Saving a school

Michael Brick’s Saving the School  tells the story of Austin’s Reagan High School, a turnaround school that actually turned out better than it started, writes Pamela Tatz on Education Gadfly.

The book follows the principal, a young science teacher, the basketball coach and a star student athlete.

“At Reagan, the principal scoured the neighborhood to locate truants. The science teacher opened her home to her students for Bible study, free meals, and a sympathetic ear. The coach’s deep and enduring connection to his team helped revive the school’s flagging spirit. And the students responded.”

But it wasn’t easy.


Urban students lag in science

Students in Austin, Texas matched the national average in science in fourth and eighth grade, according to a study of science literacy in 17 big-city districts by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  Following Austin, students in Charlotte, Jefferson County, Kentucky and Miami-Dade came close to the national average (which is not very high) at both grade levels.

Otherwise, the news is bleak, as Dropout Nation writes.


The percentage of fourth-graders . . . that scored Below Basic in science on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.That is 15 percentage points below the already abysmal science illiteracy rate of 29 percent nationwide.


The percentage of eighth-graders in big cities scoring Below Basic in science. One out of every three students nationwide are scoring Below Basic in science.


Percentage of fourth-grade students in Detroit that scored Below Basic in science; the highest level of science illiteracy for students in any big-city district. Only Cleveland (70 percent) and Baltimore (69 percent) come close. The percentage of eighth-graders in Detroit scoring Below Basic in science? Four out of every five.

Two out of every three African-American students and half of Latinos scored Below Basic.

Students taught by National Board-certified teachers did not earn higher science scores.

The test was divided between multiple-choice and short answer questions on life science, physical science and earth and space sciences.

Here’s a fourth-grade sample question:

A student wants to know whether two cups hold the same volume of water. The two cups have different weights (masses).

Cup 1 is a styrofoam cup. Cup 2 is a ceramic mug.

The student completely fills Cup 1 with water. The student wants to measure if Cup 2 holds the same volume of water.

What should the student do next to complete the measurements?

  1. Completely fill Cup 2 with water and then look at the cups side by side
  2. Pour half of the water from Cup 1 into Cup 2, weigh each cup and then compare their weights
  3. Pour all of the water from Cup 1 into Cup 2 to see if the water completely fills Cup 2 without spilling over
  4. Completely fill Cup 2 with water, weigh each filled cup, and then compare weights

Here’s the Hechinger Report on how to improve science education.

Getting more brains for the buck

Education productivity — the return on our investment in schools — varies widely from one district to another, concludes a study by the Center for American Progress.

Education spending per student has nearly tripled over the past four decades, after adjusting for inflation, the report notes.  Student achievement has remained about the same.

In more than half of the states included in our study, there was no clear relationship between spending and achievement after adjusting for other variables, such as cost of living and students in poverty.

Some districts spent thousands of dollars more per student to reach the same level of academic achievement. For example, Baltimore spends $2,500 more a year per student than Austin, Texas, after adjusting for the cost of living and student poverty. Yet Baltimore’s students are much less likely to score at or above the proficient level.

. . . after accounting for factors outside of a district’s control, many high-spending districts posted middling productivity results. For example, only 17 percent of Florida’s districts in the top third in spending were also in the top third in achievement.

Not surprisingly, the most productive districts make student achievement a priority. Leaders are willing to make tough choices, such as closing schools with low enrollment. The least productive districts spend more on administration, operations and other non-instructional expenditures.

Only Florida and Texas evaluate school-level productivity, the report finds. Often nobody knows which schools are spending money effectively and which are not.

Among the recommendations are improving data analysis, creating “performance-focused management systems that are flexible on inputs and strict on outcomes” and directing funding to students based on their needs.

Here’s a cool interactive map showing the return on education investment in various districts. In California, I see that San Francisco and San Jose rate fairly high in productivity, while Los Angeles is quite low.