The Undemocratic Character of Improving Struggling Schools: Hint–Look to the Opportunity School District
Research reported by William J. Mathis and Trina M. Trujillo in their new book, Learning From the Federal Market-Based Reforms (Library Copy) does not bode well for state and Federal reforms that are based on so-called “turnaround” strategies. Yet, in the U.S., because of the requirement that school improvement be in the domain of external threats tied to money and “measured” by standardized student test scores, a democratic notion of public education is slipping away. Some say it has slipped away only to be replaced with market-based and incentivized charter schools managed by external for-profit companies.
The Opportunity School District, which will be put to the voters of Georgia on November 8, is based on the market-based idea that the best way to save “chronically failing schools” in Georgia is to “reconstitute” 20 schools per year by using a turnaround strategy. No matter which turnaround strategy is used in the Opportunity School District, it will result in the school’s principal being fired, and a mass firing of teachers up to 50% of those presently employed. The principal, and teachers will be replaced with other teachers, who will most likely be inexperienced, and not ready for prime time.
Malen and Rice have reviewed the research on the school turnaround strategy and reported in a chapter in Learning From the Federal Market-Based Reforms. Their chapter, School Reconstitution as a Turnaround Strategy: An Analysis of the Evidence, should be a wake-up call to politicians (especially Governor Nathan Deal, and the members of the Georgia General Assembly who voted for Deal’s amendment).
According research by Malen and Rice, turnaround strategies are designed to use corrective action, often by threatening or replacing large numbers of teachers and the principal by other administrators and teachers “who are presumably more capable, committed and collaborative,” (Malen and Rice, p. 99). Males and Rice have reviewed the empirical evidence about the school turnaround strategy.
Here are some findings from Malen and Rice’s research that are important as Georgia considers altering it constitution to enable the Governor’s appointed OSD Czar to “turnaround” chronically failing schools.
Evidence on the Threat of Reconstitution
Right now in Georgia, a hundred or so schools have been threatened of being “reconstituted” into state-run charter schools. Yet, the research cited in Malen and Rice’s work show that this threat actually affects schools in unintended ways. For example, the threat of reconstitution has been shown to have a negative effect on teachers. Malen and Rice explain that the
stigma associated with reconstitution and the strain on educators in these schools experience may be a disincentive for highly capable and committed educators to work in low-performing schools, and may prompt teachers and administrators to exit these schools (Malen and Rice, p. 105).
Most disconcerting, but not surprising is schools in states like Maryland that have used turnaround strategies for more than a decade have found that only a few schools “come off the list” of low performing schools.
Ed Johnson, an educator and colleague in Atlanta, explains this very clearly. All schools, say in Atlanta, that are on a list of low-performing schools are insignificantly different in performance from nearly all the other schools in the system. We keep beating up on so-called “low performing schools,” when, as Ed puts, “we are all in the same boat.”
Even with the threat of reconstitution, its ability to improve performance is suspect, according to Malen and Rice.
Evidence on the Application of Reconstitution
Let’s start this way: Malen and Rice report that the research on schools that have actually been “reconstituted” is limited and mixed. However, if you listen to politicians in Georgia (an elsewhere) reconstituting schools is a wonderful idea that we have a moral duty to bring to low-performing schools. I’ve written elsewhere that the idea is immoral and unjust and is a terrible idea.
Now, here is further evidence supporting those that oppose the Opportunity School District.
We have no idea how mass firings affect school performance other than the civil rights of the teachers were violated. In New Orleans, 7,000 teachers were wrongly fired after Katrina and then if they wanted their jobs back, they had to reapply. Many of the veteran black teachers of New Orleans were replaced by younger, and white teachers, often from Teach for America, and the schools were converted to charters. Performance in these schools is no different from it was before Katrina, but the civil rights violations stay, as well as the scars from being treated in such an inhumane way.
Is this what will happen in schools forced into the Georgia Opportunity School District?
As Malen and Rice show, there is little to no research on the effects of mass firings. Yet, we continue down this path as if it is based on evidence that shows that students improve, or that teachers who replace the fired teachers are any better. In fact, some reports show that the
newly hired staffs may be less equipped and less committed than the educators they replaced (Malen and Rice)
School performance in nearly all instances is based on standardized student test scores. Malen and Rice report that reconstituting schools has a negative impact on incentives that any potential to improve students performance is suspect.
The strategy of school reconstitution advocated by many states and the Federal government, is highly questionable, and in most cases, a perversion of the democratic notion upon which public school education is rooted.
The undemocratic character that will take over low-performing schools in Georgia needs to be defeated on the November 8 ballot. Then we need to look at research that supports another approach that is rooted in democratic action.
Vote No on Amendment 1.