Table of Contents:
Can State Intervention Spur Academic Turnaround?
This paper is an outgrowth of a Fall 1997 meeting co-sponsored by the State Education Improvement Partnership at the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Nevada Department of Education and WestEd
Written by Joan McRobbie, with input from other WestEd staff members, including Lisa Carlos, Stanley Rabinowitz and Paul Hood.
Hard copies of this paper are available for $4 each at WestEd. Contact Danny Torres at 415.615.3144 and ask for "Can State Intervention Spur Academic Turnaround?" published Spring 1998
WestEd Hot Topic:
Can State Intervention Spur Academic Turnaround?
(First published Spring 1998)
Faced increasingly with a "change it or lose it" message about public education, states are adopting a get-tough approach: results-oriented school accountability systems with teeth.
As states move to intervene with such schools, virtually all face the dilemma of the far extreme: schools at the very bottom that dramatically, persistently fail their students. Evolving from this dilemma are experiments with academic takeover. Used historically for fiscal crises cases of graft or malfeasance takeover once implied a fairly straightforward process of removing corrupt officials. Whats new is takeover for reasons of students failure to achieve. And here what to do is far from clear.
As an example, the 72,000-student Cleveland school district was taken over in 1995 by the state of Ohio for "severe instability," both fiscally and academically. In just two years, the districts record $152 million debt was brought under control— "a piece of cake" compared with turning around the academics, says Richard A. Boyd, who served as Clevelands first state-appointed superintendent. Despite multi-faceted efforts to improve student performance, only 20 percent of 9th graders passed a recent state proficiency test. Indeed, only 75 percent of students show up on any given day.
Clearly, the answer is to get at the problems earlier, before schools reach the desperation point. As states like Ohio are painfully aware, academic takeover is largely a leap into the unknown. No body of research yet exists to provide guidance. Most state education officials admit being far from eager to step in and run an academically failed school or district. The record of attempts is scant; of success even more so. The issue is bound up in questions of why schools fail, who is really responsible— for both the low performance and the turnaround— and, most fundamentally, how to effect a turnaround. Involved are issues of organizational behavior, community dysfunction, human psychology, legal precedents and larger, contextual problems of race, class and urban neglect. Yet the state ultimately bears responsibility for acting on behalf of the kids in such schools, almost invariably poor and minority children whose very life chances depend on the quality of their schools.
Hence, the upsurge of interest in early intervention— stepping in with state sanctions and/or assistance at the first signs of trouble. To do this, states must be absolutely clear about expectations of schools, careful to define the continuum of possible actions (e.g., stages of intervention), concise about what will trigger academic intervention and when, specific about the kinds of support to be provided at each stage, and— importantly— clear about what indicators will offer sufficient evidence of progress. The state can then put all its energy and resources into making sure that takeover, the option of last resort, never has to happen.
Under this approach, the threat of intervention— including, possibly, takeover— is harnessed as a motivational force, in the vein of Samuel Johnsons quote, "When a man knows hes to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." School staffs obviously chafe at having their school publicly branded— a practice being dubbed "accountability by humiliation." But experience so far indicates that the savvy and dedicated among them may welcome the external threat as a long-needed catalyst for gathering all forces in the school and greater community together under a flag of common purpose and— equally important— a deadline. The state, meanwhile, eager to avert takeover situations, has a strong incentive to go well beyond enforcer, instead partnering with the school and district to oust complacency, marshal combined talents and foster innovation and risk taking.
This paper looks at some of the difficult issues states are working through as they set up and implement strategies for academic intervention. What "machinery" needs to be in place to enable and support a program of state intervention with low-performing schools? What are the nuts and bolts of intervention? And, most critically, what are the key elements of school turnaround?
Some 22 states have passed "academic bankruptcy" laws, allowing state intervention along a continuum that ranges from warnings to temporary leadership replacement to takeover, which implies governance change. (2) But because the issues involved are so complex, consensus is emerging that the basis for academic intervention must be imbedded in sophisticated accountability systems, incorporating appropriate assessments and incentives.
