As Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush character once said, “Presidenting is hard.” President Obama would probably agree — albeit in slightly different language — as the jobless rate refuses to fall, the Taliban refuses to quit and Sen. Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 refuses to pass health care reform. And now we can tack on one more hiccup: The federal government still can’t figure out a framework to improve our poorest-performing public schools.
Over the past few months, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has wrestled with how to leverage $4.35 billion to this end. The “Race to the Top” fund, the guidelines of which Duncan controls completely, aims to incentivize states to institute comprehensive school reform. Thirsty for Duncan’s money, cash-strapped states have scrambled to enact legislation to meet Duncan’s requirements, from lifting caps on the number of charter schools, to allowing teachers to be evaluated based on student test scores. Less straightforward are Duncan’s guidelines for systematically improving the nation’s worst public schools. Originally, the Education Department had insisted that districts be able to take aggressive measures, such as replacing a school’s leadership and teachers, reconstituting a public school as a charter school or closing the school outright. Last week, however, Duncan reversed course and announced that states using Race to the Top funds could use a “transformation” approach to such schools, which would include weaker measures like professional development and teacher coaching.
Why the change? In addition to pressure from teachers’ unions, Duncan was also hit with criticism about his tenure in charge of Chicago public schools, where he made school closings a hallmark of reform policy. A recent study published by University of Chicago researchers found that because so many students from closed schools re-enrolled at other low-performing ones, on average school closings did not significantly affect student achievement. These unlucky students, in fact, lost on average a month’s worth of reading and half a month’s worth of math instruction.
Aggressive school reformers hit back that tinkering with current school practices while retaining failing principals and teachers simply has not worked. In Harvard’s Education Next, Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute points to various state statistics that paint a dismal picture of “transformation” plans. Critics like Smarick may find an easy example in New Haven, where schools like James Hillhouse High School have shown little improvement for decades, despite lavish school construction and curriculum changes.
What, then, should a beleaguered education secretary promote, if neither closing schools nor improving current practices has proved effective?
Zach Marks ’10 believes he has found the answer, though it is not a simple one. Marks is writing his senior thesis on this subject as it has played out in his hometown of Philadelphia, where the district began working with a charter school organization, Mastery Charter Schools, to take over three low-performing middle schools. Since then, test scores have increased an average of 52 percentage points per subject in every grade; in only a few years, these schools have closed the racial achievement gap.
The students at these schools are almost all the same ones as before the turnaround, but the teachers and school leadership are not. When Mastery took over, all teachers were fired and asked to re-apply for their positions, though Marks says almost none did. In their place came energetic teachers dedicated to Mastery’s direct instruction, no-excuses model that is so common in high performing charter schools. In the next few years, the state will empower Mastery to take control of many more Philadelphia schools, in hopes that their success is replicable.
Far less clear, Marks would admit, is whether the Mastery formula is replicable across the country. For one thing, strong unions like those in New York and Washington, D.C. would harness their formidable political power to prevent charter school takeovers. But more critically, it’s uncertain whether other successful charter organizations are as eager as Mastery to take over old schools. Larger networks like KIPP and YES Prep have already shown reluctance to replicate Mastery’s takeovers in other states.
Duncan’s reversal to reward minimal school change, however, is not helpful in pushing districts to follow the Mastery model; in fact, his newest guidelines specifically downgrade charter takeovers as a less preferred remedy. On the contrary, Duncan should use federal dollars to incentivize these charter networks to take on these tough roles. In addition to rewarding states, Duncan could promise funds to charters that participate in district school turnarounds. Presidenting is hard, but promoting great schools like Mastery should be a no-brainer.
Sam brill is a senior in Trumbull College.