(iStock)

Mitchell Chester is commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Massachusetts, and John White is superintendent of education in Louisiana. Both are members of Chiefs for Change.

By Mitchell Chester and John White 

In education, few questions matter more than what to do for students stuck in enduringly terrible schools.

Such schools produce more dropouts than graduates; they are associated with violence, community disorganization, and blunted futures for children. Bringing dramatic change to such schools has rightly become a national priority, in part because of the federal government’s multi-billion-dollar investment in School Improvement Grants, or SIG.

Now, however, the U.S. Education Department’s own research arm reports that the massive federal effort has not demonstrated meaningful gains. Despite local bright spots, some analysts issued a tough verdict: No one knows what to do about chronically struggling schools.

John White is Louisiana's superintendent of education. (Courtesy John White) John White, Louisiana superintendent of education (Courtesy of White)

Not only is that false, it perpetuates an unproductive dichotomy: Throw more money into broken systems, or write off the schools we have today and focus exclusively on small-scale alternatives. The first is indefensible; the second fails to help kids stuck in awful schools where alternatives are unlikely to emerge in the near future.

With more than $1 billion available annually under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, now dedicated to improving bad schools, states cannot afford philosophical debates.

Radical change for students consigned to struggling schools is not only possible, it is reliably doable – in cities, suburbs and rural communities alike – but it takes a bolder and more disciplined approach than much of what was supported under SIG. States will need to apply proven principles in widely varying settings, starting now.

We know radical change is possible because we have seen it in our states.

In Louisiana, radical change means that 128,000 fewer students attend schools rated D or F than did in 2011. That’s had a powerful impact on the historically disadvantaged children too often consigned to failing schools, vaulting the performance of African-American fourth graders into the middle of the pack on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2015. In 2009, for example, black fourth graders ranked 43rd and 41st in the nation for proficiency in reading and math, respectively. Those rankings jumped to 20th and 23rd in 2015.

And in Massachusetts, radical change, according to an independent study, means that students in schools targeted for intensive improvement gained a full year more learning in both math and English compared to those whose schools were not part of the effort.

Improvement of this magnitude doesn’t mean employing the same policies or same strategies in every environment; these improvements have happened because plans have been tailored to the inner cities of Boston and New Orleans, and to the smaller cities and towns of the Bay State and the bayou.

MITCH PICTURE Mitchell Chester, commissioner of K-12 education in Massachusetts. (Courtesy of Chester)

 

 

But without exception and irrespective of the policies involved, the radical changes we’re describing happened because local leaders had the courage to insist that schools operate in conditions politically difficult to achieve, but essential to success. Those conditions include:

* Leadership: Every success we’ve seen involves empowering a new leader to make decisions that unflinchingly put the needs of students first.

* Autonomy: Radical improvement requires control over staffing, budget, schedules and school culture in ways that are often politically hard in traditional school systems.

* Teacher leadership: Great schools always feature increased collaboration for teachers and a willingness to provide wider avenues for their leadership within the school.

* A third-party player: Nonprofits external to the school system have helped guide nearly every real transformation we’ve seen, because they provide not just guidance and support, but also political insulation and durability.

* Flexibility given community conditions: While they require these principles, successful changes aren’t cookie-cutter solutions; they vary with their communities and cannot be replicated by exact recipe.

* Accountability: It must be clear who is responsible for achieving results and what happens in the event things don’t work out.

It’s no accident that these are precisely the principles that apply to the creation of successful new schools in neighborhoods where schools struggle. Indeed, there is much evidence that new school creation can be a profoundly effective strategy.

Witness, for example, what is occurring with the turnaround of the Lawrence, Mass., School District – the lowest-wealth district in the Commonwealth. Where once only half of students graduated, almost three-fourths graduate now. The percentage of students at grade level proficiency in math has risen from 28 to 47 percent. And teachers are playing leadership roles at the school and district level.

Or witness the city of New Orleans, where the number of students graduating and enrolling in college has doubled over the last decade, even as the system’s enrollment declined in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

These are different settings, and they call for different approaches. But changes like these demonstrate what’s possible – and why the right answer to the harsh verdict on federal turnaround efforts past is not surrender, but a willingness to learn from experience and to act with newfound courage.