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Aggressive overhauls of troubled schools should be examined


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POSTED: Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Enabling the state's education superintendent to overhaul public schools that continuously fail to meet federal requirements could prove to be an effective tool.

With 28 Hawaii schools unable to improve achievement levels over the course of three or more years, education leaders must find other strategies. A Department of Education proposal to authorize the aggressive action should be given legislative consideration.

The plan would allow the superintendent to replace principals, teachers and other staff at low-performing schools that have been unable to pull up test scores and reach other standards, such as graduation rates, even with extra money and help for reforms. It also would allow hiring of private agencies to rebuild the schools, a facet that might not best serve the system in the long run.

The department has not taken the radical step of "reconstituting" troubled schools, a tactic prescribed as part of the federal No Child Left Behind law that requires all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

The approach has been criticized as demoralizing to teachers and staff and disruptive to students, parents and the larger community. However, supporters contend that rebuilding is necessary to change a school's culture and practices for the better.

Some states, cities and school districts have undertaken reconstitution with varying degrees of success. Education experts continue to debate the issue, but most agree that the effort must be focused on the specific problems of a school - whether students come from low-income families, whether their parents are new immigrants or other factors, such as low-motivation teachers and less-skilled administrators - to reach certain goals.

While saying that one size does not fit all, they also agree that a collection of data and studies of successful programs and their essential qualities are needed to establish baselines from which schools can rebuild.

In addition to more funding to support the federal law, NCLB should have a research component to provide states and school districts with a body of knowledge about effective methods. As matters now stand, school leaders are left to experiment with students whose learning continues to be subject to trial and error.

Turning schools over to private enterprise could prove costly. NCLB has sparked a new industry with businesses producing education materials and academic programs to sell to schools and a multitude of consultants to dispense advice. Not to say they aren't helpful, but the department should cultivate and maintain its own team of education masters acquainted with the characteristics of local schools, a team that can build on successes and step in quickly to get troubled schools out of the weeds.