Last Word

Overview

Inside

The Thrasher Group

McKinley Architects & Engineers

March 11, 2011 - Volume 31 Issue 17

Last Word

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion. Thomas Jefferson


By Marsha Carr-Lambert

There are few people around the state of West Virginia or in our nation that have not heard of a state takeover. They were acclimated to takeovers during the 1991 state of emergency announcement declared of the Logan County public school system. Logan County became the first West Virginia school district to relinquish control under a 1988 law that provided the state board of education authority over failing school districts. Over the years, additional school districts in West Virginia have been taken over, and some of these counties are still under state control. Lincoln County was taken over in 2000, and McDowell County taken over in 2002. Mingo County followed Logan County in 1998, with local control returned on December 11, 2002. Hampshire County followed that. Grant, Fayette and Preston are now under state control. History was also made during the takeover of the South Branch Career and Technical Center by the Department of Education, the first vocational center to relinquish control to the state. It is clear that more counties will be taken over in the near future.

States have different techniques and strategies to incorporate when addressing financial and educational bankruptcy in school systems. More recently, states are looking at different models, and one in particular is called Turnaround Schools. However, in 2004, there were four primary approaches used during intervention of a school or district.  These approaches, district takeovers, mayoral control, third-party partnerships, and reconstitution of schools, each involve the shift in control from the school district to another authority and subsequent shift in power. West Virginia uses the district takeover as an intervention approach. The takeover has become increasingly popular since its 1989 induction in a New Jersey school district and continues today as a widely accepted reform initiative nationwide.

A takeover is the commandeering of day-to-day control of district operations and decision-making in an unsuccessful or failing school district. An unsuccessful or failing school district is one that does not meet the state standards established for evaluation purposes. When a school system is identified as unsuccessful or failing, then a shift in authority and power occurs, during which a state board or other outside agency enters a school district and takes control of the district. The takeover and full operational control of a school system by an outside entity, such as a state department, government, or hired agency or specialist, is the most controversial approach in reform initiatives.

Critics still vacillate as to the success or failure of school takeovers. For the most part, takeovers have not been viewed as successful according to various researchers. In as much as some school districts have witnessed success during takeovers, there has been an inability or failure to sustain or maintain this success for a year or more in the absence of the takeovers. I believe the limited or short-term success of takeovers is cause for concern when the takeover continues to be viewed as a solution for failing school districts. No Child Left Behind has had little, if any, influence to alter the short-term results of takeovers or even shown concern that sustained success is not being achieved from this reform initiative as well as the more current designation in some states with turnaround
schools.

Critics still vacillate as to the success or failure of school takeovers. For the most part, takeovers have not been viewed as successful according to various researchers. In as much as some school districts have witnessed success during takeovers, there has been an inability or failure to sustain or maintain this success for a year or more in the absence of the takeovers.

Turnaround approaches are equally criticized. According to Fairtest.org, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has proposed four school turnaround models in the reauthorization attempts. These same models are required elements in Race to the Top (RTTT) and School Improvement Grants (SIG). However, these models, if implemented according to their terms, will still lack evidence they will significantly improve education in schools with chronically low test scores (low-performing schools). It further suggests certain key components of these models are largely ineffective or even harmful to the systems (http://www.fairtest.org/FEA-Turnaround-Process-June2010).

In 2004, I conducted a study on a state takeover in West Virginia for a doctoral program in Management at the University of Phoenix. My focus was Logan County, the first takeover in the state and one of only three takeovers reported nationwide that had demonstrated sustained success in 2004. I believed it was necessary to explore the characteristics of a successful sustained school system to provide insight as to why one system in West Virginia is able to sustain success and others across the nation fail in the effort. These characteristics, once identified, would prove beneficial to all systems in their efforts to sustain success.

