Thursday, December 13, 2007

Just Desserts and School Closings

School closings are the mystery dessert of the ed reform menu. We don't know a lot about it, but it sounds really good. Or at least different.
In looking around for evidence to include in this post, I was astounded by just how little we know about reconstitution.

By reconstitution, I refer to closing schools and reopening them in the same building with the same kids, but potentially different faculty and a different principal. It appears this is the game plan for the elementary and middle schools that will be closed. (This, of course, is different than what's happened in NYC small schools, where an extensive school choice system means that new schools reopen with different kids, different staff, and different principals.)

So what have researchers who've studied reconstituted schools concluded? The best paper that I found is by University of Maryland researchers Betty Malen and colleagues, who studied reconstitution in Maryland. They outline the assumptions of reconstitution plans, i.e.: 1) that reconstitution will bring in a more talented and committed principal and faculty, 2) that changes in the composition of the faculty supports the process of redesigning the school, and 3) that these redesigned schools ultimately improve student achievement. Malen et al. concluded that none of these assumptions held up. In particular, they found that there weren't a cadre of super teachers waiting in the wings to take jobs at the hardest schools.

Studying reconstitution in Chicago, Fred Hess came to a similar conclusion: "Reconstitution did not prove to be a successful school improvement strategy." (Hat tip to Mike Klonsky and George Schmidt for helping me understand reconstitution in Chicago.) The University of Maryland's Jennifer King Rice put it best in her article when she wrote:

Our analysis found school reconstitution to cause far more disruption than meaningful redesign of school policies and practices. Our findings suggest that policymakers should consider carefully the potential negative effects of reconstitution and whether they have sufficient resources to effectively support the policy before relying on this approach as a mechanism for school improvement. A common assumption in many low-performing school communities is that any change is better than no change at all. We would argue that such an assumption is not justified. The reconstitution initiative that we studied is a good example. School reconstitution did not enhance school capacity for reform, but rather depleted resources, leaving troubled schools more troubled than before being reconstituted.

Like jalapeno chocolate mousse, reconstitution may sound good in theory - even tempting. But as the cognoscenti have waxed about Max Brenner, not everything should be made into a dessert.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about another side of the reconstitution issue - that is, does the threat of school closure lead to improvements? - and will then take a look at some of the NYC data next week.

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