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Soifer: Time for a school takeover plan

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Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 12:00 am

It has been a long time since Virginia could reasonably be considered a hotbed of educational innovation.

This is the unavoidable backdrop against which Gov. Bob McDonnell seeks support for a new round of targeted education reforms. In particular, the governor is pursuing modifications and funding for his proposal for a long-postponed endgame to the Standards of Accreditation that would answer the question, “What happens to those schools where students don’t pass the Standards of Learning?”

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To be sure, there are some interesting educational practices happening at some of the commonwealth’s 1,800 public schools. But critical minority achievement gaps are not shrinking, especially for high school students, and the strategies that have proven most effective at reducing them elsewhere across the country remain foreign to the state that invented American public education.

While Virginia’s entrenched education interests prefer to praise teachers as “98 percent excellent,” they have generally succeeded at preventing any broad, statewide commitment to innovate from gaining momentum. A prevailing reason for the innovation vacuum in our schools is not the failure of our well-intentioned educators, but rather the system of laws that govern schools, school funding, and a change-resistant process which seems to hamstring every promising new approach.

Virginia’s education laws are written so that reform-minded local school boards can drive change in their own schools, but even then only once they overcome deeply rooted institutional barriers and meet other, previous obligations complicated by ever-tightening education dollars. This is the position that the Richmond Public Schools’ new, reform-inclined majority must grapple with.

We have seen this challenge throughout the 15 years since Virginia first passed its charter school law. Because the law tightly restricts the hiring, budgetary and operational autonomy that represent the most powerful tools in effective charter leaders’ toolboxes, Virginia’s high-quality charter school movement has been held to just two pioneering schools: Community Public Charter School in Albemarle County and Richmond’s Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts. Several years of individually negotiated changes to the law in the General Assembly have produced some substantive changes, but not enough to make a difference.

Some education policy experts have noted that the governor’s latest proposal seems oddly timed given that, nationally, a preponderance of studies of state takeovers of failing schools has produced no compelling evidence that any particular intervention works most of the time or in most situations to actually turn schools around.

Education commentator Andy Smarick discusses this trend in his intriguing book, “The Urban School System of the Future.” “Despite years of effort and great expenditures of time, money and energy, we still lack basic information about which tactics will make a struggling school excellent,” he notes.

This pattern certainly does not bode well for the potential for state-directed turnaround efforts in Virginia schools. But for the discussion to be a useful one it cannot take place in a vacuum. What would state leadership do with the control it gained that would change the culture in these schools to one conducive to educational success?

Top-performing charter schools have been among the nation’s most effective strategies for reducing achievement gaps for minority and low-income families, and a takeover could select from the proven operators with the best chances for success. A law passed earlier this year, establishing Teach for America corps members as licensed teachers in Virginia, represents another potentially valuable tool for school leaders to address human capital challenges in communities with high education demand. And high-quality blended learning programs that leverage technology to guide individualized learning are demonstrating powerful results in both charter and traditional public school settings.

As part of a broader, evidence-based reform strategy, each of these approaches could make sense within a state takeover effort. McDonnell is correct to note, however, that without adequate funding and autonomy to make the necessary changes, such an approach could not be expected to succeed.

For those schools that persistently produce the state’s lowest proficiency rates, we do know what will not make a difference: not making any changes. But with a pro-reform governor, who campaigned on the issue and is still pursuing his mandate, there may be hope that Virginia can once again become home to innovative schools that make a difference.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington. Contact him at soifer@lexingtoninstitute.org.

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