Set up for failure

On Board Online • June 13, 2016

Susan Bergtraum
NYSSBA President

This month, school board members got a glimpse of how New York's troublesome receivership law, which was put in place as part of the state's Education Transformation Act of 2015, might play out in our schools - and from the research so far, it will not play out well.

The insight came in the form of NYSSBA's most recent research report, entitled State takeover of public schools: Lessons from the school of hard knocks. The report examines the experiences of state takeovers of public schools in Massachusetts and Tennessee.

Though New York's school receivership law is supposedly modeled after the Mass. law, New York does not appear to have learned some important lessons from experiences in that state. Such reflection would have been helpful.

For example, after three years in receivership, student achievement in the Lawrence, Massachusetts public schools increased but not enough to remove the school from receivership. The model there seems to be showing progress, but apparently fell short of its targeted goals. In Tennessee, reading proficiency among students in takeover schools actually decreased over the course of three years. New York's receivership law gives schools one or two years to show demonstrable improvement and avoid independent receivership. Unfortunately, New York's time frame fails to recognize the complexities of improving schools.

In fact, the report found that schools in receivership or operating under state takeovers have seen mixed and inconclusive results in improving academic achievement. That's not surprising, and it's why many believe New York's receivership law is fundamentally flawed. A time span of one or even two years is simply not enough to address longstanding problems that exist in chronically struggling schools. It may not even be enough to show demonstrable progress, because real progress takes time.

Moreover, no one "receiver" has the magic potion that will increase math or ELA proficiency in every situation, regardless of how strong a personality or accomplished educator that receiver may be.

Even though strong leadership is a key ingredient for turning around struggling schools, that leader must first be adept at fostering strong relationships with others in the schools and community just to obtain widespread acceptance of receivership. Second, that leader must be able to rally the people necessary to tackle many of the root challenges that may exist in the larger community and create a culture of success in the schools themselves. Finally, that leader must be willing to invest in developing the leadership skills of teachers and other administrators. This will allow a top-level district leader to empower school-level administrators and teachers to decide how best to allocate staff and funding.

Beyond sufficient time, great leadership and community support, struggling schools need a long-term, sustainable plan to achieve better academic outcomes.

And then there is the small matter of funding. The community schools model holds promise for addressing some of the root issues, such as poverty or health issues, that can affect student achievement. As you know, community schools provide students with medical and mental health services, academic support and counseling, among other services.

But, we know this model does not come inexpensively. In Massachusetts, community schools that offer health and mental health services (known as wraparound services) cost an additional $1,312 per student, according to a policy research group. This does not include the cost of providing academic support or tutoring services. Our state lawmakers have provided to schools in receivership $75 million in funding to adopt a community schools model. Whether or not that funding is enough to implement community schools that provide the support necessary to affect student achievement remains to be seen.

For me, the major takeaway of the NYSSBA report is that schools placed in receivership, regardless of whether they are classified as struggling or persistently struggling, need far more than one or two years to make real headway in improving student achievement, along with the funding to realize that improvement.

New York's receivership law should be viewed as a work in progress. The whole concept of receivership is still unproven. Aside from the troubling fact that the concept itself turns governance of a school from the duly elected board of education on its head, I worry that New York's law sets expectations for success that are wholly unrealistic. And then what happens?

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