Last week Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson announced that the city’s school district would transform itself from a command-and-control bureaucracy into a confederacy of schools operating with greater-or-lesser autonomy, depending on their performance. Charter schools as well as district-operated ones would participate, with the goal of giving families a real choice among several good options in every neighborhood.
Cleveland, which over the past 40 years has seen its industrial glory days disappear like fumes from a smoke stack, has been moving toward this “portfolio” approach for several years. (See a new report on portfolio districts from the Center on Reinventing Public Education here.) The district sponsors six charter schools, including several that are related “excellent” or “excellent with distinction” by the state. It has launched 13 new schools over the past six years, among them campuses that follow the New Tech and Early College high school models. The city also is downsizing its central office so that it is flatter and more service-oriented and can better support schools’ needs. In addition, the district is piloting the new Common Core standards and rolling out a new teacher evaluation and compensation plan.
All of that, though, hasn’t moved the needle much on student achievement and the school district “is mired in bureaucratic, outdated and cumbersome work rules,” according to the mayor’s plan. It also “lacks sufficient flexibility with regard to staffing, funding, resource allocation, management decisions, scheduling, school calendar, and overall school autonomy.” Moreover, district enrollment has dropped from 72,000 to 43,000 in 10 years. During that period the number of students attending charters and schools operated by the Catholic Diocese has grown to 23,000, even as the city’s overall population has shrunk.
The charter schools and the Catholic schools haven’t fixed the problem either. Based on state data, only a quarter of the city’s schools, district-operated or charter, are performing well. Over half, charter or not, are on academic “watch” or “emergency” status. The rest are meeting only minimum standards.
The district hasn’t been very good about shutting down or improving its own schools, as Terry Ryan of the Ohio Daily Gadfly points out. Unless I’m misreading the plan, the district now wants to take on the challenge of closing or improving charter schools as well. The mechanism for identifying those schools involves a new bureaucracy, a public-private entity called the “Transformation Alliance.” This organization would evaluate schools, share that information with parents, and be a gatekeeper for the creation of new charter or district schools. The district would assign “turnaround directors” to struggling schools and, presumably, shut down those that fail to get better
I get the fact it’s a big deal that the district wants to pay more attention to performance than to governance structure, and that it is willing to drive students toward those that are working, and help them expand. I also get that the district wants to quickly improve or shut down schools doing poorly. But that is an enormous challenge when more than half of the schools in the city need immediate attention, especially when the district is facing more than $100 million in deficits over the next two years. I don’t know who these magical creatures called “turnaround directors” are but here’s hoping there are a lot of them and that Cleveland can start exporting them to other troubled city school districts across the nation.