School Improvement and School Turnaround: State-Level Strategies in Louisiana and Maryland

School Improvement and School Turnaround: State-Level Strategies in Louisiana and Maryland
School Improvement and School Turnaround: State-Level Strategies in Louisiana and Maryland

The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation is often cited as the driving force behind current efforts to restructure underperforming schools. All schools are held accountable to meet NCLB’s targets for raising student achievement; however, the specifics of school improvement and restructuring must be hammered out at the state and district levels.

As leaders of school turnaround initiatives, state and local education agencies have defined their roles and responsibilities in a variety of ways, with some states taking a relatively directive, hands-on approach and others giving local districts wide latitude to develop their own plans for school restructuring. Recognizing that every state and district faces a unique set of policy challenges, though, it may be possible to draw some broadly applicable lessons from their diverse efforts. In particular, what have states and districts identified as the most stubborn barriers to school restructuring? What sorts of political conditions have allowed turnaround projects to move forward? And what aspects of federal policy are most supportive of promising state- and district-level strategies?

This forum—the last in a series of three events focusing on efforts to turn around chronically low-performing schools—featured school turnaround initiatives underway in Louisiana and Maryland. Created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s Recovery School District represents a dramatic state intervention into the governance of a city school district, while Maryland’s approach is characterized by state technical assistance and oversight of restructuring conducted at the local level.

Ronald Peiffer, Deputy Superintendent at the Maryland State Department of Education, began by describing the political context for school restructuring in his state. Maryland is known as an early adopter of the kind of strict accountability system now codified under NCLB. Beginning with a 1987 Governor-led commission on accountability, the state began to lay the groundwork for the academic testing, data collection, and other school improvement work that continues today. When NCLB began in 2003, Maryland had already identified 131 chronically underperforming schools eligible for restructuring, the majority of them in Baltimore County.

Three years before NCLB was passed, Maryland did shut down three Baltimore schools and reopen them under a contract with the Edison Group, the for-profit school management organization. Those schools did make improvements—some of them very significant—but the venture provoked political controversy, and the teacher’s union, among others, challenged the move as draconian. Nevertheless, the turnaround effort was recognized by many as beneficial, and thus the Edison contract continued, even after the schools began achieving State standards.

Several years later, Maryland attempted again to intervene, this time with eleven very low-performing Baltimore City schools.  In spring 2006, the State Board of Education called for the eleven schools to remain under the control of the local school system but reopen them as public charter schools or under the management of a vendor. Very quickly, the state legislature moved to prevent the state from taking such action in this case or in future years. Since then, the State Board of Education has continued to identify low-performing schools that it recommends for restructuring, but it leaves it up to the local district to implement a State Board approved restructuring plan.

In the years since NCLB started, the state expected to see its list of low-performing schools climb from the 400 that it had initially identified in the first year of the program, 2003. In fact, though, the number has fallen somewhat, with Prince George’s County (a large district touching both Baltimore and Washington, DC) making particularly strong progress in helping schools to meet NCLB performance goals.

Over the years, said Peiffer, his office has learned that some dramatic, short-term turnaround strategies fall short of their desired impact, such as the appointment of “turnaround specialists.” On occasion a school will improve quickly, but if it then loses its special funding or programs, it will backtrack. More effective are long-term strategies that include ongoing funding, oversight, professional development, and monitoring.

Maryland used to channel its education spending into 40-45 separate funding streams. But in 2003 it shifted to a block grant system, giving each district a lump sum (the figure determined by student population and need) that it can use flexibly, responding to local needs. In turn, the state is extremely strict in its requirements on districts to report performance data, as well as to submit yearly plans for data collection and school improvement—and the department takes those plans very seriously, requiring schools to revise and resubmit those it deems to be weak.  Based on the school system’s performance trends and the documented effectiveness of past spending patterns, the State Board of Education may call for the system to alter its Master Plan to address deficits with effective strategies before approving it.

Further, Maryland is one of six states that have received federal approval to experiment with differentiated accountability models. Under its new system, underperforming schools are steered into two separate pathways. The first, comprising the majority of those schools, is for those that have failed to meet NCLB targets (Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP) for just one or two student sub-groups (such as English Language Learners or students with learning disabilities), and which are likely to benefit from targeted interventions and technical assistance.

The second pathway is for those schools that have failed to make AYP in several areas, and which likely need much greater intervention, perhaps including new school leaders, staff, curriculum, professional development programs, and so on.

