EAA district can be reformed

Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli

One of the most promising educational innovations in America today is the “recovery school district,” an alternative to district-based governance first tried in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

As new state-created entities charged with running and turning around the state’s worst schools, these districts are awarded certain authority and flexibility, such as the ability to turn schools into charters and to bypass collective bargaining agreements, that allow them to cut the red tape that has made so many schools dysfunctional in the first place.

The results in Louisiana have been remarkable.

Last school year, children in New Orleans public schools showed more academic growth on test scores than any other public school system in Louisiana, with the percentage of third- through eighth-graders who scored at or above their grade level rising six points to 57 percent.

Tennessee replicated the idea in 2011, with its Achievement School District, which is already showing overall progress.

So when Gov. Rick Snyder called for the creation of an “Education Achievement Authority” for Michigan in 2011, education reformers nationwide were understandably enthusiastic. Especially considering the woeful state of Detroit’s schools — according to national achievement scores, among the very worst in the U.S. — this kind of tough medicine appeared to be just what the doctor ordered.

Unfortunately, as a new policy brief from our think tank, “Redefining the School District in Michigan,” makes clear, the EAA has gotten off to a rocky start. But it’s not too late for policymakers to resuscitate this promising reform.

What went wrong? Some of the problems resulted from the unwillingness of Gov. Snyder’s political opponents to support his reform. As a result, the EAA had to be rolled out on a tight timeline, on a shoestring budget, and without ample money to attract high quality national charter school operators. It would have taken a miracle for this to work out well. Further, its governance arrangement is a Rube Goldberg invention of epic proportions.

But some of its problems were self-inflicted.

The EAA chose to run all of its schools directly rather than use charters. And it embraced a “blended,” competency-based approach to instruction that is very much in its nascent stages, which makes significant use of online, computer-based learning.

Not surprisingly, some students haven’t responded well to the online component or can’t handle the autonomy they’re given over their own schooling.

To make matters worse, the inaugural superintendent of the EAA, John Covington, has since stepped down amid news of enrollment declines, budget woes, and other challenges.

The key takeaway is that neither statewide school districts nor blended, competency-based learning are silver bullets. Combining the two is a particularly precarious proposition. Furthermore, states that want to embrace this approach to school turnarounds need to create conditions that are essential to success.

Michigan’s effort, though laudable, was hobbled from the start from too many compromises and too little political support.

Whichever gubernatorial candidate wins next week’s election should push the Legislature to give the EAA the authority, and the funding, to be successful. And the EAA should recruit a new leader who knows how to attract top-notch educators and charter operators to lead Michigan’s most troubled schools, rather than someone who wants to run them directly him or herself.

Amber M. Northern is the vice president for research and Michael J. Petrilli is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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