A study of a sustained successful takeover was important to me for two reasons.  First, if takeovers are to continue as a reform initiative, then sustaining the success must be a goal. Increased awareness and an understanding of the complexity of sustainability might serve to assist leaders in the quest for sustained success. School administrators could potentially use this study as a source to preclude their schools from being taken over.  School administrators already involved in takeovers could use the findings of this study to sustain the success achieved during the takeover. The substantial implications of this study suggest that takeovers could have sustained results if a model were to be developed and implemented to advocate such results.

Increased awareness and an understanding of the complexity of sustainability might serve to assist leaders in the quest for sustained success. School administrators could potentially use this study as a source to preclude their schools from being taken over.  School administrators already involved in takeovers could use the findings of this study to sustain the success achieved during the takeover. The substantial implications of this study suggest that takeovers could have sustained results if a model were to be developed and implemented to advocate such results.

Characteristics that defined the sustained success of the school takeover in Logan County, as revealed in the 2004 study, were identified in seven categories: (1) the removal of political infiltration or corruption, (2) establishment of a shared process/procedure (vision), (3) a shift in power from one level to a multiple levels of authority, (4) a change in organizational culture, (5) placement of the right people in the right positions, (6) establishment of channels of communication inside and outside of the organization, and (7) identification of the necessary leadership style, including matching styles of leaders with the needs of the organization.

In a 2004 conclusion of findings, I wrote, “I am not advocating the demise of the takeover nor am I advocating the continuation of takeovers. What I do believe is that takeovers serve a purpose in unique circumstances. The takeover, as a process, provides an avenue for rapid change. In some cases, this quick turnaround is necessary. But what I do advocate is that if we are going to use the takeover as an intervention, then I believe that an emphasis should be placed on creating an environment of sustained success. In order to advocate sustainability in the educational environment, then we have to give consideration to culture and not only the complexity of culture but also the importance it plays in sustainability. Corporations have long acknowledged the importance of cultural assessments.” Takeovers did not advocate a cultural analysis at that time.

“…If we are going to use the takeover as an intervention, then I believe that an emphasis should be placed on creating an environment of sustained success. In order to advocate sustainability in the educational environment, then we have to give consideration to culture and not only the complexity of culture but also the importance it plays in sustainability.”

In December 2010, six years later, I interviewed the current superintendent in Logan County. The county has continued to maintain over the years so a review of current day practices were of interest to me. My study revealed that Logan County continues to embrace the seven characteristics identified from the original study. Interestingly, the county has also identified the need to understand culture as essential to the overall system. During the 2004 study, while clearly there was a cultural shift from toxic to healthy for Logan County, the state had not used any type of assessment to measure this change. The current administration is focused on individual school climates to build an even stronger system. This school district is truly a model for all systems as they continue to sustain the successes, which have been prevalent over the years.

The original 2004 study was one small step towards understanding and bringing proper perspective to the field of sustainability. While many companies and even school systems desire success and achieve it, sustaining this success for an extended period of time evades even the greatest of corporations and school systems. While states profess to insist on school improvement, it seems unlikely that even state takeovers will yield the results desired by a nation demanding higher standards. Short-term success will not solve the problems facing school systems. Takeovers that continue to yield short-term success, will not offer a solution to the problems facing school systems. It is only through a relentless pursuit of sustained success that answers will be found to solve some of the problems facing public education in our country.

Dr. Marsha Carr-Lambert works at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and may be contacted at: carrm@uncw.edu.

 

Correction: Do to an editing error in the "Last Word" column included in the March 4, 2011, issue of The Legislature it was stated  House Bill 2505, which adds synthetic cannabinoids and hallucinogens and stimulants to the Schedule II list of Controlled Substances, had died in the state Senate after having been adopted by the state House of Delegates. In fact, the measure passed the Senate yesterday. (It was amended by the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday to address other controlled substances included in Senate Bill 63.) The Senate has asked the House to concur in this amendment.  The West Virginia Legislature’s Website has this link to the proposed legislation -http://www.legis.state.wv.us/Bill_Status/bills_tex