Writing in Forbes, Peter Greene explains why state takeovers fail. Greene retired as a teacher after 39 years in the classroom. They fail and fail, but state legislatures won’t stop imposing them on struggling school districts that need help. The usual traits of a “failing” school or school district: high poverty, high numbers of limited-English proficient students, high numbers of students with disabilities. Funny, one seldom, if ever, finds a school or district in an affluent white neighborhood that needs to be run by the state.

Greene writes:

Since policy writers and thinky tanks first started pushing the idea of identifying “failing” schools, the search has been on for a way to fix those schools. A popular choice has been the school takeover model, where the state strips the local school district of authority and then waves some sort of magic wand to make things better.

The Obama administration used School Improvement Grants as a tool, offering federal funds to schools that were “failing,” but those funds came with very strict rules about how they could be used. This is a good example of the Takeover By Puppetry model, in which the local officials are left in place, but they are only allowed to make certain government-approved moves or must only implement consultant-approved steps. The SIG program spent in the neighborhood of $7 billion. USED’s own report found that it “had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”

That report, to which Greene refers, was released in the last day of the Obama administration’s eight-year term. It gave an F to a major part of the failed “Race to the Top.” $7 billion spent, nothing to show for it.

The more direct takeover approach has also been tried. Tennessee formed the Achievement School District; in this model, the state takes control of “failing schools” and lumps them into a state-run district. The initial promise was that schools from the bottom 5% would be catapulted into the top 25%. After a few years, they were not even close to achieving their, so they rewrote the goal. The head of the ASD moved on to another job. Versions of the ASD have been tried in several states and in cities (e.g. Philadelphia) and in almost all cases, they’ve been rolled back or shut down because they cost a lot of money and achieve few worthwhile results.

Greene lists five reasons that state takeovers fail. Open the link to read them all.

1) The Wrong Measure of Failure

How are we going to decide which schools are in need of taking over? The most common answer is by standardized test scores–which is a lousy answer. This bad definition is important because it biases the process in favor of bad solutions. A school may have a hundred problems, but if all we’re focused on is the test scores, too may real problems will be unaddressed. Worse, many important elements of children’s education will be swept aside to make room for more test prep–the exact opposite of what students in struggling schools need. This is like calling AAA because you’re stranded beside the road with three flat tires, a busted radiator, an empty gas tank, and failing brakes–and AAA sends someone to wax the car.

2) The Wrong Diagnosis

Takeover programs focus on school governance. The thesis of a takeover is that the school board, the administration, and probably the teachers, are the root of all the problems at the school. If we just take them out of the way and replace them with shinier people, then everything will just fall into place. Somehow, all these people who work in the district either don’t know how to raise test scores, or they just don’t care. Resources for the district, issues in the community, systemic lack of support for the school, poverty–none of that is on the table. The belief is that when the old bureaucracy (including unions) is swept away and replaced, preferably by a visionary CEO type who will whip the troops into shape, then everything will run so much better. Often the unspoken premise is, “If we could just run these schools like charter schools…” Here’s what Chris Barbic, who was supposed to be the visionary CEO of the Tennessee ASD, said as he was leaving the job:

Let’s just be real: achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment. I have seen this firsthand at YES Prep and now as the superintendent of the ASD. As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.

I have always been partial to Greene’s third reason: the mystical belief that someone who works for the State Departmenf of Education knows how to fix everything. This is absurd. You would think even the Legislature knows that Superman or Woman is not in a desk job at DOE.