We can fix bad schools, but usually don’t

“We know what to do about the nation’s struggling urban schools. But for the most part, we’re choosing not to do it.” So argues Richard Whitmire on RealClearEducation.

Micaiah Rogers and Synique Malone compete in a sack race at a game night at Hanley Aspire for families to get to know the faculty.

Ariel Woods, Micaiah Rogers and Synique Malone compete at a game night for families at Hanley Aspire.

Tennessee created the Achievement School District to turn around its lowest-performing schools. “Some schools got fresh starts, others got absorbed by charters,” Whitmire writes.

The state’s student achievement report shows big gains. “Math and science scores for the 10,000 students in those schools rose faster than the state average, while reading matched state levels.”

Michigan has formed a special district for low-performing schools and Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arkansas “are moving that way,” he writes.

. . . The nation’s most dramatic schools turnaround example is found in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina offered educators a rare start-over opportunity. Today, nearly all New Orleans students attend charter schools, and each fresh study of the results show students moving in the right direction.

Denver, Washington, D.C. and other cities are working with “top-performing charter schools” to leverage change, writes Whitmire.

In Memphis, California-based Aspire Public Schools has taken over a failing school, Hanley Elementary, and all its students in a black neighborhood called Orange Mound.

Scores were low in the first year, but the second year saw “big increases in math proficiency and respectable increases in literacy skills,” writes Whitmire.

“In the first year, you really need to focus on changing the culture and leading indicators such as attendance, suspension and student attrition,” Aspire’s Allison Leslie said. “In the second year, there should be increases in proficiency and exceptional growth. By year three you should see great gains in proficiency and continue to see high growth scores.”

Chartering Turnaround, a new report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Center on School Turnaround, looks at how three charter management organizations restarted and improved low-achieving public schools.  According to the report, “the autonomy to hire, retain and reward staff; the ability to adjust the length of school year, academic program and curriculum; and, the option to develop tailored approaches for finances and facilities” are the most critical factors.

How to blend tech and teachers

Liz Arney’s new guidebook, Go Blended!,  shows “how schools should think about using technology and blended learning to better serve students,” writes Andrew J. Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners.

Arney, one of the contributors to the Blend My Learning blog, is director of “innovative learning” for Aspire Public Schools‘ charters.

Blended learning — using learning software for part of the day — is often used to enable students to work at their own pace, freeing teachers to work with small groups.

Apprentice teachers learn what works

Bianka Mariscal with a student at Aspire East Palo Alto Charter School (Jim Wilson/New York Times)

After a one-year apprenticeship, new teachers learn what works in the classroom, reports the New York Times.

Aspire Public Schools, a charter system with schools in California and Memphis, pays teacher residents a stipend while they’re learning their craft. “Mentors believe that the most important thing that novice teachers need to master is the seemingly unexciting — but actually quite complex — task of managing a classroom full of children.”

At Aspire, where most students come from low-income families, residents spend four days a week in a single classroom working with a mentor from late summer through the end of the school year. On the fifth day, they take seminars, role-playing typical situations and deconstructing videos while practicing almost scripted approaches to teaching. If they complete the program, they each earn a master’s degree and a teaching credential through a partnership with a local university.

David Nutt, 26, a Dartmouth graduate who’d taught Palestinian fourth graders in the West Bank, started out in a high school science classroom, but struggled to learn the material while also learning how to teach. In mid-year, he transferred to an Oakland elementary school. That proved to be a good fit.

One March morning, Mr. Nutt jotted division equations on a white board and the students eagerly volunteered to check the work using multiplication. (Mentor Rebecca) Lee, who had gone through a residency herself, filmed him on a Flip video camera and an iPad Mini.

After school, Ms. Lee showed Mr. Nutt the videos. He realized he had dominated the lesson and needed to give the students more time to grapple with math concepts on their own. The pair worked on a plan to double the student talk time.

