By Bob Luebke
North Carolina’s worst public schools continue to fail too many children, but there’s a new idea that might help: Achievement School Districts (ASDs).
As for public schools failing, the statistics are staggering: Only 36 percent of African-Americans are proficient in eighth-grade reading and only 23 percent in math. For Hispanics, the numbers aren’t much better: 41 percent are proficient in eighth-grade reading and 33 percent in math.
If you’re a child trapped in one of these schools, your only option is to enroll in a charter or private school. If you do, you manage to escape the problem, but the problem remains for others. True school reform in many of our most troubled schools is often a casualty of entrenched bureaucracies resistant to change. But there is hope. New models of how school districts are governed, managed and operated are emerging to address these concerns.
ASDs, in particular, have helped to improve failing schools in Louisiana and Tennessee. The results of these new school district models in Louisiana (Recovery School District) and Tennessee (Achievement School District) have caught the attention of policymakers and given hope to a new generation of students and parents.
According to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Charter school takeovers in the New Orleans Recovery School District appear to have generated substantial achievement gains for a highly disadvantaged student population that enrolled in these schools passively.” In Tennessee, ASDs report modest gains after just two years and more impressive gains in high school. In ASDs that used the phase-in approach of taking over schools on a grade-by-grade level, schools averaged a 22-point gain in reading proficiency on the state assessment.
Can these models help to turn around failing schools in North Carolina?
State Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg) and many others seem to think so. That’s why Bryan introduced House Bill 1080. The bill was approved by the House in early June and went to the Senate for consideration. Whatever the bill’s fate in the current session, it provides a good look at what Achievement School Districts might be able to do.
Simply stated, Achievement School Districts, as put forward in HB1080, would provide North Carolina with a number of new options for turning around failing school districts.
First, the legislation would create a district comprised of achievement schools and run by a superintendent who must have a proven record of success. The superintendent would be responsible for drawing up and executing a plan for improving academic results. He or she would have five years to meet those goals and also have the authority to waive State Board of Education (SBE) regulations and policies. In many ways, ASD schools would be similar to charter schools.
Schools that are members of the ASD will be directly managed by an individual operator, subject to the approval of the superintendent and the SBE. Achievement school operators are responsible for selecting staff members for the school.
After five years, if the achievement school doesn’t meet its state goals, it will either be closed or given an extension to meet the goals. If goals are met or exceeded, the school would be given the option to convert to a charter school.
A second way HB1080 can improve failing schools involves local education agencies (LEAs) that have transferred a qualifying school to an ASD. In cases when the LEA does so, the local board of education can request that the SBE create local “Innovation Zones” for up to three consistently low-performing schools within the local district. Innovation Zones are designed to create an environment where schools can creatively apply innovative techniques and practices in the classroom. To ensure individual autonomy, Innovation Zones would be exempt from many of the same regulations and policies that charter schools are.
A third and final way HB1080 offers to improve failing schools is by allowing schools that have not been selected as an achievement school to petition the SBE to adopt any one of five models to improve academic performance. For example, the principal turnaround model may be the most visible of these models. It allows schools to hire new principals with proven records in turning around failing schools. Principals are given five-year contracts, the ability to hire staff, and the authority to develop and execute a plan for meeting academic goals. Under the legislation, the SBE is given the authority to hire up to 10 turnaround principals for schools across North Carolina.
ASDs provide a pilot program for changing how school districts are governed, managed and operated. Critics say ASDs suspend local control in favor of state control, and that conservatives ought to be wary. That’s not a fair critique. Although the SBE directs much of the process, ASDs are driven by local input and effort. This is necessary because, for whatever reason, the local schools have failed to produce the right results. ASDs respect local control and build in safeguards to ensure local voices are heard.
Conservatives have been right to champion charter schools and school choice as remedies for students trapped in failing schools. The growth of these options as well as an emerging body of favorable research outcomes both validate the wisdom of these choices. The promise of charters and school choice was to also infuse needed reforms into the public school system. However, that hasn’t happened as quickly as hoped. Too many children are still trapped in schools that fail students and are resistant to reform. That’s where this new idea comes in. ASDs can give policymakers an important new tool for helping students when traditional teaching methods and the bureaucracy fail.
HB1080 is not a perfect bill. However, it does offer better ways to improve some of North Carolina’s worst schools in ways that can foster both success and accountability. It’s an option that is far more attractive than the alternative – continuing to do something that isn’t working.
This article originally appeared in the NC Capitol Connection newspaper.