The Undemocratic Character of Improving Struggling Schools: Hint–Look to the Opportunity School District

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.




The Undemocratic Character of Georgia’s Chronically Failing School Turnaround Amendment

The Undemocratic Character of Georgia’s Opportunity School District

Over the next several weeks, leading up to the November 8th election, we will explore the Opportunity School District from the standpoint of research just published by the National Education Policy Center.  The 697 page book of 28 research chapters addresses the nature of schooling entitled Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms (Mathis, W. J., & Trujillo, T. M. (2016). Learning from the federal market-based reforms: Lessons for ESSA (The National Education Policy Center Series). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing).  Much of my criticism of the Opportunity (aka Misfortunate) School District will be based on the research reported in this new publication.

The misguided Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, has pushed through an amendment to the Georgia Constitution (if approved by the electorate) to will enable a czar within the Governor’s office to name 20 schools per year from around the state that are considered “failing schools” based on the state’s use of high stakes testing.  Using an arbitrary cutoff score if 60 on Georgia’s school evaluation measure, the state has identified a list of schools around Georgia that they believe are chronically failing.

The Georgia plan is essentially a “turnaround” strategy of school reconstitution.  There is a quartet of plans out there including transformation (fire the principal followed by changing around the school and testing the heck out of students to see if worked), turnaround (fire the principal and no more than 50% of the teachers, and then test the heck out of the students), restart (bring in a charter school), and closure (a devastating measure, as Chicago can attest). Closing schools is probably the worst strategy to be used in that communities are weakened and massive void of a school affects the entire community.

According to Senate Bill 133, which authorized an amendment to be placed on the November ballot, the state will use the “restart” model, and turn all “chronically failing” schools into charter schools.

The plan to restart chronically failing schools was a power play by the Governor, and 159 members of the Georgia General Assembly, as well as the charter school lobby, and funds from several philanthropic market-based reform groups.  There was nearly no advice from the 181 school districts and school boards around the state, nor the 114,000 teachers and the families of 1.6 million students.  Yes, the amendment will be put on the ballot, but as most amendments are written, it is biased in favor of Governor Deal’s pet idea.

The proposed ballot title is:

“ Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?
( ) Yes

( ) No

Most citizens will not know that if they vote “yes” they are authorizing a czar in the Governor’s office to fire every principal in the chronically failing schools, and most likely start mass firings of up to 50% of the teachers in these schools.  They also do not know that a charter school management company will be hired to manage the schools, and the funds to manage these schools will come from the local school budget.  They also will not know that the charter school management company will be able to use millions of dollars worth of school buildings and land paid for by local citizens.  So in midst of local public school districts will be solitary schools, say in Kingsland or Bainbridge, that belong to a district whose superintendent works out of an office in downtown Atlanta!

Worse, the research on test-based sanctions does not support Governor Deal’s takeover plan.  The plan is a punishment model, that will turn 20 schools into economic and profitable commercial ventures, at the cost of these communities’ students, teachers and parents.  The Deal plan is based on the New Orleans Recovery School District, a corporate take-over of schools in the city, which has not been a very successful plan.

The punishment model has largely been implemented in school districts of low-income families and children of color.  And the largest form of turnaround mentality is that of mass layoffs.  And according to research reported in Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms, with over 40 years of study, the use of mass firings is not supported by empirical evidence (Mathis, W. J., & Trujillo, T. M., 2016).

The character of the Deal model is not only undemocratic, but goes against the basic principles of American public education.  It is best described in Diane Ravitch’s book, Reign of Error when she quoted one of the founders of liberty, John Adams.  He said:

The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expense of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.

This is the first of a series of posts detailing why the Opportunity School District is a bad idea for education in Georgia, and why it must be voted down on November 8th.

Vote NO on Amendment 1 on the November 8th ballot.





Is Georgia’s Opportunity School District Plan Immoral?

Latest Story

Is Georgia’s Opportunity School District Immoral?

From The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, President of the North Carolina NAACP, came a letter from The Nation that I think is crucial as we act on recent actions by the Georgia Legislature and Governor.

