In the measured and collegial world of education, it was a jarring moment.

Last month, Dr. Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s education commissioner, went from using cautious bureaucratic tautology to what even he described as inflammatory rhetoric as he threatened to takeover Louisville’s struggling school system.

Holliday used the phrase “academic genocide,” charging Jefferson County Public Schools officials were failing to even monitor 16 of 18 troubled schools. At those schools, academic performance did not improve despite the injection of millions of dollars meant to address staffing problems and lack of resources.

Dr. Terry Holliday is threatening to take over JCPS.

Five of the schools — Doss, Frost, Myers, Stuart and Westport — received “zero” scores, failing to register on any of the academic measures state officials used to analyze performance.

At a March 22 community meeting, Holliday confirmed he deliberately used the term “academic genocide”  to convey his concern:

I looked at the low-performing schools, and 18 of the 41 of them are in Jefferson (County), and I looked at the college career readiness numbers and at the graduation numbers for those schools, and I got alarmed that we weren’t moving fast enough.

As state officials threaten to take over JCPS – Kentucky’s largest school system – the question becomes, “So, what’s the empirical evidence a state can salvage a school system? What are the possible outcomes looking at cases in Kentucky and in other states? What has to happen to stop the downward trend?”

The most shocking revelation is that it took one of the worst natural disasters in United States history to save the New Orleans system.

Closer to home, the Courier-Journal is promoting a story scheduled to run Sunday, a piece that seems to indicate that Leslie County and the state were able to form a successful partnership in a turnaround.

However, Leslie County has a total population of about 13,000 people, about 8 percent of JCPS’ 100,000-plus student body in a system that has 152 schools across a landmass city 40 miles across.

Examining outcomes in multiple other states, results have been – as you might expect – mixed. To be sure, when comparing school systems, it’s useful to keep in mind this caveat– they all are unique, with different demographics, academic traditions, systemic problems and financial resources.

They are as unique as the communities in which they reside. Moreover, states education cabinets vary dramatically in their ability to administer systems, with most opting to bring in consultants to implement the actual operational changes.

So, to steer closer to the shore of comparable systems, let’s look a handful of examples of large metropolitan systems.

• In 1997, WestEd.org, a San Francisco-based education research foundation, commissioned a study of the 1995 takeover of the Cleveland, Ohio school district, a system roughly comparable to JCPS in enrollment and budget. The Cleveland system was failing both academically and financially, which JCPS is not. However, according to the WestEd paper by Joan McRobbie, improving finances proved far easier than improving educational performance:

As an example, the 72,000-student Cleveland school district was taken over in 1995 by the state of Ohio for “severe instability,” both fiscally and academically. In just two years, the district’s record $152 million debt was brought under control— “a piece of cake” compared with turning around the academics, says Richard A. Boyd, who served as Cleveland’s first state-appointed superintendent. Despite multi-faceted efforts to improve student performance, only 20 percent of 9th graders passed a recent state proficiency test. Indeed, only 75 percent of students show up on any given day.

• Earlier this week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced his state would take over the Camden school system due to a 50-percent dropout rate and decreasing test scores. Ninety percent of Camden schools are among the bottom 5 percent in New Jersey’s performance statewide. Camden would be the fourth city system the state has taken over since 1980. The Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, N.J. posted a story Thursday outlining what has happened in Newark, Paterson and other systems. In New Jersey, the introduction of magnet schools similar to J. Graham Brown School and duPont Manual High School did not improve overall system performance, according to the Courier-Post.

• In 2011, the New York Times ran a comprehensive story about multiple state takeovers of school districts.

The Times reporters found that wherever state intervention has occurred, legal suits and financial crises tended to follow. It found that state officials, though they spent decades and millions of dollars, rarely solved the financial problems or improved student outcomes. The Roosevelt, N.Y. system on Long Island, has had persistently poor test scores in the nine years since a state takeover. The Philadelphia system was able to improve achievement scores. However, by 2012, the system was running a deficit of almost $650 million and state officials had fired top management, including the superintendent.

From the NYTimes story:

 ROOSEVELT, N.Y. The 2,600-student district was taken over by the State Education Department in 2002 amid mismanagement and weak student progress. Since then, slight academic gains have come at a cost of more than $200 million to the state for improvements like new buildings. In 2008, the district’s continuing financial problems required an $8 million bailout.

•Education is a politically fraught topic, with ideology coloring opinion on whether states can successfully intervene in urban systems. That said, the consensus is that if there is a success story, it’s Louisiana’s takeover of New Orleans’ schools in 2005. Again, the New York Times seems to have done the best research on the topic.

In an October 2011 editorial, the Times’ editorial board noted U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called New Orleans’s school reform effort since Hurricane Katrina “stunning” and worthy of emulation by other struggling systems. However, the Times editorial notes it took the city being destroyed by a hurricane to clear the way for radical, studs-up reform. Times editorial writers advocate a surprisingly politically conservative position. Louisiana officials fired every teacher in the system, replacing them with younger, more talented people. The state then killed the teacher’s union. Finally, New Orleans adopted a system in which three-quarters of the schools are charter schools.

From the editorial:

By the time of the storm, the state and the city were fully intent on strengthening the teaching corps. With its schools empty, New Orleans took the extraordinary step of laying off the entire teaching force, requiring basic skills tests for those who wished to return to their jobs. By some estimates, only about 20 percent of the original force returned to work. Meanwhile, schools that had been failing for years came under the control of the Recovery School District, a state entity that opted out of collective bargaining agreements with teachers’ unions. The district, which now oversees an overwhelming majority of the city’s schools, streamlined the central bureaucracy, and pushed money and policy authority down to the school building level. It also recruited new talent from around the country, making New Orleans a magnet for young school leaders. Three-quarters of the city’s schools are charter schools, which are given broad latitude to attack educational problems as long as they meet rigorous state improvement criteria. Nationally, charter schools — which are publicly financed — are often accused of siphoning off scarce resources and taking the best students from traditional schools. That is less of an issue in New Orleans, where most schools are charters with open enrollment, and where school officials are monitoring to make sure schools stay open to all comers. Charters around the country are often no better than traditional schools, and are frequently worse. In New Orleans, they appear to be better on average than charters elsewhere. They generally have a longer school day and a longer school year than most schools. They spend a great deal of time teaching study and time management skills, and plan each student’s development. None of these attributes are particular to charters, but they have helped turn the schools around.

The editorial ends by noting the adoption of fresh ideas produced real success in a system that had never known any.

So, in essence, Dr. Holliday and Kentucky officials seem to have a choice between continuity and revolution.

If Holliday follows through on his threat to take over JCPS, it’s likely current JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens would be replaced.

If Hargens is replaced, she would be the fourth JCPS superintendent to have been forced to leave the top leadership position since 1993.



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