At the hub of the effort should be standards, or clearly spelled out expectations for academic content and performance by subject and grade level. But determining acceptable performance levels requires wrestling with questions whose nature is epistemological. How good is good enough? How bad is bad enough? What is fair? As researcher David Cohen and others point out, these are all issues on which Americans deeply disagree. (3) Standards setting has been contentious in virtually every state thats attempted it. Decisions rest on finding consensus, with values being the centerpiece of the debate. And it must be acknowledged that the real action, on standards-setting and support for high performance, remains at the local level.
Beyond a set of agreed-upon standards, the effort requires unprecedented clarity spelled out in a detailed set of legislative statutes on the following:
A number of cross-cutting issues must be considered in building the system, including:
Sanctions or interventions generally begin when a school or district fails to meet its clearly spelled-out improvement targets within an agreed-upon time period. The first phase is likely to require that the school staff, working with parents, community members and the district, do a comprehensive needs assessment and create an action plan wherein quantifiable learning goals and time frames are clearly delineated. Fairness dictates that schools at this phase must have at least as much leeway to be creative and take risks as an intervention team would have. (Schools often dont realize how much autonomy they have. As Oregon moved to enact an accountability system, 18 schools requested waivers; 17 of those didnt need them for what they wanted to do.)
If the school fails to improve sufficiently, it would go to the next phase, which is likely to mean assignment of a distinguished educator (DE) and/or other outside expert or team who would facilitate a transformation planning process. If the school still failed to improve within a designated amount of time, much more aggressive intervention would occur. Under Californias proposed system, for example, once a state reaches this crisis point the State Board of Education would step in and determine whether to continue second-phase activities, reassign or transfer students or staff, reallocate resources or close the school. (6)
Specifics differ from state to state, depending on the philosophy that underpins them. For example, some states have withheld money from schools if performance remains low; others withhold accreditation, which may lead to cut-off of funds. Espousing an opposite psychology, North Carolina has intervened by enforcing teacher testing, then offering scholarships— in the form of paid time to learn and substitutes in their classrooms— to teachers who need help. Other ways of tying incentives to professional development include giving a wage credit when teachers take courses, but only if those courses are in keeping with a schools or districts goals.
As states struggle to find best ways to implement academic intervention, most look to Kentucky, whose five-year-old accountability system is often cited as a prototype. Through its DE program, the state has now intervened with 240 of its 1400 schools, and the DE program itself— with its by-products and growing voice in policy— has become a catalyst for systemic change. Robert Lumsden, Kentuckys associate commissioner of education, offers the following advice, based on that programs experience:
The true challenge of devising the mechanics of intervention is to make sure approaches used accommodate and incorporate the human factors. What do research and experience reveal makes sense, psychologically and motivationally? What baseline kinds of support do school staffs need in order to change? Important elements for success include:
Legitimacy, Reciprocity and Trust State intervention systems assume that the threat of sanctions will motivate educators to improve practice and, thus, student performance. But organizational research suggests that such a threat can engender one of two reactions: 1) the desired response, i.e., the group becomes more cohesive, leadership develops and improvement results, or 2) the opposite — there is less cohesiveness and more divisiveness and leadership falls by the wayside. Researcher Jennifer ODay, who has been documenting reconstitution (see box p.10), points out that the prime ingredient for ensuring the desired reaction is whether or not the people involved believe that the criteria and process are legitimate and fair. (7)
A critical element of the capacity to change is leadership. A strong leader inspires people to believe in themselves, creating immediate optimism, a sense of common mission, and a powerful "can do" attitude. Summed up by New Jersey State Commissioner Leo Klagholtz, "If you believe in what youre working on, that belief is almost more important than the value of the strategy."
The urgency to bring in, develop and support strong principals is repeatedly underscored by experience and research. A study done on takeovers in New Jersey by Arthur Andersen noted that whether or not schools progress is less related to factors such as poverty or mobility than to school leadership. A critical piece, Leo Klagholtz corroborates, is changing the tenor of leadership, school by school. "Success hinges on the ability of the principal to translate the schools strategic plan into action by the faculty and community."
