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Schools Restructuring under NCLB: Blow ‘em up Good?


This morning, the Center for Education Policy in Washington, DC is issuing the latest in a series of state-level reports on the fate of schools restructuring under NCLB policy. Today’s report, authored by Brenda Neuman-Sheldon (a one-time student of skoolboy’s, but I hear that she’s back on solid food), examines restructuring schools in Maryland. In 2007-08, Maryland had 38 schools in restructuring planning, a huge increase over the four schools the preceding year, and 64 schools in restructuring implementation, a 7% decline from the preceding school year. The restructuring schools are concentrated in a small number of Maryland’s 24 school districts, with 61% of the restructuring schools in Baltimore City, and an additional 30% in Prince George’s County, which adjoins Washington, DC. This concentration has stretched the capacity of the state and these districts to support restructuring planning and implementation. Prince George’s County, for example, soared from one school in restructuring planning in 2006-07 to 21 in 2007-08.

Neuman-Sheldon identifies a major shift in the form that restructuring schools in Maryland is taking. Whereas 58% of the schools in restructuring implementation in 2007-08 relied primarily on the appointment of a school “turnaround specialist” as the engine of restructuring (already a decline from the 73% using this option in 2005-06), all of the schools in restructuring planning that had submitted a plan at the time the report was written were proposing some form of “zero-based staffing”—i.e., replacing most or all of the staff in the school or asking all staff to reapply for their positions. It’s the neutron bomb theory of school reform!

But is it a good theory? That remains to be seen. What mechanism will bring highly-qualified teachers to these failing schools? Where will the tenured teachers who leave the schools go? In schools that replace only some of their staff, how will decisions about who stays and who leaves be made?

Beyond these logistical questions, though, lies another fundamental challenge: will changing the staffing—including the principals, who, Neuman-Sheldon reports, are often surprised to learn that when they select zero-based staffing as an option, they’re placing their own jobs on the line—fundamentally alter the context for teaching and learning in the school, when other powerful forces shaping teaching and learning aren’t changing at all?


SB, Thanks for bringing this report to our attention. Re your question about how staffing decisions will be made: My prediction is that new school leaders use zero-based staffing to clear out experienced teachers, irrespective of their quality, who have institutional memory and might question any of their new reforms. There are no rules of engagement specified by NCLB restructuring - it's all left up to the local districts.

School leaders want a fresh start, and good teachers are going to get kicked to the curb in the process. In a very basic cost-benefit calculation, a school leader who wants to minimize uncertainty may be willing to sacrifice a good teacher for insurance that no one will question her/him. Whether and how the preceding scenario plays out is an open question, but that it could happen that way strikes me as incredibly problematic.

Btw, I, too, am very much looking forward to the day that I'm back on solid food;)

skoolboy: Living in the DC area, I'm concerned about the ability of schools to fire any and all teachers once a school is "restructured" under NCLB. As eduwonkette noted, above, schools may fire experienced and high performing teachers.

Eduwonkette drew my attention to an interesting situation in one of the better DC public schools (Wilson High), which underwent restructuring this summer b/c it failed to make AYP under NLCB.

The website below gives information about how an excellent 11th and 12th grade science teacher at Wilson was fired during the restructuring, despite: (1) His apparently excellent performance as a science teacher and long history at the school; and (2) the fact his 11th and 12th grade science instruction has absolutely no causal effect on the school's 10th grade math and English AYP scores.


Skoolboy asks “What mechanism will bring highly-qualified teachers to these failing schools?” which leads me to ask what are the characteristics of a “highly-qualified” teacher?

There are lots of competing conceptions out there about the characteristics that constitute a “highly-qualified” teacher, NCLB identifies “highly-qualified” in terms of subject matter expertise, whereas schools of education note “highly-qualified” mostly in terms of people who know subject matter and also how to teach it. The practicing teachers I’ve interacted with talk about “highly-qualified” in terms of classroom based experience. Or some literature suggests that race and dispositional traits are characteristics of a “highly-qualified” teacher working with racial minorities and low-income students. And of course one can find empirical evidence to support all these various notions of "highly qualified."

