Cleveland has taken a significant step toward becoming one of the nation's school-reform leaders with the introduction this week of Mayor Frank Jackson’s "Plan for Transforming Schools." The plan builds on the experience of cities like New Orleans, Indianapolis, and New York City and seeks a portfolio approach to school management that includes:
1) Significantly increase the number of high-performing schools, both district and charter, while closing failing schools;
2) Maximizing enrollment in Cleveland’s existing high-performing district and public charter schools;
3) Investing in promising schools by giving their leaders additional resources, the freedom to build high-performing teams, and the ability to make financial and instructional decisions based on their students’ needs;
4) Seeking flexibility in the hiring, retention, and remuneration of teachers (this change will require a change of state law); and
5) Sustaining both district and public charter transformation schools through a set of innovative legislative reforms and a levy request that would provide new dollars for both district and effective charter schools.
In recent years Cleveland has embraced a series of reforms - including a highly touted transformation plan in early 2010 put forth by then superintendent Eugene Sanders, and largely crafted by current district head Eric Gordon - while the city has seen a steady growth in both the number of charter schools and children receiving public vouchers to attend private schools. Despite these efforts student achievement in Cleveland is still atrociously low (only 30 percent of fifth graders are proficient in math), and 55 percent of the city's schools (charter and district) were rated D or F by the state in 2011. Telling, more than 30,000 children have abandoned the city's schools in the last decade alone for other options.
Jackson’s plan would turn things around by making education more high-profile and increasingly the responsibility of the mayor (Cleveland’s mayor has had control of the school board since the late 1990s). Further, the plan focuses on school quality regardless of school type and will reward strong schools (charter and district alike) while seeking to close or turnaround broken schools (charter and district alike). This focus on performance is to be backed up with new dollars for high-flyers.
Mayor Jackson and his team (including district CEO Eric Gordon) are to be commended for undertaking a bold plan that offers hope of actually turning around the city's long-suffering schools. It will, however, face at least five challenges.
First, for the plan to fly it needs the General Assembly in Columbus to pass legislation that will give the mayor more flexibility over things like teacher contracts and closing failed schools. Republican lawmakers were battered with their last go-around with the unions over Senate Bill 5 and some may need to be bulked up to support the same teacher reforms for Jackson’s plan.
Second, the teacher unions have not been part of the planning process and they have a history of rejecting or at least watering down reforms that seek to make changes to things like "last- in/first-out rules," and requiring teachers in failing schools to reapply for their jobs.
Third, the plan seeks to pay for the reforms through a district levy. Cleveland hasn't passed an operating levy in 16 years, and taxpayers in Ohio have shown little appetite for new spending on schools in recent years.
Fourth, key to the plan's success is improving the quality of the human capital available to schools; especially the 55 percent rated D or F. Cleveland will benefit from the presence of Teach For America, which is expected to place corps members in Ohio for the first time in August. Further, Cleveland has access to teachers from the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program. However, unlike places like Indianapolis and New Orleans, Cleveland currently lacks the talent pipelines for school leaders such as New Leaders for New Schools, KIPP or homegrown incubator efforts. This is a void Cleveland's reformers should seek to address ASAP.
Fifth, and finally, Jackson’s plan does not provide much detail per mechanics. For example, the plan speaks boldly of closing or turning around truly troubled schools - the district has four elementary schools that have been rated F for at least five consecutive years and an equal number of broken charters - but the plan does not seek to create an entity for forcing the closure or turnaround of these schools. The plan calls for the creation of the Cleveland Transformation Alliance that will be made up of business leaders, educators, community partners, and parents to push for accountability and transparency. This will surely help parents in failed schools get better information about their plight and provide information on better choices. But, there doesn't appear to be a sort of School Recovery District in the plan that would have the mandate and resources to close or force dramatic changes in troubled schools.
Despite the challenges, Cleveland is embarking on the boldest citywide school reform effort that state of Ohio has ever seen. Their success or failure will resonate throughout the state and likely beyond. All school reformers should be rooting for Cleveland's success and offering whatever help they can.