Reconstitution trend cools as boards, unions team up

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A year ago, reconstitution was the hot remedy for turning around low-performing schools. Chicago was at the head of the pack, reconstituting seven high schools last summer.

But this year, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas and other urban school officials are putting a hold on the practice of abruptly restaffing schools. Instead, they are seeking less extreme measures to inspire success at what they consider their worst schools.

Many districts embraced reconstitution as a change strategy “without thinking seriously about it,” says Jennifer O’Day, an education professor at University of Wisconsin at Madison. “They found it much more difficult than they first anticipated.”

For instance, many reconstituted schools have had a tough time recruiting a qualified staff, she notes. In Chicago, principals at reconstituted schools say they have lost veteran teachers to less stressful positions inside the system.

It’s too early to tell whether reconstitution ultimately will yield positive results, says O’Day. But she says that the threat of reconstitution likely has motivated staff at other schools

In the meantime, O’Day agrees that alternatives are in order. “It is not just the teachers who need to take responsibility, but the district must ask ‘What can we provide, what resources are needed to help this school?'”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the dominant teacher union in urban districts, took umbrage with the blame-the-teacher aspect of reconstitution, but it concedes that drastic reform is sometimes necessary. “If a school is so bad that you wouldn’t send your own kids there, it needs to be shut down and redesigned,” says Janet Bass, in public relations for AFT. “San Francisco and Chicago started badly because they blamed teachers and didn’t use them for input.”

In a memo published last December, the AFT called reconstitution “politically popular but educationally bankrupt.” Instead, the union suggested school officials collaborate with teachers to identify low-performing schools, pinpoint the causes of failure and set high standards for student academic achievement and behavior. It also encouraged districts to stick with programs that have a track record of success and to offer professional development and financial resources to troubled schools.

San Francisco, the city that pioneered reconstitution in 1984 under court order, is moving toward the AFT stance. “The expectations for improvement are the same, but now it will happen through collaboration,” says district spokesman John Flores, who was recruited from outside the district to head up a reconstituted school.

A districtwide committee of teachers and administrators will classify each school as exemplary, satisfactory or non-performing. Non-performing schools will be required to file a plan that spells out their goals and vision. The city will provide those schools with additional staff development programs.

At non-performing schools, teachers must reach consensus to approve the site plan. District officials say creating consensus and motivating staff are the most important elements in turning a school around. “We can come in with all this data,” says Associate Superintendent Robert Harrington. “but [teachers] need to believe it and want to make the changes themselves. People in the school need to take responsibility for improving the school.”

The new plan gives teachers one year to agree on a plan and improve curriculum. Teachers who do not stick to the plan will be “involuntarily transferred.” Some details remain to be worked out, such as how to identify teachers who don’t work with the plan and how voluntary and involuntary transfers will be carried out. But the teachers union won a major concession from the district: “No teachers will be forced to leave [their schools] this year,” says Flores.

When San Francisco reconstituted its first four schools in 1984, the district spent six months planning their curriculum and locating talented, veteran teachers. “The concentration of energy and effort and intelligence did bring about some measurable improvement,” says teacher union president Kent Mitchell. But in most of the schools reconstituted since 1993, he says, “An incredibly inexperienced staff [was] thrown together with an inexperienced principal.”

School officials in Cleveland were forced to find a new approach to reconstitution after an arbitrator ruled that the district’s first foray—it reconstituted two schools last summer—had violated the teacher contract. School officials then agreed to work in partnership with teachers and used the AFT model, says Chief Academic Officer Livesteen Carter. An academic intervention team comprising district and teachers union representatives will visit distressed schools, collect a broad range of data on them, and then decide how much money each needs to be turned around. After a year, the team will review the schools and determine if they have improved, still need help or should be reconstituted.

All schools in Cleveland must develop an academic plan that has the support of 70 percent of the faculty. At low-performing schools, the academic intervention team may recommend changes, but the school has right to reject them, says Richard DeColibus, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union.

Teachers who don’t agree with their school’s plan can “opt out” and look for a job elsewhere in the system, says Carter. “Everyone who stays will be assessed and expected to align their activities [with] the site plan,” she adds. “It’s a silent commitment.”

Cincinnati, Memphis and Minneapolis also have adopted some of the AFT recommendations.

Among the districts that tried reconstitution, Chicago took the hardest line on teachers. San Francisco, Cleveland and other districts guaranteed jobs for teachers who were dismissed from schools undergoing reconstitution.

Chicago plans to fire them if they have not found another job by the end of October. “You don’t take a teacher that one school doesn’t want or deserve and transfer him to another school,” Mayor Richard M. Daley said in a June 25, 1997 article in the San Francisco Examiner.

The Chicago Teachers Union has vowed to file suit if any of the reconstitution teachers loses a job. In mid-August, 50 to 60 were still looking, according to school officials.

Phillip Hansen, the board’s chief accountability officer, says Chicago’s revised approach to failing schools, along with a new teacher contract, likely will be in place by the end of 1998.