Federal policymakers also embraced this approach under No Child Left Behind, the sweeping 2002 law that named reconstitution as an option for turning around low-performing schools. But the District’s efforts to remake schools this way have largely failed to produce improved test scores, suggesting that replacing staff is not by itself a reliable route to addressing the challenges of high-poverty inner-city schools.
Rhee and Henderson have reconstituted more than two dozen schools
in the past five years — including Cardozo, which was last remade in 2008. Of the 18 D.C. schools reconstituted between 2008 and 2010, 10 have seen their standardized test scores decline further. Two of the schools have closed. Six have improved.
While test scores can be a crude measure of progress, school and city leaders use them as a key metric in judging schools.
Teachers say the District’s mixed record with reconstitution is a sign that urban schools and students face complicated problems — such as rampant truancy — that can’t be solved by trading one set of teachers for another.
“It seems like we’re always being told it’s our fault, like we should be superheroes,” said one Cardozo teacher who was rehired in May and who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for their jobs. Reconstitution “doesn’t acknowledge the fact that there are a lot of issues outside the control of the teacher.”
Henderson said she agrees that reconstitution alone is not enough to ensure improvement. But she said the system has learned from its mistakes, and she continues to believe that remaking a school’s staff is the best way to jump-start change.
“We have not always done reconstitution well,” Henderson said. “But reconstitution, coupled with a leadership change at the right time in a school’s history, can have tremendous effects.”
Wheatley Education Campus in Northeast is one school where reconstitution marked the beginning of substantial improvement. Principal Scott Cartland arrived at the school in 2008, fresh from a post at a school in affluent Northwest Washington.
“When I went into that building, I had never seen anything that was that chaotic and broken,” Cartland said. “I was so in over my head.”
Cartland replaced 80 percent of the staff, reconceived the literacy curriculum and poured resources into mental health and social workers. Working with an outside partner, New York-based nonprofit Turnaround for Children, the school connected particularly troubled students with a community health organization.