Editorial: Reforming the reform district
The state-run school reform district, after less than three years, is saying it's time to reform — itself.
At a time when Gov. Rick Snyder and other Detroit stakeholders are already looking at a wider-reaching shake-up of city schools, it's getting harder to defend the lagging performance of the Education Achievement Authority.
New EAA chancellor Veronica Conforme came out this week with her plan to turn things around for the 15 struggling schools in the reform district, all of them in Detroit. These schools are the lowest-performing in the city — and the entire state.
"This is the beginning of a new chapter for the EAA," Conforme said in a statement. "It is now time to act, as we need to restructure the way we operate."
But the problem is that her ideas for bringing about this change sound very similar to what the authority's leaders promised when the district formed in 2011. Clearly, the failure has been in execution and leadership.
John Covington, who stepped down as chancellor last year, seemed confident that his approach of individualizing student learning, placing strong principals at each school and giving them lots of independence would move the needle on academic performance and improve school culture.
While schools within the EAA have increased safety and created a stronger culture of learning, students still aren't making gains. In the EAA's defense, its task has been formidable. Snyder created the authority, with the support of state Superintendent Mike Flanagan, specifically to target the schools that fell in the worst of the worst category. Yet efforts the past two years by the Legislature to codify the EAA have failed, as lawmakers failed to iron out their differences.
Conforme, who has only been in her role a few months, boasts an impressive background. Most notably, her decade of experience at the New York City Department of Education allowed her to witness firsthand a successful turnaround model under former New York schools chief Joel Klein.
Her resume will come in handy now. And despite the significant push-back the EAA has received in recent months, Snyder is not backing down from his support of the system. "I like it," the governor told The Detroit News editorial board.
Conforme advocates giving the EAA schools more autonomy, which could mean chartering more of the schools if she can find charter operators that fit her quality parameters. Right now, three of the EAA schools are charters.
The other pillars of her turnaround plan include a focus on developing leadership, more accountability and additional support for principals. She's looking to replace most of the current school leaders. It's no easy task to attract and retain excellent principals in such tough school environments; the EAA is suffering a 50 percent turnover rate, which Conforme attributes to inadequate leadership.
Conforme says she's committed to providing a "new direction for our children's education."
We couldn't agree more that these students deserve a better shot at an education. But this should be the last chance for the EAA to get it right. It was established as a reform district, and we can't ignore the irony that just three years later, the reform district itself needs a major reform.