The South is moving quickly to the head of the pack in education reform. Following the lead of Louisiana’s Recovery School District, Tennessee is taking several low performing schools out of the jurisdiction of local school boards and placing them in a state-run Achievement School District, where well known charter operators like KIPP are taking over.
The switch to charter schools has raised the usual resistance, especially from teachers whose jobs were secure under the old system. The NYT reports:
“We’re not just asking people to do something incrementally different in a system that is fundamentally broken and the same,” said Chris Barbic, the achievement district’s superintendent and a Teach for America alumnus who went on to found the Yes Prep chain of 11 charter schools in Houston. […]
Suspicion remains about what the takeover means for experienced teachers. “A lot of our teachers are going to lose their jobs,” said Charlie Moore III, pastor of the Life Changing Church of God in Christ in Orange Mound.
Although achievement district officials say they have encouraged current teachers to apply for jobs at the revamped schools, none are guaranteed a slot. Just five teachers and three administrators previously with the schools remain.
There are other potential pitfalls. Many of the teachers and administrators in charters come from racial or socioeconomic backgrounds that are very different from the students and parents they serve. Some parents in Memphis are concerned that new disciplinary measures have created an uninviting classroom culture. Moreover, the charters in this special district have more frequent testing and longer school days. We have no problem with higher performance standards, but it’s not clear to us that more time spent sitting passively at a desk is what students need in the information age.
There are some promising signs as well. Test sores for the students in these districts are rising. And many of the charters are staffed by non-unionized workers, giving those schools more flexibility to experiment with new ideas like performance pay. The program is still too young to draw any broad conclusions, but the more flexible arrangement has opened up considerable new space to experiment.
Programs like Tennessee’s are gaining traction across the country. Michigan has also formed a state district for failing schools, and Virginia just approved its own version in February. Slowly but surely, America is taking serious steps to reform its failing school systems. We haven’t found all the answers yet, but at least we’re beginning to look.
[Image of school lockers courtesy of Shutterstock.com]