Reconstituting Jefferson

Reconsitution is a nationwide trend, and example of "get tough" policies. At my school, it was mean-spirited and shallow - and did nothing to address the school's real problems

By Linda Christensen

Does reconstitution get to the heart of why a school is failing?

In May 21, 1998, Jefferson High School teachers, cafeteria workers, custodians, secretaries, and administrators lined up to receive our official “pink slips,” notifying us to “vacate” our positions because of reconstitution. Lela Triplett Roberts, Jefferson’s incoming principal, told teachers to inventory supplies, books, computers, and pack up our years of teaching materials by June 11 – while we were still teaching.

As I took down student pictures, the national awards for Rites of Passage, Jefferson’s literary magazine, and packed up 22 years of lesson plans, I felt both anger and sadness. The decision to leave Jefferson was not an easy one.

In meetings packed with emotion, Jefferson staff members struggled between staying for our students who did nothing to bring this about and leaving because it was an “insult to reapply for a job we did well.”

I always thought that I would retire from Jefferson. But instead, I packed my boxes. I refused to offer legitimacy to an educational policy that is so shallow and mean-spirited. Ultimately, the majority of classroom teachers left, and many were quickly offered jobs at other schools during the first round of the hiring cycle.

The premise of reconstitution is that a “failing” school cannot reform itself with the staff who created that failure. The solution: ax the old teachers, bring in new teachers and new administrators with a can-do attitude, and pursue a “best practices” strategy of school renewal. At Jefferson, both the premise and the solution were ill-conceived.

Roots of Reconstitution

For years, leaders in the predominately African-American community that Jefferson serves urged school officials to address the crisis of low achievement in the neighborhood’s schools. In June, 1997, in response to those concerns, outgoing Superintendent Bierwirth announced plans to reconstitute Humboldt Elementary, a Jefferson feeder school, and to put Jefferson High School on notice of reconstitution. The moves were part of a “get tough” districtwide strategy to raise test scores at schools that received the lowest numbers on the state tests.

Speaking at the opening faculty meeting in September, 1997, Superintendent Bierwirth discussed the problems he saw at Jefferson. He noted that the majority of freshmen enter the school without passing the Graduation Standards Test (an eighth grade exit exam) in math and reading. He also noted that 84% of Jefferson’s juniors did not meet benchmarks on the state reading test and 85% did not meet benchmarks on the state mathematics test.

Bierwirth put us on notice, but failed to give us criteria for improving the school. He didn’t say, “Bring up those 10th grade test scores by x% or improve student attendance by x%.” Instead, Jefferson’s administrators were asked to design a new plan for the school to implement the following school year, in 1998-99.

But instead of implementing a new plan, we were “fired” later that spring by interim Superintendent Diana Snowden, hired after Bierwirth took a job with the national Outward Bound program. Snowden, a former power company executive with no experience in education, continued Bierwirth’s “policy” of reconstitution.

But reconstitution was not the answer to Jefferson’s problems. It was a quick-fix solution, one that too many urban school districts use to solve complex problems in low-achieving schools and, at least in the case of Portland, to placate communities frustrated by low achievement on standardized tests. In Jefferson’s case, this bomb-the-school approach avoided a desperately needed ongoing discussion between staff, community, students, and administration of the school’s problems – and successes. And it hid the long-standing administrative policies that contributed to Jefferson’s difficulties.

As bad as Jefferson’s test scores sound, other schools in the state didn’t fare much better. The average test scores for English were 236 in 1996 to 1997. Jefferson’s average was 231. Overall, nine out of the 12 Portland schools tested did not make the average, and the ones above the state average were only above by a few points.

Significantly, Jefferson scores at or above average on the state direct writing test. These scores are important because the writing exams actually evaluate the quality of students’ writing; the other tests are multiple choice, with much less validity. In other words, when Jefferson students performed real tasks, instead of narrow testing tasks, they successfully competed with their peers throughout Oregon.

