Rescuing Schools in Distress

By Eugene Judson, Phyllis Schwartz, Kimberly Allen, and Tommie Miel

The No Child Left Behind Act has arguably affected state departments of education as much as any other type of institution. States have revised academic standards, improved assessments, designed new accountability systems, and directed funds to assist struggling schools.

What loomed in the legislation, however, was the knowledge that any school that repeatedly failed to meet academic standards could be subject to state intervention. This was a new direction for the Arizona Department of Education, which was accustomed to working with schools but had not interceded in school governance.

Would our state department remove control of failing schools from local boards? Would the intervention look like a friendly partnership or a hostile takeover? Would school personnel lose their jobs?

The only thing certain was that we were just as nervous about the concept of state intervention as the schools. For State Superintendent Tom Horne, a sensible starting point was to examine the history of school interventions and reconstitutions to discover which ones had been successful. As the team responsible for the research, we found little that provided a positive road map. In fact, what we uncovered were chronicles of numerous school interventions that had neutral and sometimes negative effects.

Ten years after a state-supervised management team assumed leadership of the Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson school systems, New Jersey officials still were overseeing the schools. Mayoral takeovers in Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland have met with varying degrees of success, as have private companies interceding and running schools on behalf of state departments.

How could we turn the neutral and the negative into a positive for our state?

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