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Tough recommendations in school report

Inside a layer of ego-protecting bubble wrap about eager students, a caring staff and a supportive community in the recent report on Jackson’s public school system, there are a handful of rock-hard recommendations.

Now, the key questions are whether new superintendent Errick Greene will adopt them and accomplish them.

The report by consultants Insight Education Group is in some ways is the end of a process that was set in motion when Gov. Phil Bryant spurned an effort by the Mississippi Department of Education to take over the district. Instead, Bryant, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation created the Better Together Commission to study the district and suggest improvements.

Lumumba also remade the school board after previous members resigned, which was an implicit part of the deal. The new board, in turn, hired Greene after a search.

The awkward part of the arrangement had always threatened to be that the Better Together Commission would hand the new superintendent a turnaround plan that the superintendent had no part in crafting. The report’s 100 pages of findings and recommendations sidestep that issue by using the mildest possible language in many places. But there are some real recommendations hiding in there.

Maybe the most urgent is a call for Jackson district to scrap its uncompleted effort to write its own curriculum and quickly buy one off the shelf from an outside vendor. Insight warned that in some classrooms, curriculum is nonexistent.

“There is currently no clear guidance for teachers about what must be taught and how what they are teaching reflects college- and career-ready standards for students,” Insight wrote.

Once Jackson adopts a new curriculum, Insight urges district leaders to reconsider its standardized testing program. The consultants find there are too many tests, the district isn’t providing data that teachers can use to help individual students, and that the district is often testing material teachers haven’t taught yet or that differs from what they teach.

The authors raise the alarm that the district is relying too much on pulling students out of classes and parking them in front of computer programs designed for struggling students instead of relying on basic instruction for teaching. Insight advises that Jackson should be “clarifying what good core instruction looks like and training teachers on how to achieve it.”

The report is also critical of how little time employees who are supposed to be helping struggling students and those with special needs actually spend with students. Much of the time of those groups is instead spent doing paperwork and attending to other duties, something the consultants suggest the district find a way to streamline.

Insight also suggest that Greene needs to both shrink the size of the district’s central office, as well as to overhaul it so central office workers are doing more to support teachers in the field. A previous report found that Jackson has 37 percent more central office workers, per student, than the midpoint of other districts who are members of the Council of Great City Schools.

The consultants didn’t make any recommendations about closing individual schools, but Insight did suggest that Jackson should increase class sizes to recognize shrinking enrollment and cut the number of teachers needed at each school, freeing up money for other uses. Especially if done quietly, that could be a more politically palatable strategy than closing schools, which could arouse community opposition.

Greene says he’s going to spend the next few months writing a strategic plan. By then, it should be clear whether he’s unwrapped the report’s recommendations, or left them in the bubble wrap.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him at http://twitter.com/jeffamy .