While he wouldn’t want the first pathway to be seen as “restructuring lite,” said Peiffer, he believes that states shouldn’t ignore the fact that some schools have much more serious needs than others and require different levels of investment.

As for what hasn’t worked in Maryland, Peiffer reiterated that the state hasn’t found it worthwhile to appoint so-called “turnaround specialists” or “distinguished principals” to take over the helm of troubled schools.  Not only do those leaders tend to leave after a couple of years but their appointment often leads to confusion over the lines of authority in the given district or school. And, finally, while the department had some success when it took over a few schools several years ago, the legislature has blocked the state’s ability to rely on that strategy.

Ramsey Green, Deputy Chief Operating Officer for the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD), described a situation of complete state takeover over the majority of New Orleans’ low-performing schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) was operating 128 schools but enrolled only 63,000 students, leaving many of those schools half-empty (a majority of the city’s students attended private schools, with 50,000 enrolled in parochial schools alone). As for student performance, OPSD ranked 67th out of the state’s 68 districts. And while Louisiana has a national reputation for the quality of its school accountability system, it ranked 45th among the states on student achievement—meaning that New Orleans’ schools were among the worst of the worst.

The creation of the RSD predated the hurricane, and had already been charged to intervene in academic systems of the state’s perpetually underperforming schools. The RSD had already reconstituted the functions of curriculum and instruction in five of New Orleans’ schools, alongside a private contractor that was assigned to take over those schools’ finances and management. Further, the OPSB faced a billion dollars in deferred maintenance costs for its aging campuses. And it was embroiled in tough local debates over proposals to save money by closing its under-enrolled schools, which represented roughly one-fourth of all schools.

The immediate impact of Katrina was to devastate an already troubled district. Fifty-five schools were completely destroyed, and the rest suffered about a billion dollars in damages, as well as an additional $90 million in theft, vandalism, and other costs that aren’t covered by federal relief programs. Most schools closed, and their students dispersed.

In response, the state board of education amended its rules to permit the takeover not only of failing schools but also of failing districts. The RSD was charged with the complete control of all New Orleans school performing below the state average. The RSD now comprises more than a hundred regular public schools and another 45 charter schools (many of them sharing facilities). The OPSD controls just sixteen schools, made up of the city’s schools that have been meeting their performance targets under NCLB.

The challenges for the RSD, said Green, run the gamut. For instance, in 2006-07, while the city was trying to get back on its feet, teachers were in short supply, and seats were so limited that many kids could not attend school at all and had to be put on a waiting list. Most school kitchens weren’t functioning. The costs of bussing students to open schools were astronomical, and LRSD faced constant struggles to get the federal government to reimburse it for such expenses.

By early 2007, though, things began to change for the better, and they have improved rapidly since then. With help from the federal RENEWAAL legislation (Renewing Education through Attracting America’s Leaders), the RSD has hired more than 600 teachers, and the city has been a priority for groups like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project. Student registrations have skyrocketed, with the district adding as many as 75 students per day. By the 2007-08 school year, capacity had increased by 10,000 seats, creating enough room for every student who wanted to enroll. The district has instituted an extended school day, along with after school and summer programs.

Under strong leadership from the state superintendent, Paul Pastorek, and the RSD superintendent, Paul Vallas, the RSD has gone ahead with its massive rebuilding project. Combining local, state, and federal funds, the RSD and OPSB jointly approved a $2 billion facilities master plan, of which $700 million in fully funded construction is underway now through 2014—the largest government rebuilding program on the Gulf Coast since Katrina.  The facilities master plan will bring online 85 state-of-the art facilities, putting a new building within walking distance of every PK-8 student in the district and offering a multitude of cross-city high school options.

To date, RSD has seen test score gains and other indicators of progress (such as rising attendance and retention) in grades K-8, though high schools are improving more slowly. Securing adequate funding remains an ongoing challenge, too, with enormous amounts of construction and other projects still underway.

The state takeover has been essential to the improvement seen in New Orleans so far, Green concluded, and it would be hard to imagine so much progress being made if the district had to contend with collective bargaining and other aspects of the older OPSB system. In fact, Superintendent Pastorek is sufficiently impressed with the progress that he has proposed to extend the authority of the RSD to more schools in the state, outside of New Orleans.


Highlights from the Question and Answer Session

The first question, addressed to Peiffer, asked for more specifics as to practices that have helped turn around schools in Maryland, particularly to improve teacher quality. The state doesn’t take over schools, Peiffer reiterated, and it doesn’t rely on specific reform strategies so much as it tries to tailor its technical support and advice to the given district. Under its two pathways for school restructuring, it provides either targeted advice or deeper recommendations for whole school improvement—either way, the state’s role is to help each school and district to come up with specific plans for restructuring; while school restructuring plans must be approved individually by the State Board, the Department operationally tries to work collaboratively with school districts for change and avoids directive approaches unless necessary.

As for teacher quality, said Peiffer, Maryland faces an unusual problem in that its state universities lack the capacity to produce the numbers of new teachers that are needed every year. Thus, the state has always had to import certified teachers from Pennsylvania and other states, as well as to look to teacher recruitment programs such as Teach for America. In fact, some districts have been importing teachers from the Philippines and other nations, though those teachers tend to return home after a few years. What’s needed nationally, Peiffer said, is probably something like a post-Sputnik effort such as the National Defense Education Act for teacher recruitment and professional development.

The second question concerned the extent to which NCLB accountability requirements overlap with the school assessments being used in New Orleans and Maryland. Peiffer noted that Maryland has been designing and using its own achievement tests since the late 1970s, and as early as the 1980s, it had developed real expertise in assessment, ensuring that its tests—primarily multiple choice format, with some written response items—were both valid and reliable. In the 1990s, the state began to require end-of-course exams in core subjects, and it is introducing required graduation tests this year. Under NCLB, the state did have to shift its testing somewhat, though, in order to align it more closely to state academic standards and to allow for the tracking of individual student progress (rather than school-by-school progress). In short, said Peiffer, NCLB prompted the state to improve its testing in important ways, and Maryland’s system is now fully in line with the federal law—though it’s worth noting, he added, that the pre-NCLB assessments identified precisely the same underperforming schools that the new system does.

Green pointed out that Louisiana is widely regarded to have a strong system of school accountability system, and the state board of education is very responsive to the data needs of local districts. He noted also that the Recovery School District has made it a goal for its schools to see at least the same rate of progress as New Orleans’ charter schools, and that has indeed happened. One important move that the RSD made, he said, was to hire the principal from the highest performing charter school in the city and appoint him to direct the district’s PK-8 academic program. In turn, he has made some changes that seem to be helping to raise scores—particularly important, he created a mandatory extended school day, and he is now implementing a performance-based system that will reward teachers and principals for school progress.

The third question addressed the response of the New Orleans teachers union—which had been a very strong unit before Katrina—to recent reforms. Green said that while the RSD is free from collective bargaining obligations, Superintendent Vallas is sensitive to the role of the union and makes it a point to engage it in monthly meetings, with a staff member assigned as liaison to the group. That said, the RSD doesn’t hesitate to dismiss teachers who don’t meet basic performance goals. Also, over the summer the district let go approximately 130 teachers who had claimed to be in the process of earning a state teaching license but who were not in fact doing so—as of this school year, all of RSD’s teachers are, or are genuinely in the process of becoming, certified. As an aside, said Green, the Orleans Parish School District—which still operates sixteen schools—is still bound by its collective bargaining agreement, and many RSD teachers continue to pay dues to the union.

The situation is quite different in Maryland, said Peiffer. It’s a small state with only twenty-four districts, and everybody knows everybody else. The unions (affiliated with the NEA, except for the Baltimore teachers, who belong to the AFT) have seats on various state advisory boards and are generally well-connected, helping to vet new policy proposals and reform ideas. However, the unions’ friendliness to school restructuring and other reforms depends on the district. In Prince Georges County, for instance, the union has negotiated a performance-based pay scheme, which remains a contentious issue elsewhere.

The fourth question addressed the status of charter schools in New Orleans—do they have access to the new facilities? Green said that except in the case of special, themed schools (which might require laboratories, performance spaces, and so on), RSD moves forward with construction even before deciding which school (or schools) will occupy a particular facility. When time comes to decide which schools to place where, no distinction is made among the charters, RSD schools, and Orleans Parish schools. Making things more complicated, though, the OPSD still owns most of the land on which the RSD is doing the construction, and some facilities may house both a charter school and an RSD school. With shared facilities, schools face challenges in assigning costs for building repair and utilities.

