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State Takeover of Schools

When a state seizes control of a persistently failing school district, the strategy is justified as a reluctant but necessary step toward rejuvenation. But the record doesn't support this optimism.

I thought about the issue after reading the news that the Achievement School District in Tennessee has taken over schools in Memphis, where 80 percent of the lowest-ranked schools in the state are located ("Crucible of Change in Memphis as State Takes On Failing Schools," The New York Times, Apr. 3). Beginning in the fall, most of the schools will be operated as charters. Many will implement performance pay and longer school days. None will offer teacher tenure. All will use frequent testing.

For those who are fed up with what they maintain are "excuses," the changes are long overdue. I understand their frustration and anger, but I question whether takeovers will result in significant improvement. I expressed my skepticism in Education Week on Jun. 12, 2007 ("When States Seize Schools: A Cautionary Tale").

Here's why.

In 1989, New Jersey became the first state to assume full control of a local district when it took over schools in Jersey City. In short order, the state did so again in Paterson and Newark. In all three cities, the superintendent, central-office administrators, and local school board members were replaced. The new superintendent was given broad power to implement reforms. Test scores rose slightly, but they were still below the statewide average.

Despite the uptick in test scores, local taxpayers viewed the moves essentially as hostile takeovers. Resentment ran high as locally elected officials were replaced by outsiders. A similar reaction is now on display in Memphis, as voters there charge that a lack of racial sensitivity has permeated the achievement district in the seven months since it has been in existence. Parents have complained that rising test scores are not worth the price paid by their children. They were referring to strict discipline rules that they feel showed a lack of respect for minority children.

Perhaps the Achievement School District will correct the mistakes it has made in Memphis so far and eventually win over parents. No one wants to see students deprived of a quality education. But I doubt that an improvement in test scores alone will convince them. Parents want to be treated as partners in the education of their children. That was one of the most important lessons learned in New Jersey and in other states. Unfortunately, it has not been learned well enough.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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