Robert Lumsden cautions that Kentuckys experience indicates that in at least 60 percent of interventions, you can change the tenor of leadership by supporting, not replacing, the existing principal. "You focus on improvement, build on that persons strengths." If the principal doesnt improve, the situation will self-correct once a DE is assigned to a school, he says, because "new community awareness of how poor he is will drive him out." Lumsden also emphasizes the importance of leadership stability after the intervention team leaves. For the past year, Kentucky has been tracking 30 turned-around schools to see what happens after the DE leaves. "Five have slipped, and four of those have had changes in principals."
Teaching is the heart of the matter in whether students learn. If the teaching staff does not have the knowledge and skills to bring the kids they teach to high standards of achievement, then no manner of threat, intervention or leadership can turn around a low-performing school.
The challenge is to support teachers in learning what they need to know and changing their attitudes and practices. Much research shows that the assistance teachers need is not one-shot workshops or "training" but professional development that is intensive, ongoing and linked to practice. In the inner city, home of many of the nations low-performing schools, the need for this kind of professional development is especially acute. These schools have the hardest time attracting qualified, experienced teachers. Yet the children in them are the most likely to be minority, poor or affected by other life circumstances that make them most in need of sophisticated teaching practices.
There is wide agreement that simply throwing money at the problem isnt going to solve it. But without sufficient funding, schools cant harness the human and intellectual resources essential to progress. U.C. Berkeley professor Pedro Noguera has praised the San Francisco Unified School District for being the only large, inner-city district in the country that has seen test scores, graduation rates and a host of other achievement indicators rise consistently over the past five years. (13) District policy changes have been aimed at elevating academic standards for all students. Noguera sees money as a clear factor in this success, and San Francisco has more of it than other California big city districts (though less than counterparts in the East). But he says what seems key is the coupling of resources with leadership and commitment. Superintendent Waldemar Rojas has focused "laser -like" on strategies for improving student achievement, Noguera notes, especially emphasizing the needs of the poorest and least prepared students (see also "Reconstitution," p. 10).
Academic intervention strategies entail many unanswered questions. Worries remain about using test scores as the sole determinant of which schools are labeled low performing, as is happening in a number of places. Debate also continues over how to determine reasonable timelines for improved performance, especially for student achievement. Most fundamentally, how best to structure and direct resources to address the complex of leadership, staff, organizational and community development issues at play in a failing school or district remains more art than science.
Clearly, one great challenge is combining the big stick and the helping hand and pooling talent to push for results. States need to avoid sending a "gotcha" message that will offend professionalism, trigger defensiveness and, thus, subvert their own goal. As Jennifer ODay notes, the real key to success appears to be reciprocity—between those designing the system and those in the schools. States and districts can and should expect schools to function at their best and serve students well. But schools also have the right to expect that they will be given sufficient resources and support to do the job.
With input from other WestEd staff members, including Lisa Carlos, Stanley Rabinowitz and Paul Hood.
3. David K. Cohen, "Rewarding Teachers for Student Performance," in Susan H. Fuhrman and Jennifer A. ODay (editors), Rewards and Reform: Creating Educational Incentives That Work, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996.
5. Robert L. Linn and Joan L. Herman, A Policymakers Guide to Standards-Led Assessment, Los Angeles, CA: National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing and Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States, February 1997.
6. Steering by Results: A High-Stakes Rewards and Interventions Program for California Schools and Students, Sacramento, CA: Report of the California Rewards and Interventions Advisory Committee, 1997.
7. Jennifer A. ODay of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is associate director of the Pew Forum on Education Reform, a continuing body of education leaders, researchers, practitioners, and advocates who share a common interest in improving U.S. schools. This document draws from her presentation to a gathering of chief state school officers and others in Fall 1997 and from a February 1998 interview.
A New Accountability System for California Schools, California Department of Education and NorthernCalifornia Comprehensive Assistance Center (WestEd), 1997.
Margaret C. Wang, Geneva D. Haertel and Herbert J. Walbert, What Do We Know: Widely Implemented School Improvement Programs, Philadelphia, PA: Laboratory for Student Success, 1997.
Achieving Nationwide School Improvement Through Widespread Use of Effective Programs and Practices, Crespar Research and Development Report, Baltimore, MD: Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, September 1997.