Do ESSA Plans Show Promise for Improving Schools?

A student high-fives his teacher in a Washington, D.C., classroom, on January 23, 2016.

External reviews have poured over state Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans with a focus on school ratings and school improvement strategies. Overall, independent reviews found them to be unambitious or unfinished. But variations of one policy, which appear in half of ESSA plans, could have teeth to move the needle for struggling schools: the authority to change school governance.

School governance as a successful tenet of school turnaround

A previous report by the Center for American Progress identified the ability for districts and states to intervene in low-performing schools as a critical school turnaround policy. States should initially provide flexibility for districts to replace staff, reallocate resources, or make changes to instructional time. If schools continue to struggle, states have the authority to take more rigorous action under ESSA. One approach states are considering is to implement alternative governance structures that change the turnaround agents or systems responsible for school operations and leading the path forward.

States such as Louisiana and Massachusetts, for example, saw learning gains after state intervention. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) took over the majority of New Orleans’ public schools. RSD schools showed progress in student achievement in reading and math, outpacing the district in multiple subjects from 2009 to 2014. Similarly, Lawrence, Massachusetts, saw significant performance gains after entering state receivership, which paired programmatic changes with additional resources.

State proposals to adjust school governance

Overall, 25 ESSA plans identify or describe how districts or states can change school governance structures if schools do not improve after initial intervention and support. Importantly, as states differ on how they view the purpose of these plans, so does the scope of information they provide. For example, states that have legislative authority for school takeover—which is just one type of school governance change—may not describe it in their plans. States that speak to the possibility for a change in governance signal that this strategy is a potential pathway for improving schools. Approaches vary in terms of degrees of control, timeline and progression of implementation, and level of detail provided.

Minnesota and Utah, for example, have the authority to convert struggling schools to charter schools after three or four years without improvement. Arkansas can replace local governing boards if schools do not show progress. And Texas can appoint a board of managers to oversee an entire district.

Several plans describe state intervention strategies that increase in intensity as school or district performance languish. Ohio, for example, has three levels of district support—from independent school districts, which have the least amount of state oversight, to intensive support districts, which are at risk of being placed under an Academic Distress Commission. The commission, which is appointed by the state superintendent of public instruction, is responsible for hiring a chief executive officer to run the district.

Mississippi and North Carolina, similarly, have the authority to place struggling schools in state hands. Any Mississippi public school or district with an “F” rating for two consecutive years or two of three consecutive years may be absorbed by the state’s Achievement School District, returning to local governance after maintaining at least a “C” rating five years in a row. In North Carolina, a select number of continually low-performing elementary schools will be operated under the state’s Innovative School District by a charter or education management organization as an innovation school. After five years—or eight with an extension for showing progress—schools will transition back to local control of the district.

North Carolina districts with an innovative school can also apply to operate a locally controlled innovation zone for a group of low-performing schools. Innovation zones, such as those in Massachusetts, provide schools with additional flexibilities, autonomy, and support, and have shown gains in Tennessee, among other states. The former Tennessee commissioner of education attributes the success of the state’s strongest innovation zone, in part, to the potential for state takeover.

The limits of state intervention

To be sure, state intervention is not a silver bullet for school turnaround—nor have changes in school governance always gone off without a hitch. A comprehensive approach requires significant multiyear resources, school leadership development, and evaluation and evidence building. And in New Jersey, Newark Public Schools just regained district autonomy after more than 20 years of state control, during which the district faced financial mismanagement and fractious politics. Newark schools have made progress over time, including higher graduation rates and test scores, and the district is now retaining more high-performing teachers and fewer who are less effective.

State intervention may also hit roadblocks to execution, including pushback from the district and community members. A Georgia referendum, for example, that would have created a state-operated Opportunity School District for underperforming schools failed at the polls in 2016. One year later, the state passed legislation to hire a chief turnaround officer that oversees supports for low-performing schools. The turnaround chief will work with local school boards to improve student achievement, but if schools do not show progress after three years, the state can replace staff, turn schools into charter schools, or have another school district take over.

Therefore, engaging the community must be a core part of states’ strategy—before, during, and after intervention begins—along with the potential for compromise. The turnaround leader in Lawrence, Massachusetts, for example, worked with teachers and the union to build a strong partnership and mutually agreeable contract. Getting buy-in from key stakeholders, such as community businesses and civic leaders, and support from parents, is essential to navigating the politics of school reform.

It is also critical that states set the right parameters for measuring student progress. Schools should exit identification and improvement status for meeting tangible academic benchmarks—not because another school performed worse. Indiana, for example, will require that schools earn at least a “C” grade for two consecutive years before they can exit improvement status.

Ultimately, districts and schools need to have a clear understanding of their states’ school improvement policies before they are identified for support and intervention. This starts with transparent school ratings that communicate to administrators, teachers, and parents the metrics and goals that schools are striving to meet. Schools must have a grasp of what the district-led school improvement steps will be if student performance lags. And if schools subsequently require more support, thereby signaling more rigorous district or state action, schools and districts must be clear on what it will take to improve and return to local leadership.

Conclusion

States will soon begin to turn their ESSA plans into reality, identifying schools for improvement in the 2018-19 school year. It will be several more years before states step in to support schools that continue to struggle, and for many, the authority to change school governance structures may be integral to their turnaround strategy. Although ESSA plans leave much to be desired overall, the fact that many states can be a lever for change is promising for school improvement. States that use this authority must do so strategically and with clear guidelines to work with the communities they serve, as well as capitalize on lessons learned from other states doing similar work.

Samantha Batel is a senior policy analyst for K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress.