Cardozo High School is undergoing substantial construction. The modernization… (Astrid Riecken/The Washington…)
D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson called it a “fresh start” and a “momentum-shifter” for Cardozo Senior High last month when administrators removed nearly half the staff at the school.
Henderson had used her power to “reconstitute” the struggling school, requiring the entire staff to reapply for their positions. It is a dramatic response to chronically low achievement, built on a philosophy that has driven D.C. school restructuring in recent years, first under Michelle Rhee and now under Henderson: Clear out poor educators and handpick a set of new ones to transform a school’s culture and performance.
Federal policymakers also embraced this approach under No Child Left Behind, the sweeping 2002 law that named reconstitution as an option for turning around low-performing schools. But the District’s efforts to remake schools this way have largely failed to produce improved test scores, suggesting that replacing staff is not by itself a reliable route to addressing the challenges of high-poverty inner-city schools.
Rhee and Henderson have reconstituted more than two dozen schools in the past five years — including Cardozo, which was last remade in 2008. Of the 18 D.C. schools reconstituted between 2008 and 2010, 10 have seen their standardized test scores decline further. Two of the schools have closed. Six have improved.
While test scores can be a crude measure of progress, school and city leaders use them as a key metric in judging schools.
Teachers say the District’s mixed record with reconstitution is a sign that urban schools and students face complicated problems — such as rampant truancy — that can’t be solved by trading one set of teachers for another.
“It seems like we’re always being told it’s our fault, like we should be superheroes,” said one Cardozo teacher who was rehired in May and who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for their jobs. Reconstitution “doesn’t acknowledge the fact that there are a lot of issues outside the control of the teacher.”
Henderson said she agrees that reconstitution alone is not enough to ensure improvement. But she said the system has learned from its mistakes, and she continues to believe that remaking a school’s staff is the best way to jump-start change.
“We have not always done reconstitution well,” Henderson said. “But reconstitution, coupled with a leadership change at the right time in a school’s history, can have tremendous effects.”
Wheatley Education Campus in Northeast is one school where reconstitution marked the beginning of substantial improvement. Principal Scott Cartland arrived at the school in 2008, fresh from a post at a school in affluent Northwest Washington.
“When I went into that building, I had never seen anything that was that chaotic and broken,” Cartland said. “I was so in over my head.”
Cartland replaced 80 percent of the staff, reconceived the literacy curriculum and poured resources into mental health and social workers. Working with an outside partner, New York-based nonprofit Turnaround for Children, the school connected particularly troubled students with a community health organization.
And perhaps most important, Cartland said, the faculty reached out to families and worked to establish trust. “You have to pay so much more attention to relationships in a place like this,” he said.
Wheatley’s student proficiency on math and reading tests has nearly doubled since 2008, to 28 percent. “We have lots of work to do, but we’re a school,” Cartland said. “We’re able to teach.”
But Wheatley’s gains are not typical. Many other schools either stagnated or slid backward. At Ferebee-Hope Elementary, which is closing in June, test scores have dropped 15 percentage points since the school was reconstituted in 2009. At Anacostia High, which has operated in partnership with a charter school since it was reconstituted in 2009, proficiency rates have dropped from 18 percent to 15 percent.
School systems across the country have been experimenting with reconstitution since the 1990s, hoping to radically improve schools similar to Cardozo. Like the District, experts say, they have often been unsuccessful.
“This is a very difficult improvement problem in which you probably should expect more failures than successes,” said Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “These are not places that suddenly got bad. Over the decades, we’ve thrown every conceivable thing at these schools and they’ve failed to improve.”
The Obama administration has distributed more than $3 billion in stimulus funds to jurisdictions that agreed to use one of four approaches — including a version of reconstitution — to turn around low-performing schools.