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In this file photo, Tate County algebra teacher Molly Berry teaches parabolas to her class. Berry said that consistent leadership and high expectations helped the district improve under state control.
In this file photo, Tate County algebra teacher Molly Berry teaches parabolas to her class. Berry said that consistent leadership and high expectations helped the district improve under state control. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

A state takeover is looming for Jackson Public Schools. But what do data and research say about the effectiveness of takeovers? Nationwide, state takeovers have had mixed results. More than half of all states have laws that allow a state to take over failing districts. But even after years of state control, some districts show improvement, while others do not.

In New Jersey, Newark Public Schools was taken over by the state in 1995 and is now returning to local control. Graduation rates and test scores have improved over the past 20 years. Philadelphia’s public schools were taken over by Pennsylvania in 2001, but test scores have dropped and the district has experienced debt. Other cities, like New Orleans and Memphis, have embraced takeover models that turn struggling schools over to charter school operators, but success is limited and inconsistent.

In Mississippi, 16 districts have been taken over since the early 1990s. In 2014, The Hechinger Report analyzed test score data from five Mississippi districts that were under state control and had several years to show growth. Here’s what we found:

  • All of the districts had seen at least slight improvement in their overall scores on the state’s 300-point scale, which is based on student test scores. But in several districts those gains were erratic year to year.
  • Some of the five districts struggled to show steady growth in individual grade levels or subject areas, and saw test scores rise one year, only to drop the next year.
  • In third-grade math, all five districts showed overall gains after the takeovers, but only two districts saw growth each year in pass rates for high school algebra.
  • All five districts showed ups and downs in eighth-grade language arts scores from the time the state took over until 2013.
  • Two additional districts, taken over in 2012, registered a decline in third-grade math scores immediately after the state took control.

Research and interviews with Mississippi conservators, now referred to as interim superintendents, suggest that state takeovers are most effective at correcting financial mismanagement and addressing administrative issues, rather than improving academics. According to teachers in some takeover districts, consistent leadership, rather than a revolving door of interim superintendents, also has a positive effect.

I spoke to Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s Wilson Stribling about state takeovers for the @ISSUE show last week. Check out our discussion here.

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