Teachers argued that because of the district’s open enrollment policy, almost half of the neighborhood’s high school students chose to attend other schools in the district. Out of a potential pool of 1765 students during the 1996-97 school year, 802 attended our school – only 46%. Students with higher 8th grade test scores were accepted at other schools, leaving Jefferson with the largest population of students who had not passed the Graduation Standards Test (GST). For example, at Lincoln High School, which boasts the highest test scores in the state, approximately 95% of the entering freshman have passed the GST, compared to 53% at Jefferson.

No one at Jefferson disagreed with Superintendent Bierwirth’s assessment that we were a school in trouble. But there had never been a real discussion about the nature of that trouble and its root causes. Nor had the school or district kept track of the achievement gains students made once they entered Jefferson.

Many Jefferson parents were also angered by the lack of process and criteria in the decisions for restaffing the school. When interim Superintendent Snowden “reconstituted” Jefferson, she announced that the school would restructure into three “houses” and three principals would be hired for the 1998-99 school year, one for each academic “house.” She invited Jefferson parents, community members, students, and teachers to participate in interviews of candidates who had been selected by the school district. After meeting for over seven hours, the group made recommendations based on those interviews. The recommendations were ignored.

According to John Lee, a Jefferson parent who participated in the interviews, Snowden never contacted the parents or returned their phone calls before announcing, several weeks later, her appointment of interim principal Lela Triplett Roberts. Roberts, an elementary principal, was not even one of the candidates included in the interviews.

Behind Reconstitution

The blunders in Jefferson’s reconstitution go beyond personalities and broken promises. Today’s school reform discourse takes its lead from the world of commerce and reduces educational outcomes to “bottom line” numerical scores that can be used to rate, rank, and reconstitute schools. Educational quality has increasingly been determined solely on the basis of test scores. School district executives look for a quick solution to the community’s legitimate demand for improved education for low-income and minority students. Like corporate executives elsewhere, they easily blame their workers for deep-seated, structural problems.

Yes, Jefferson High School had low scores. But instead of handing out pink slips to everyone – from principal to custodian to teachers and cafeteria workers – the school district might have asked why students were performing poorly and then put the school on a collaboratively developed plan of assistance.

As Jennifer O’Day, education professor at University of Wisconsin at Madison, said in an interview on reconstitution in the Chicago-based magazine Catalyst, “It is not just the teachers who need to take responsibility, but the district must ask, ‘What can we provide, what resources are needed to help this school?'” (NOTE: Click here to read the Catalyst article.)

I understand that districts must hold schools accountable for improving student achievement. I would have agreed to any number of measures targeted at improving academic performance. Send in an intervention team to determine the factors contributing to the school’s poor health. Bring together students, parents, teachers, and community members to design a long-term plan for improvement. Find the most successful teachers in the school and promote their strategies, attitudes, and curriculum as centerpieces in the new design. Make students, teachers, and administrators accountable for improving the school using a broad range of criteria.

But don’t scapegoat the teachers and students for the problems of a school district.

As a result of the Superintendent’s decision to reconstitute our school, Jefferson students, alumni, and teachers were stigmatized. Students wearing Jefferson jackets were teased about attending a “dummy school.” A Jefferson teacher was denied housing because her job situation was “tentative.” And according to one school counselor, because of Jefferson’s notoriety, students with exemplary education records were denied scholarships traditionally given to Jefferson.

I am not an advocate for poor teachers. Both children and the teaching profession are not well-served when the district shuffles incompetent teachers and administrators from building to building, especially to schools in low income neighborhoods where parents have historically been less vocal. But reconstituting a school without examining all of the data and laying out a plan for improvement is wrong. It should be banned as education policy.

Linda Christensen, a former Jefferson teacher, is a Rethinking Schools editor. A version of this article appeared in The Oregonian, Portland’s daily newspaper.