Jacques: Stop the school reform merry-go-round

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Education leaders should take a lesson from the medical world. The overprescription of antibiotics has led to a growing resistance to the life-saving drug. Similarly, the constant stream of school reform plans has had this effect on learning.

“We are getting reform-resistant schools,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

You can’t really blame the schools.

The dizzying speed of reform visions just in Michigan is enough to throw most people off balance. It’s a constantly changing target, and while these blueprints are crafted with good intentions by smart people, the churn has created a culture of “this too shall pass.”

Take what’s happened the first few months of this year. The School Reform Office has gone from promising it would shutter the 38 worst schools in the state (most of which are in Detroit) to backing down following widespread community backlash.

The SRO handled this badly, no question.

But instead of following through with a better plan, the state switched course altogether. Gov. Rick Snyder turned from the SRO — a department he took over in 2015 — and offered the mess to state Superintendent Brian Whiston.

Whiston’s done the the best he could in a short amount of time. He crafted “partnership” plans for the nine districts involved, ranging from Benton Harbor to Detroit. Schools will work with intermediate school districts and other state offices as well as community and business partners. Whiston says this isn’t a move away from accountability, and that he’s counting on his plans to show progress — starting as soon as 18 months. At that point, he could begin closing schools and reopening them under different models. But most schools will get three years before more serious intervention.

If done right, these partnerships hold promise. But Whiston and the state have to offer crystal clear objectives to school leaders, in addition to repercussions for not following through.

It takes time to build a culture of progress. Whiston thinks some of these schools have struggled because they’ve tried to take on more than they reasonably can. He also stresses consistency of leadership in schools.

“You have to be very laser-focused,” he says. “If you do too much, you do nothing.”

Veronica Conforme, chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority, knows firsthand about the state’s shifting school vision. After two years under her guidance, the 14 schools she runs in Detroit have started to make some progress, albeit slowly. She says her schools would have benefited from a partnership model, but that’s because her vision was clear and focused on strong schools leaders and teacher development.

“It needs to be a radical change,” Conforme says.

Now that the EAA schools are returning to the Detroit Public Schools Community District, Conforme is concerned about what happens to these schools going forward.

Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana schools chief credited with revamping New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina, has spent time in Michigan and worked closely with the governor on a turnaround plan for Detroit schools.

Pastorek says what’s been missing is a clear set of expectations and a time frame to meet them. Schools also need resources to do this work. Then, consequences must follow.

“You have to have continuity,” he says.

What’s most important is bringing the school community — and community at large — together over a cohesive plan. Then sticking with it.

“Schools are the most human institution,” Hess says. “Good schools are a place of mission and focus, where families feel they are in tune with the schools. There is a huge upside to stability and coherence. A lot of reform is counterproductive.”