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Reconstitution refers to the highly controversial— and spreading— practice of replacing a school’s entire staff, from principal to custodians, as a remedy for failure. The assumption behind the move is that things are so bad that there is no alternative; the intent is to change the school’s culture and the relationships there. Some research suggests that reconstitution might work, but the evidence remains sketchy.

Some clues come from the San Francisco Unified School District, where a 1983 desegregation court order focused not just on where students go to school but also on improving education for African American and Latino students. Under the authority of the consent decree, San Francisco reconsituted six schools in very underserved, highly segregated parts of the city in a full-fledged attempt to bolster learning in those areas.

The district took major responsibility for success by launching a massive campaign to recruit the best teachers available, adding technology and providing professional development and extra resources. Most importantly, it developed a set of philosophic tenets to guide the rebuilding of the schools. In 1992 a panel of expert evaluators assigned by the court found that African Americans in reconstituted schools were performing better than those from similar backgrounds in other parts of the city. As a result, the consent decree called upon the district to reconstitute at least three schools a year, starting in 1993-94.

How are the schools faring? Researcher Jennifer O’Day, who has been documenting this experiment, says effects on learning so far have been fairly promising. Blazer winter Kasper Boutique Kasper winter Boutique Blazer zqPTFxwY Compared with schools of similar population, the reconstituted schools showed better performance, atmosphere, and staff and community relations. But O’Day’s clearest finding is that positive results don’t automatically follow from a personnel sweep. "Wiping out the faculty alone will not lead to long-term improvement in student performance. "She offers suggestions about why success requires a comprehensive approach:

  • The school suffers from "a legacy of failure." The problem with starting anew is that, in reality, you aren’t. The community is the same, and their first reaction is often negative. To even hope to change that, the new team needs to go out consistently and build ties. The school also must battle its reputation within the district. Few experienced teachers are willing to transfer into a school known as a failure. New staff may be talented and enthusiastic but inexperienced and devoid of veteran colleagues. Educators report initial chaos, as people settle in, build a team and set up instructional strategies.

  • Rebuilding a school requires leadership and a supportive structure between school and district leadership. San Francisco has learned this lesson. At one school, after three unsuccessful years and four principals, the district has sent in a top principal; the school is turning around. Mechanisms are in place that coordinate resources for reconstituted schools and foster networking and leadership development among the principals.
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  • Recruitment and training of teachers is critical. Lead time to recruit and plan is critical. In one high school, the new principal had just five weeks, and the legacy of failure precluded finding teachers from within the district. Many credit the success of San Francisco’s first round of reconsitutions to the months of lead time and the degree of responsibility assumed by the district for putting the pieces in place.
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  • Changing a school requires vision and a long-range strategy. At schools that have succeeded, the principal not only had extra help and resources, but also a strategy for reaching the goal. One danger is assuming — and leading the public to believe — that in a year or two, everything will be fine. Things should be better, but seeing the full impact takes much longer.

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