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Chalkbeat: State Takeovers Are Usually Unsuccessful

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Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat reports on a research study that concluded that most state takeovers of low-performing districts were unsuccessful. Local school boards, it was believed, must be the cause of low test scores because they lacked oversight.

The study was written by Beth E. Schueler and Joshua Bleiberg and released by the Annenberg Insttitute.

State officials have taken for granted that the state education department knows better than local school boards how to run school districts. Yet, as the study shows, most have either made no difference or failed. In most cases, the districts that were “taken over” consisted of mostly black and brown children, whose communities lose a democratic institution and as well as a route to political power.

Barnum writes:

Now, a new national study casts significant doubt on the idea that states, at least, are better positioned to run schools than locally elected officials. Overall, researchers found little evidence that districts see test scores rise as a result of being taken over. If anything, state control had slightly negative effects on students.

Frankly, it was always a silly idea to think that state education departments were staffed by top-flight educators. They are working in schools and districts. Most people who work in state education departments (and the U.S. Department of Education) are administrators and bureaucrats, not educators.

Barnum goes on to summarize the study:

The paper is the most comprehensive accounting to date of a strategy that has appealed to policymakers in many states but also brought fierce blowback. The study doesn’t suggest that takeovers never succeed on academic grounds — there are clearexamples where they have.

But the successes appear to be more exception than rule, and the uneven academic results bring into sharp relief the costs of state takeover: the loss of democratic institutions, disproportionately in Black communities.

“These policies are very harmful to communities in terms of their political power,” said Domingo Morel, a Rutgers University political scientist who has studied and criticized state takeovers. “And then what the state says is going to improve — this research shows it’s not doing that either.”

The new study focuses on the 35 school districts from across the country that were taken over by states between 2011 and 2016. These takeovers often happened in small cities and the vast majority of affected students were Black or Hispanic and from low-income families…

To find out what happened next, Schueler and coauthor Joshua Bleiberg of Brown University used national test score data to compare districts that were taken over to seemingly similar districts in the same state that retained local control.

In the first few years of the takeover, the schools generally saw dips in English test scores. By year four, there was no effect one way or the other. In math, there were no clear effects at all.“The punchline is, we really don’t see evidence that takeover is benefitting student outcomes, at least in the short term,” said Schueler.

Many states, Barnum reports, have cooled on the idea of state takeovers, although there are two big exceptions: Providence, Rhode Island, which has already fired its new superintendent because his deputy had a bad habit of massaging boys’ feet without their permission. And Texas is eager to take control of the Houston Independent School District because it has one high school with very low scores, and a disproportionately high number of students needing special education and living in poverty. The students in both districts are majority black and brown.

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