After his year-long residency, Nutt was hired as a third-grade teacher.

Bianka Mariscal 22, the first college graduate in her family, returned to her old K-8 Aspire school in East Palo Alto as an apprentice — and now a first-grade teacher.

Aspire pays “residents” $13,500 and spends another $15,000 on their training and benefits, reports the Times.  It sounds like a good investment.

The U.S. Education Department is putting some grant money into teacher residency programs.

How a charter network evaluates teachers

Evaluating teachers’ effectiveness is a priority for the Aspire network of 37 charter schools, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s not just about test scores.

When Eva Kellogg’s bosses evaluated her performance as a teacher, they observed her classes. They reviewed her lesson plans. They polled her students, their parents and other teachers. And then they took a look at her students’ standardized test scores.

When the lengthy process was over, the eighth-grade English teacher at Aspire Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Oakland had received the highest rank possible.

She was a master teacher.

And based on her job performance, she got a $3,000 bonus as well as a metaphorical front-row seat at one of the biggest battles in public education: how to evaluate teachers and whether to give good ones a bigger paycheck.

Forty percent of a teacher’s score is based on observation by the principal, 30 percent on students’ standardized test scores and the rest on student, colleague and family feedback, as well as the school’s overall test scores.

Teachers are ranked as emerging, effective, highly effective or master. Bonuses range from $500 to $3,000.

“No excuses’ students struggle in college

“No excuses” charter schools send most or all of their low-income, minority students to college. But do “no excuses” students graduate from college? In Education Next, Robert Pondiscio looks at what charter schools are doing to improve their graduates’ college graduation rates.

KIPP is the largest and best known of a class of charter-management organizations (CMOs) that includes Achievement First, YES Prep, Uncommon Schools, Mastery, Aspire, and others. This group shares a set of familiar characteristics: more and longer school days, with a college preparatory curriculum for all students; strict behavioral and disciplinary codes; and a strong focus on building a common, high-intensity school culture. Classrooms and halls are awash in motivational quotations and college banners, typically from the alma maters of the inevitably young, hard-charging teachers who staff the schools. The signature feature is high behavioral and academic expectations for all students, the vast majority of whom are low-income, urban black and Hispanic kids.

Both KIPP and YES Prep track their graduates and report on how well they’re doing. One third of former KIPP middle schoolers have graduated college within six years — four times the average for disadvantaged students, but way below KIPP’s goals.

Black graduates of YES Prep average 1556 in reading, writing and math on the SAT, “far above the national average of 1273 for African Americans, and significantly higher than the 1500 national average for all students.” All graduates have passed at least one AP class. Less than 5 percent of YES Prep grads require remediation in college. Yet the six-year graduation rate is only 41 percent .

 “It wasn’t the academic piece that was holding our kids back,” notes senior director of college initiatives at YES Prep Donald Kamentz. “What we found hands down was it was the noncognitive piece—that tenacity, that grit—that allowed kids to harness those skills and persist when they faced difficulty.”

“What we’ve found with the ‘whatever it takes’ or ‘no excuses’ mentality is that it was very teacher-driven and less student-driven,” says Kametz, acknowledging this is a controversial line of thought in his own halls. A typical No Excuses approach might involve giving demerits or detention for missed assignments or turning in work that’s not “neat and complete.” Kamentz questions whether this tough-love approach helps create the self-advocacy in students they will need to be successful in college. “It’s the largest gaping hole with our kids in college,” he says. “They will constantly say, ‘You structured my life so much that I had to do very little thinking and structuring myself.’”

The no-excuses charters are trying to develop ways to strengthen students’ perseverance, “growth mindset” and grit. Some send  “posses” of students to “right-match” colleges that provide mentoring to first-generation-to-college students. (I love Pondiscio’s phrase: “in helicopter parentis.”)

