In Redefining the School District in America, Nelson Smith reexamines existing recovery school districts (RSDs)—entities in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan charged with running and turning around their state’s worst schools—and assembles the most comprehensive catalog of similar initiatives underway and under consideration elsewhere.
Among more than twenty recommendations gleaned from both failed and successful attempts to create and implement RSDs, Smith recommends that those who go down the turnaround path should:
- Call your lawyer. A close reading of the state constitution is essential. Some states are so wedded to traditional forms of “local control” that setting up a state district will require fancy legal footwork, if not a constitutional amendment.
- Decide the endgame—for both schools and the turnaround district. Apart from setting goals for school performance, other decisions must be addressed—and the earlier the better.
- Expect course corrections. Running a statewide district is a huge, complex undertaking full of political, financial, and logistical challenges—not to mention the myriad crises and complications that always arise in institutions serving real children. Sometimes even turnaround efforts need to turn around.
- Give the locals a chance. After taking over failing schools, reformers sent by the state may want to clean house and start fresh with a whole new cast of characters. Yet incumbent staff should be given the opportunity to apply for work under the new arrangement and prove that, under different circumstances, they can shine.
As with everything in education reform, when it comes to the design of turnaround districts, details truly matter.