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How to fix our worst schools

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Jeanne Allen
Fayetteville Observer
April 7, 2016

A North Carolina bill, sponsored by State Rep. Rob Bryan, a Charlotte Republican, is poised to bring an achievement district to the Tar Heel State, a pilot effort to address the problems plaguing long under-performing schools.

Bryan, a champion of educational equity for the poor, has modeled his plan on similar successful efforts. If enacted, the proposal would enable a new statewide Achievement School District made up of newly constituted schools to take the place of failing neighborhood schools. Serving families without the economic means to pick up and move to a school with a better track record, the achievement district gives hope to those most in need.

Research on effective schools shows that if you want real change, a school must be completely transformed. The late John Chubb, a renowned expert in the field, noted that only school restructuring that reorganizes a school from top to bottom can “ensure a new day for the school and its students.” Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the highly applauded KIPP charter network, which successfully operates six charter schools in North Carolina, says, “The best way we can look a child in the eye and say with confidence what kind of school and environment we will provide is by starting that school and environment from scratch.


The concept behind the achievement school districts reflect this perspective: Small changes yield small results. As failed turnaround efforts show, throwing money at a dysfunctional system isn’t likely to produce results that can completely transform and uplift student outcomes.

In 1993, the Annenberg Challenge was the largest and earliest public school turnaround effort. It doled out cash in exchange for an IOU from 10 school districts to demonstrate improvement. One billion taxpayer dollars later, there was little to no improvement for failing schools. The outcome is wrapped up nicely in the University of Chicago’s final report on the program: “The Challenge had little impact on school improvement and student outcomes, with no statistically significant differences between Annenberg and non-Annenberg schools in rates of achievement gain, classroom behavior, student self-efficacy and social competence.”

Fast forward to 2010, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to transform Newark, New Jersey schools also came up short. Because the turnaround effort left most existing laws in place, powerful seniority protections for teachers remained, along with many educators who had long lost their flair for teaching. Instead of allowing schools to attract and reward new talent, money went to tenured teachers regardless of their measurable impact. Or in the words of Vivian Cox Fraser, president of the Urban League of Essex County, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”

The record is clear. When traditional schools and districts fail, it’s time for radical change. At the heart of successful turnarounds is the ability for staff and educators to do whatever it takes to get students learning. While charter schools were not designed as turnaround entities, their experience is illustrative. They succeed because their autonomy gives them the power to do so.

To ensure that North Carolina families have the opportunity to see their schools succeed, it’s critical that those engaged understand the biggest challenge to the achievement school district. Teacher’s unions and their allies are working to stop this bill. They want more money and time diverted into the same kinds of turnaround programs we have routinely seen fail. This should come as no surprise, because the premise behind achievement districts – that students in failing public schools should be given an alternative – represents a direct challenge to union dominance of education. As a result, these defenders of the status quo are attacking proposals to bring achievement districts to North Carolina with typical scare tactics about waste, fraud, abuse and resource draining. And they’re doing so at the expense of better opportunities for our children.

The reality is that North Carolina’s achievement district is a real-time solution to give the state’s worst schools a shot at finally giving their students a great education. We must learn from the lessons of the past 50 years and give bold new opportunities like the Achievement District a chance. Our kids can’t wait.

Jeanne Allen is founder and CEO of The Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C.