Editorial: Achievement School District needs oversight, accountability
Posted August 12, 2016
A CBC Editorial: Friday, Aug. 12, 2016; Editorial# 8041
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company
It is clear that North Carolina legislators had their minds made up, well before being presented with ample evidence to the contrary, that creating a new entity with a lofty title was the answer to turning around North Carolina’s lowest performing schools. So, over the next few months, a new school district will be created by seizing the lowest performing schools and handing control to outside operators.
A presentation last week about implementation of the “Achievement School District” law showed there are still many issues to be resolved – particularly whether it will truly help students achieve and how school operators will be held accountable to demonstrate program effectiveness.
Witnesses cast doubts on the use of so-called “achievement school districts” to improve learning at low-performing schools when the General Assembly was considering the program. Studies found scant evidence that similar efforts in other states have worked as intended.
North Carolina legislators cited Tennessee as a model for achievement school success but a Vanderbilt University evaluation found the achievement school district didn’t significantly improve student performance.
When Georgia was considering adopting a similar program from New Orleans, a Tulane professor warned, “taxpayer dollars go into hefty administrator salaries and corporate profits instead of reducing class size, upgrading facilities and maintaining high-quality teachers.”
The Vanderbilt study did find improvement in Tennessee’s “iZone” schools. These are schools that remained under the authority of local districts, but receive additional support to improve school leadership and provide professional support and development for teachers and staff. “”We consistently find substantial, positive effects for iZone schools,” said the report from Vanderbilt University.
Regardless of the warnings, the N.C. legislature mandated the State Board of Education to start the process that will seize five of the state’s lowest performing public schools and put their management under a newly-formed Achievement School District.
The N.C. legislature is embracing a failed fad rather than looking to bolster a state program already showing promise – “Turning Around North Carolina’s Lowest-Achieving Schools.”
The program, similar to one in Tennessee that the Vanderbilt study noted for its effectiveness, focuses on improving low-performing schools through targeted investments in professional development, school improvement planning and leadership coaching. These efforts are showing promise in improving outcomes for students and lowering staff turnover – one of the top problems many struggling schools face.
The “Achievement School District” law has a timeline mandating the district be ready to launch in the next school year (2017-18). It must be fully operational, with five schools, by the 2019-20 school year.
The Achievement Schools superintendent, who will be picked by a committee headed and selected by the lieutenant governor, will have a $400,000 start-up budget, significant authority and autonomy in choosing the five schools and designating the specific school operators – though the state board must ultimately approve the choices.
While the General Assembly may have neglected it throughout the entire evaluation process, the state Board of Education should closely examine every aspect of the Achievement School District program implementation. It should develop specific guidelines to show the schools offer professional administrator and teacher development, provide high quality instruction, are open and accountable to the communities they serve and -- most importantly -- demonstrate promised improvement in student performance.