Texas this week announced a state takeover of the Houston Public School District, the state’s largest and the nation’s eighth largest, a controversial move that would replace the democratically elected school board and superintendent with a board of managers appointed by the Texas Education Agency.
While the announcement leaves many questions unanswered about what the takeover will mean for the district’s roughly 200,000 students, education experts told NBC News that studies of previous district takeovers show no significant improvements in student performance and even some declines.
“We don’t find evidence that, on average, binges improve academic achievement, and we find evidence that it can be disruptive on average in the early years,” said Beth Shuler, assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia.
In a research paper published last year, she examined nearly three dozen state takeovers of school districts across the country from 2011 to 2016 and looked at the impact on student academic achievement, including through English and math test scores.
The researchers say in the paper that, on average, “we find no strong evidence that immersion benefits student academic achievement in ELA or math, at least in the short term, and evidence that it is generally disruptive to student achievement in ELA in the early years of immersion .”
The study also found that for both subjects, “the negative effects of ingestion were greater in areas with higher baseline test scores.”
The study also found that districts that served larger populations of black students were more likely to be targets of takeovers, regardless of academic performance.
Schuller said that while the research shows that, on average, these takeovers have not benefited student achievement, there is a range among districts where some have seen positive effects while others have seen negative and detrimental effects.
Texas first launched its plan to take over the Houston school district in 2019 after allegations of misconduct by school trustees and consecutive years of poor academic performance at Phillis Wheatley High School.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s education commissioner said in a letter to the school board and superintendent Wednesday that the board was appointed because one of the district’s campuses “has received unacceptable academic accountability scores for five consecutive years.” Mike Morath said another reason is that the district has had a conservator appointed for more than two consecutive years.
“Texas law authorizes the appointment of a governing board based on a district’s failure to improve student achievement at low-performing colleges,” he wrote.
Critics of the takeover say the county has made improvements since 2019 and question whether the move is politically motivated against local Democratic control in a Republican-controlled state.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, asked the federal government to intervene in the takeover, calling it “discriminatory”. The majority of students in the Houston area are black or Hispanic.
Jonathan Supovitz, a professor of leadership and policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said that in the case of individual districts, there is “evidence that splits both ways on whether state takeovers can improve student learning.”
One example of a positive impact was after Massachusetts took over the Lawrence school district in 2011. Researchers “found significant gains in math and modest gains in reading over two years” in the small district of about two dozen schools, he said.
Supowitz cited the controversial takeover of the New Orleans school system after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as a case in point. The local school district, still under state control, operates as a series of charter schools.
Tulane University researchers found in 2018 that in the nine years after Katrina, student achievement increased by 11 to 16 percentiles, high school graduation rates rose by 3 to 9 percentage points, and college entry and graduation rates have also risen.
They noted that it was “very unusual to see programs and policies improve all of these outcomes.”
But other research points to the failings of this all-charter school system, with a 2015 policy brief by researchers at Stanford’s Center for Educational Opportunity Policy finding that “school quality is highly variable” and “heavily stratified by race, class, and educational advantage, operating in a hierarchy that provides many different kinds of schools serving different “types” of children.
A bill that sought to return charter schools to local school board state control failed on a vote in the state Senate in May.
Supowitz said other examples of school takeovers have been less successful, including in 2002, when Pennsylvania took over the School District of Philadelphia and approved a set of for-profit and for-profit providers to run a set of its schools. A Rand Corp. study. in 2007 found that, on average, “schools run by private providers do no better or worse in raising student achievement than schools in the rest of the district, in maths and reading, in every from the first four years of private rule.’
But the group of schools that were restructured under district management “showed greater improvements in their students’ achievement in mathematics in each of the three years that the restructuring intervention was in place,” and when it came to reading, “a significant advantage in performance ahead of the rest of the district in just the first year of the intervention.”
Supowitz said that in another example, 52 schools were forced to restructure by Ohio in 2008 because of persistent problems. But after several years of reform efforts, fewer than 1 in 3 schools met academic goals, and fewer than half showed any improvement in student performance, he said.
Shuler said the size of Houston’s school district makes the latest takeover a bit more unique because over time the average district that has been taken over has gotten smaller.
She said the main questions that remain to be seen are what Texas will do with the authority over Houston schools, what kinds of reforms will be implemented and what exit strategy will be planned.
“It’s notable because it’s big and it’s going to affect a lot of students,” she said.