Based on my reading of the literature the desired outcome is important. For example, the Department of Education has evidence to suggest there is a relationship between test scores and the subject matter expertise of students. There is also evidence to suggest that race influences the social relationships between teachers and students. Another example, teachers committed to social justice have been found to be effective working with students in an urban context.

But maybe I’m missing something? What else is known? Or how should one measure “highly-qualified?”

I believe that there is some evaluation of "turn-around" schools in Michigan to indicate that it takes a minimum of two major changes to impact low performance. I don't recall that they were looking at staffing changes as much as curriculum, however. I think that it is also important to look very carefully at the issue of "firing" teachers (eg Art Siebens). Michelle Rhee's proposition aside, teacher protections are still in place, so what we are talking about with "zero-based staffing" is really just re-arranging deck chairs. Art Siebens is still in the system, just at another school. And it poking around the linked website, I don't have a clue why Mr. Siebens was asked to leave, except that it was certainly not an NCLB mandate, and while there is a well-organized effort to maintain him in his position at the school, there are other parents who are clearly not willing to join that effort. Like I said--more heat than light--and it appears to be mostly beside the point.

I also recall reading that Baltimore's use of "turn-around specialists" consisted of hiring retired principals to do something--I don't know what--to improve the afflicted schools. There does seem to be an absolute commitment to moving deck chairs as opposed to seeking out root causes and applying solutions. I have to wonder what special qualifications anyone thought that retired principals brought to the equation. But it did allow the district to document that they had "hired turn-around experts." Now they will be able to document that they have "reconstituted staff."

Starting over with a new group--even if they are just recycled from other schools stuck in a non-improvement cycle--might not hurt, there is always the possibility of interrupting some harmful patterns and developing a new sense of ownership. But unless there is something actively going on to ensure it, it is nothing more than an empty exercise (albeit and expensive one).

Margo: I'm not sure if Siebens was fired from the system (and independently hired at another school), or simply moved from School A to School B while staying on the DCPS payroll.

In any event, my point (like skoolboy's)was that it seems like overkill to give district administrators carte blanche to remove all teachers of any subject, of any grade, merely because some (but not all) students perform not up to par on either math or English tests given in certain grades.


I don't know if it is carte blanche or overkill, it would really have to depend on what is going on in the school that they were responding to. The numbers of schools who have chosen that route just indicate to me that there isn't anyone really looking at root causes in order to determine the appropriateness of response. They are just working their way half-heartedly down a list of examples of things that might work.

In Siebens' case, it looks like the restructuring just provided a convenient mechanism for the principal to act on some other issue that either hadn't been or couldn't be addressed in another way. My district had a superintendent a few years back who was a strong believer in restructuring schools that weren't making it (as well as shuffling principals on a regular basis). This was before NCLB. I can guarantee that no teachers lost jobs then or now as a result of the shake-ups, even though some have lost jobs as the district has down-sized. If it is different in DC then I cannot imagine why Rhee is offering the deal that she is offering.

Margo: I'm not sure how the provisions of NCLB interact with the provisions of the teacher's DCPS contracts. It's a good question. Maybe I'll look into some day when I have some time to kill...

Hi Margo and Attorney DC,

I'm working on a multi-post series on the DC restructuring and the Siebens case in particular, so stay tuned for this next week.

I'm looking forward to reading your posts next week. Keep 'em coming!

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Attorney DC: I'm looking forward to reading your posts next week. Keep read more
  • eduwonkette: Hi Margo and Attorney DC, I'm working on a multi-post read more
  • Attorney DC: Margo: I'm not sure how the provisions of NCLB interact read more
  • Margo/Mom: DC: I don't know if it is carte blanche or read more
  • Attorney DC: Margo: I'm not sure if Siebens was fired from the read more




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