KIPP, which started with middle schools, is adding elementary and high schools to strengthen academic preparation. The network also is following its alumni through college to help them cope with academic and social challenges. Now there are 1,000 KIPP graduates in college. In a few years, there will be 10,000. KIPP hopes to raise the college graduation rate to 75 percent, as high as students from upper-income families. The short-term goal is a 50 percent graduation rate.

Study: Best charters don’t get most dollars

California’s best charter schools don’t get the most philanthropic dollars, concludes a study by Cato’s Andrew Coulson.

American Indian Public Charters‘ students score more than four standard deviations above the norm on the challenging California Standards Test, based on Coulson’s measure of effect size, yet the schools rank 21st in donor funding.

Oakland Charter Academies rank second in performance and 27th in funding, Wilder’s Foundation is third in achievement and 39th in funding and Rocketship Education is fourth in achievment and 10th in funding. All outperform Whitney High and Lowell High, district-run schools that select students based on high test scores, according to Coulson’s effect-size analysis.

Coulson also looked at the number of black and Hispanic students passing AP exams, excluding foreign languages:  “The correlations between charter networks’ AP performance and their grant funding are negative, though negligible in magnitude.”

Aspire Public Schools is the number one recipient of charter-school philanthropy in the state. It’s been around for a long time: Founder Don Shalvey, a former district superintendent, started the first charter school in the state. But Aspire ranks only 23rd among the state’s charters in student performance.

Philanthropists are replicating the charter schools with well-connected leaders, not necessarily those with the highest achievement, the study concludes.

Oprah promotes ‘Superman’

Oprah Winfrey’s Sept. 20 show, a promo for Waiting for Superman, will feature filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, D.C. school chief (for now) Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates and other education reformers.

Winfrey will give $1 million to six public school organizations that are succeeding in educating low-income and minority students.

Among the six is Aspire Public Schools, which calls itself California’s top-performing school system serving predominately low-income students. The charter group’s 25 schools average 824 on the state Academic Performance Index, exceeding California’s goal. All students in Aspire’s three graduating classes last year were accepted to four-year colleges or universities, with many being the first in their family to attend.

Waiting for Superman is getting incredible media coverage, no doubt because of Guggenheim’s Inconvenient Truth credentials.

In a rave review in New York Magazine, John Helleman writes:

“Superman” affectingly, movingly traces the stories of five children—all but one of them poor and black or Hispanic—and their parents as they seek to secure a decent education by gaining admission via lottery to high-performing charter schools. At the same time, the film is a withering indictment of the adults—in particular, those at the teachers unions—who have let the public-school system rot, and a paean to reformers such as Canada and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, who has waged an epic campaign to overhaul the notoriously dysfunctional system over which she presides.

. . . “The movie is going to create a sense of outrage, and a sense of urgency,” says Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s secretary of Education. New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein concurs. “It’s gonna grab people much deeper than An Inconvenient Truth, because watching ice caps melt doesn’t have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives,” Klein says. “It grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying.”

Katie Couric also is a big fan of Superman.

Union leader Randi Weingarten is not.

Summit Public Schools, which operates the high-performing Summit Preparatory Charter High School and Everest Public High School in Redwood City, is one of the schools featured in Superman. Summit is trying to open two new high schools in East San Jose to meet demand from 900 parents, but the East Side Union High School District rejected one of the charters Thursday night on the basis that the schools are too similar. (Summit likes to keep its schools small.)

Scores rise at Stanford school — too late

Stanford New School’s charter elementary posted much higher test scores in 2010. But signs of improvement came too late.  The three-year-old elementary in East Palo Alto, run by Stanford’s School of Education, was closed in April for poor performance and classroom management problems by the Ravenswood City School District board.

Start-up schools take a few years to get off the ground, Dean of Education Deborah Stipek told the Palo Alto Weekly.

“If you look at many charter schools, the first few years don’t look that great — and then there’s often a jump.”