Another question concerned the recent achievement gains in New Orleans and Maryland—what’s making the test scores rise? Green replied that so much has been done so quickly that it’s hard to say what might be responsible for recent gains. Superintendent Vallas thinks that the extended day policy has had an impact on achievement. He also credits the dedication and quality of the new teachers hired, especially those recruited by Teach for America, as well as low class sizes (teacher/student ratios have been 20:1, but budget pressures are forcing them up to 23-26:1). Currently, researchers from RAND, Columbia University, and elsewhere are studying the RSD, and they’ll be able to give a much more extensive picture of achievement gains and what’s causing them after more time has passed.

In Maryland, said Peiffer, a couple of things have led to rising scores. One is the districts’ voluntary adoption of the state’s content standards and curriculum guidelines, which Achieve helped it to develop. Also, the state has made some progress on teacher quality. And the state’s high school assessments are giving local principals and superintendents much better information on student progress than they’ve ever had before, allowing them to provide students more individual attention.

For the final question, the presenters were asked how they would improve NCLB.  Peiffer reiterated that NCLB has worked well for Maryland, especially since the state won the right to implement a differentiated accountability system. Perhaps that flexibility should be extended to all states, he said, but his overall recommendation would be to improve NCLB, not end it.

Speaker Biographies

Ramsey Green, is the Budget and Policy Director of the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD).  Taking over nearly 90% of the public schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the state-controlled RSD is undertaking an unprecedented movement to turn around a troubled legacy of public education and rebuild damaged and destroyed school facilities in New Orleans.  Previously, Ramsey was the Education Policy Director for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the governor’s office charged allocating more than $11 billion of federal rebuilding funds.  Additionally, Ramsey has worked in infrastructure financing, sustainability, and energy policy development in southern California.  A 2001 Teach For America corpsmember, Ramsey taught high school social studies at Franklin Senior High School in Franklin, Louisiana.  Ramsey graduated from New York University in 2001 and is currently working toward a master’s in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania.  His primary professional interest is working to help communities most efficiently recover from disasters.

Dr. Ronald Peiffer

Dr. Ronald A. Peiffer, currently serves as a Deputy State Superintendent of Schools for the Maryland State Department of Education with nearly four decades of experience in Maryland public preK through twelve education at the State and local levels.  He heads the Office of Academic Policy, which is charged with the development and implementation of statewide education policy, particularly relating to school accountability and assessment.

Working for nearly twenty years at the local school system level in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, he had a wide array of professional experience with curriculum development, instruction, and professional development, as well as development of administrative policies related to the local implementation of State testing programs.  He began his career as a science teacher and later served at the central office for the school system.

Beginning in 1985, Dr. Peiffer served as liaison between the Maryland State Department of Education and Anne Arundel County Public Schools before transitioning to a leadership role at the State level.  He began by overseeing facets of the implementation of high school graduation testing statewide, moving later to other leadership positions within the Department from Director and Assistant State Superintendent positions until he was appointed in 2003 by State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick as the Deputy State Superintendent of Schools, overseeing academic policy.

Dr. Peiffer served on the State leadership team, which oversaw the implementation of the Maryland School Performance Program (MSPP).  The Maryland initiative was created in 1990 as the school accountability program that preceded No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by more than a decade.  As a precursor to NCLB, the State accountability program involved the development of statewide tests and school interventions, including school restructuring.  More recently, he has provided leadership for Maryland’s implementation of its statewide school accountability and student assessment system, which has been recognized nationally for its fidelity and adherence to the federal law, while balancing fair and equitable treatment for students and educators alike.  Maryland’s High School Assessment program, initiated more than a decade ago, is slated to become a graduation requirement for Maryland’s 2009 graduates.

Dr. Peiffer’s education includes a 1988 doctorate from the University of Maryland School of Education, a 1973 master’s degree from the George Washington University, and an undergraduate degree from Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.  Dr. Peiffer has been honored for his work by groups such as the Maryland PTA and the State of Maryland International Reading Association and has been identified by the University of Maryland School of Education as an outstanding alumnus.  He frequently speaks before education and community groups at the national and statewide level and advises State and national leaders on State and federal education policies.


Ronald A. Peiffer Presentation

Ramsey Green Presentation 

Ramsey Green
Deputy Chief Operating Officer
New Orleans Recovery School District
1641 Poland Avenue
New Orleans, LA  70117

Ronald Peiffer
Deputy State Superintendent
Office of Academic Policy
Maryland State Department of Education
200 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, Maryland


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