Under state law, there are four options for restructuring struggling schools: transferring management to an outside agency; closing the school; restaffing or replacing half or more of the faculty; or choosing a “transformation” model that would, in part, link teacher evaluations and pay to academic progress.
It's hard to believe that any of these four solutions is a real fix to the problems of a school system the size of JCPS. When you look at JCPS you see a mix of schools that do very well, that perform among the average within the state, and that wind up at the bottom of the state's rankings. As schools start to slip, the best performing students with the most involved parents do their best to steer their children away from the lower performing schools, which only increases the problem.
The four solutions offered by the state are a Fire, Ready, Aim approach to fixing a problem. Rather than looking at the root cause of poor academic performance within these schools, the state assumes the school itself must be the problem, and only radical moves can be taken.
Let's examine the problems with each of the four choices.
- Transferring Management to an Outside Agency: This assumes that the outside agency will have better ideas and outcomes than the county school system itself. The management of public schools by agencies outside the system has provided mixed results at best within charter schools. There must be great care taken to choose an outside agency with proven outcomes that are made solely through efforts at transforming the school, and not simply working to bring better students into the school.
- Closing the School: If the students could be easily moved to better schools, perhaps this isn't a bad solution. But it's hard to imagine any school system easily moving 1000 or more students to other schools.
- Linking Teacher Evaluations and Pay to Academic Progress: This seems like a great choice at first. Why shouldn't we pay teachers to perform? Unfortunately, these types of measures can fail if the expectations are unrealistic, irrelevant data is used to evaluate the schools, or, as often happens, good results are created through outright fraud, as documented in this article from the USA Today.
- Restaffing or Replacing Half or More of the Faculty: This seems akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. As documented in the Courier Journal article, restaffing efforts in a school with low achievement can end up filling the halls with inexperienced teachers. While bringing a low performing school's scores up can be considered a great professional challenge for some teachers, many of the best and most experienced teachers are comfortable where they are and are hesitant to take a risk in a school with low achievement and the low morale that often results.
Additionally, all four of these solutions do not take into consideration the fact that the choice and magnet schools within districts like Jefferson County Public Schools tend to create performance issues solely because your best students get distributed to certain schools and the lowest performing wind up at others.
So what's the solution? It seems as though looking to the business world might provide the best answer. In my opinion, each school system should have a rigorous program for measuring academic performance, demographic, survey and other relevant data, and then tying that data to each student at an individual and group level to identify the trends for low performing and high performing students. School systems should use that data to identify common factors among these students to see what is working and what isn't and using this data to determine the best way to fix low achieving schools and their students.