out of business as an institution. It is not worth the effort required to get it out of educational receivership - if that is even remotely possible. To the extent the "seats" in the specific school building are required, an entirely new institution needs to be created. That means new managers and staff with a credible plan for teaching and learning. Whether the old building is occupied as a new traditionally managed school, under contract to an EMO, or made into an independent charter is a question of the second order.

Such "redevelopment" of the school building is obviously a tough decision politically, or districts and states would have gone this route much earlier, but it's not a hard decision as a matter of either analysis or common sense.

What of the old staff? Some might be made redundant by the closure and laid off, others might be put on a path towards termination - or improvement -based on their performance, others might be put back into the system. I'm not talking about termination as if they were "at will" employees, simply the employment of existing human resource practices to remove staff with a diligence that most districts have ignored for decades.

Any district with a school implementing restructuring for more than three years has to learn: When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

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