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.”
Gee, more complex than just firing the teachers and declaring we're going to accept "No Excuses!" when it comes to achievement.