State takeover of school districts no ‘silver bullet’

Common Wealth Magazine

A YEAR AGO this month, the state board of education took up a proposal to temporarily suspend annual performance reviews of Massachusetts school districts because the MCAS test they would be based on had been canceled in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. During the discussion, Michael Moriarty, a board member from Holyoke, said reviving the state accountability system that tracks school performance would be particularly crucial following the pandemic for districts like Holyoke and Lawrence. The two districts, which have majority Hispanic student populations, are characterized by high poverty rates and have experienced years of very low student achievement scores. 


In the wake of moves by states to assert growing authority over struggling school districts, Beth Schueler, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, and Joshua Bleiberg, a researcher at the Annenberg Institute for Education Reform at Brown University, recently set out to examine the impact of state takeovers of districts. They looked at the effect of state takeovers in the 35 districts, spanning 14 states, that were taken over by state authorities between 2011 and 2016. These included Lawrence and Holyoke, but not Southbridge, where 2016-17 was the first full school year under state control. 

“Overall,” they wrote, “we find no evidence that state takeover improves academic achievement.” In what they say is the first attempt to systematically evaluate state takeovers, Schueler and Bleiberg say there was no clear evidence of gains in English and math outcomes. What’s more, there was even the suggestion of “disruptive” effects on student outcomes in the early years of takeovers, particularly in English language arts scores. 

“My takeaway is, on average, this doesn’t seem to be a particularly silver-bullet, promising approach to turning things around,” Schueler said in an interview. “But there’s quite a bit of variation in the effects across districts, so the fact it’s not effective, on average, doesn’t mean there aren’t districts where it can really help.” 


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