Top brass on the line in Philadelphia, Miami

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Chicago’s response to NCLB restructuring is modest compared to what’s in store for persistently low-performing schools in Philadelphia and Miami.

Superintendents in both cities are putting themselves on the line by taking direct control of a small group of schools, a personal guarantee that those schools would do better.

In Philadelphia, CEO Paul Vallas unveiled in early August a $2.3 million initiative that targets 11 failing schools. Turnaround strategies for schools in the new so-called “CEO Region” include naming new principals, subdividing them into smaller schools and adopting new curricula and student discipline policy. One central administrator will oversee all of these efforts.

Also, a year ago, Miami Superintendent Rudy Crew launched the School Improvement Zone, comprised of 39 low-performing schools that report directly to him. Students in Zone schools have longer days and school years. Teachers’ salaries are 20 percent higher to compensate for their extra time, and the curriculum is more uniform. The plan costs $43 million a year, mostly to cover the additional expense of staff pay and training. This spring, 15 of the schools posted significantly higher test scores.

Both efforts are based on the successful “Chancellor’s District” that Crew introduced in New York City in 1996 when he was in charge of the district. Ten elementary schools operated under direct supervision from the school board, and all of them used Success For All, a research-based reading model. Teachers were paid extra to teach longer hours and to attend professional development training.

A New York University study found Chancellor’s District schools made substantial progress, and became so popular, other schools were lobbying to participate. It was disbanded in 2003 under new district leadership.

Common to all three efforts is the recognition that a small number of schools were not making progress despite a series of previous attempts at turning them around, and that these schools needed extra help.

“What are you going to do at that point?” asks Robert Slavin of the Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. “You’re not going to turn these schools around based on threats or motivation or management. Nothing is working.”

The key element in Philadelphia’s CEO Region and Miami’s School Improvement Zone is district leadership, Slavin notes. “It communicates a seriousness of purpose,” as well as reduces bureaucratic resistance, he adds.