East Palo Alto Charter School (EPACS), run by Stanford’s former partner, Aspire, posted low scores in its early years, Stipek said. It’s now the top-performing public school in East Palo Alto with consistently high test scores, despite serving an all-minority, low-income student body.

Stipek complained, with justice, that the Ravenswood board had a conflict of interest. By closing the Stanford school, the K-8 district reclaimed 150 students, boosting revenues.

The Ravenswood board kept open the Stanford-run high school, which was started nine years ago. Its scores remain quite low, especially compared to Aspire’s fledgling high school, Phoenix. Why did the board keep it open? Well, East Palo Alto students are much more likely to earn a diploma and go on to college (usually community college) if they go to the  Stanford charter instead of  Sequoia Union High School District schools. But it’s also true that closing the high school would send students and revenues to Sequoia, not to Ravenswood. The K-8 district had an incentive to close the elementary school but not the high school.

Stanford's charter called 'failure'

It doesn’t get much more humiliating: A charter school run by Stanford ‘s Education School was denied a renewal of its charter and dubbed a failure for low scores and “ineffective behavior management.” Stanford New School, a K-12, is on California’s list of lowest-achieving schools, despite spending $3,000 per student more than the state average.

Ravenswood trustees voted 3-2 to deny the charter, but left open the door for a two-year extension — if the school works out an improvement plan with the district superintendent.

Stanford’s education professors, led by Linda Darling-Hammond, hoped the school would become a national model, when they started in 2001, reports the New York Times. Students come from low-income and working-class Hispanic, black and Pacific Islander families in East Palo Alto. Some are recent immigrants with limited English skills.

Stanford’s educators expected that with excellent teachers, many trained at the university, they could provide state-of-the-art instruction, preparing students to become “global citizens.”

But Stanford New School is posting lower scores than schools that teach similar students. In the all-minority Ravenswood district, which has many struggling schools, Stanford runs the lowest-scoring elementary school.

The high school is considered more successful because 96 percent of seniors are accepted to college, but “average SAT scores per subject hover in the high 300s,” reports the Times. That suggests most graduates are going to unselective colleges to take remedial classes.

Students receive a rubric of evaluations, not grades. High school students have one teacher/adviser who checks that homework is done, and when it is not, the teacher calls home. Teachers know students’ families and help with issues as varied as buying a bagel before an exam to helping an evicted family find a home. Teachers stay late and work weekends, and tend to burn out quickly — causing a high rate of turnover.

Stanford University provides summer classes, tutors and fund-raising by the football and women’s basketball teams. The medical school regularly sends a health van to the schools.

Perhaps students are learning things that aren’t measured by tests. They’re certainly not learning what is measured by tests: In 11th grade, 6 percent are proficient in English Language Arts, 0 percent in Algebra II, 9 percent in biology, 0 percent in chemistry, 6 percent in U.S. history.

The top-scoring school in the district is also a charter school. Aspire’s K-8 East Palo Alto School (EPAC) consistently outperforms the state average despite also serving an all-minority student body with many students from low-income Mexican immigrant families. (I tutored at the school for a year.) Aspire co-founded the charter high school with Stanford, but bowed out five years ago.

The two cultures clashed. Aspire focused “primarily and almost exclusively on academics,” while Stanford focused on academics and students’ emotional and social lives, said Don Shalvey, who started Aspire and is now with the Gates Foundation.

When I started the reporting that led to Our School, I planned to write about the Aspire-Stanford school, which was being organized. I went to school board meetings, talked with parents eager for a high school alternative, met some of the teachers hired for the first year, interviewed Shalvey and Darling-Hammond. However, I couldn’t get the access I needed — the inexperienced teachers didn’t want to deal with a writer hanging around — so I ended up at Downtown College Prep. I knew the Aspire-Stanford school was struggling in the early years, but I thought they’d adapt and improve. Instead, Stanford assumed sole control and created a K-12, while Aspire took its academics-first approach to EPAC.