The Governor of Georgia, with the backing of both Democrats and Republicans in the Georgia Assembly approved a bill that would call for a change in the Georgia Constitution that would enable the Governor’s office to create a separate and centrally controlled school district composed of so-called “chronically failing schools,” based on an arbitrary score primarily based on student achievement test scores.  The new district would be called the Opportunity School District, which will be a copy of the Louisiana Recovery District, and the Tennessee Recovery District, each of which has resulted in failed attempts to improve education of students in schools, especially in New Orleans.

In Dr. Barber’s letter, he calls for a movement that isn’t liberal or conservative, but based on moral, fusion language (using his term). The Opportunity School District that voters in Georgia will vote on in the November 2016 election is not in the interests of students and parents that will be labeled as attending “chronically failing schools.”  You can read the bill here.

I believe that creating such a district is immoral, and lacks common sense for our students and their parents.  Twenty schools will be forced to become part of the Opportunity School District based solely on student achievement test scores.  After the first year, the Governor’s Office can force up to 20 more schools into the district, for five years.

The plan for the Opportunity School District is based on a “turnaround the lowest-achieving schools” philosophy that is outlined in Georgia Department of Education documents you can find here.  That philosophy is best described by Mr. Ed Johnson as “turnaround delusion.”

Turnaround delusion, according to Johnson, is promoted by reformsters who:

try and manage and control and ultimately standardize the “huge variety of value demand” that shows up at school every school day, mostly in the form of children. They know not to think to learn to absorb the value demand the children bring with them to school. After all, the children are the students, not them. Their delusive decision to turn APS into a Charter System exemplifies the genesis of the kind of failure demand they generate and then try to manage and control through standardized teaching and learning and performance (email correspondence from Ed Johnson, May 27, 2015).

Dr. Barber reports, that in North Carolina,  a movement had already reformed the voting laws before Obama was on the ballot—an interracial, intergenerational, anti-poverty, pro-labor fusion movement that was challenging even Democrats to be more committed to a moral vision.

It was unfortunate that Georgia Democrats in the Senate lacked the moral conviction to vote against the Governor’s bill (Senate Resolution 287).  Instead, some of cast a quid pro quo vote.  Where were the progressives among the state Democrats?

Barber goes on to explain the nature of a movement that needs to take root in Georgia if we are to affect the very nature of schooling for communities that is community based, and not controlled by administrators far from the center of the lives of Georgia students in “chronically failing schools.”

Here is what Dr. Barber says about “a different kind of movement”

Since the social, political, and economic system of slavery was defeated by progressive Northern white families aligning with hundreds of thousands of African slaves and freed people in the South in 1865, The Nation has fought to repair the deep breaches this system created in the human family of the nation. Today, when Southern legislatures have fallen to Tea Party zealots, the need for a Southern-oriented anti-racism mass movement is greater than ever. The Nation will continue to play an important role in building this movement in the South, and explaining it to the rest of the nation.

We need a transformative movement—state-based, deeply moral, deeply constitutional, pro-justice. We need to build for the long-term, not around one issue or campaign.

We need the kind of language that’s not left or right or conservative or liberal, but moral, fusion language that says:

  • It is extreme and immoral to suppress the right to vote.
  • It is extreme and immoral to deny Medicaid to millions of poor people, especially when denied by people who have been elected to office and receive their own insurance through that office.
  • It is extreme and immoral to raise taxes on the working poor and cut earned-income tax credits, especially in order to slash taxes for the wealthy.
  • It is extreme and immoral to shut off people’s water in Detroit.
  • It is extreme and immoral to end unemployment compensation for those who have lost jobs through no fault of their own.
  • It is extreme and immoral to resegregate and underfund our public schools.
  • It is mean, it is immoral, it is extreme to kick hardworking people when they are down.


The Governor’s plan is full of hypocrisy and lacks the moral vision that Dr. Barber calls for, and that a growing number of citizens of Georgia are setting the stage to act on.  On Monday, June 15, there will be a STOP OSD! Coalition Meeting at 1:00 P.M. at the Wheat Street Baptist Church, 359 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30312.

Georgians need to unite to defeat the Opportunity School District, and insist that the Georgia Legislature fund schools a levels that will enable local school districts to carry out their own community based plans.