Status quo wins in California

Triumph of the Status Quo is Ben Boychuk’s look at the California superintendent’s race.

. . . reformers had high hopes for Marshall Tuck’s insurgent campaign against State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. The 41-year-old former investment banker and charter school president tried to paint the 65-year-old incumbent, former legislator, and fellow Democrat as a creature of the state’s powerful teachers’ unions. . . . the race did expose a growing fissure between traditional union-aligned Democrats and an emerging faction of pro-business, pro-reform Democrats. But the biggest difference between Torlakson and Tuck—their respective plans for reforming the state’s tenure and dismissal statutes—didn’t galvanize voters.

The California Teachers Association spent $11 million “touting Torlakson and denouncing Tuck,” while the challenger raised nearly $10 million from “well-heeled education reformers, including Los Angeles real estate developer Eli Broad and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg,” writes Boychuk in City Journal.

Tuck attacked Torlakson for supporting the state’s appeal of Vergara v.California, the class-action lawsuit that threw out California’s tenure, seniority, and dismissal rules.

Surveys after the ruling showed strong support for dumping “last hired, first fired” rules, writes Boychuk. But “nearly 60 percent said they didn’t know what the lawsuit was about.”

Tuck also touted his experience as president of the Green Dot chain of charter schools. He voiced his support for California’s landmark parent-trigger law, which lets parents at failing schools petition to force their school district to implement certain reforms, including charter school conversion. Here again, though, voters don’t completely understand charter school reforms.

. . . The teachers’ unions and their surrogates, such as Diane Ravitch, used Tuck’s charter school ties to paint him as a racist, a bigot, and a tool of “the power elite.”

Their attacks worked, concludes Boychuk.

Union’s charter school faces closure

To prove a union contract is no barrier to school success, the United Federation of Teachers opened its own UFT Charter School in Brooklyn in 2005, notes Gotham Schools. After seven years of turmoil, the union-run K-9 school may be closed for low performance.

Fewer than a third of students are reading on grade level, and the math proficiency rate among eighth-graders is less than half the city average.

On the school’s most recent progress report, released last week, the Department of Education gave it a D and ranked it even lower than one of its co-located neighbors, J.H.S. 166, which the city tried to close last year and now has shortlisted again for possible closure.

Two years ago, the school received a three-year extension on its charter instead of five years because of performance concerns.

Test scores have plummeted since then, the school has cycled through multiple principals, and enrollment is down to just 70 percent of capacity.

The UFT Charter School performs worse than other schools in the district, despite enrolling fewer special education students and far fewer English Learners, reports Gotham Schools.

The UFT picked “teacher leaders” to run the elementary and middle schools. Turnover has been high.

“We are continuing to see progress and innovation at many teacher-led schools,” American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten told Gotham Schools in an e-mail. She praised Green Dot New York Charter School in the Bronx, a union partner with a “thin contract” that gives teachers some, but not all, their usual rights.

Locke boosts graduation numbers

Locke High School’s last class of students from the pre-charter era will be graduated today in Los Angeles. The 484 graduates represent an 85 percent increase from 2008, the last year Locke was under district control, according to Green Dot. The number of graduates completing the A-G college-prep requirements has tripled.

When Green Dot took over the school, it placed 10th graders in Launch to College Academies (LCA). Of  340 LCA students, 306 will walk at the graduation ceremony. Also graduating are 41 students at Animo Locke 4, a school for over-age and credit-deficient students and those returning from juvenile detention.

I’ve been reading Alexander Russo’s Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors on Green Dot’s struggle to turn around Locke. There are no miracles. It’s a long, hard slog.

‘Stray Dogs’

Alexander Russo’s Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors gets a rave review from Jay Mathews. Russo writes about Green Dot charter schools’ attempt to turn around Locke High in Los Angeles, a very low-performing school. Mathews calls the book “a must-read, nerve-jangling thrill ride, at least for those of us who love tales of teachers and students.”

Turning Locke — and more

Green Dot had started successful charter schools in Los Angeles. But could Green Dot transform low-performing Locke High? Desperate teachers voted to try. In Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors, Alexander Russo reports on the struggle to turn Locke into a decent school.

“Locke’s transformation has been a long slog, not an unmitigated success,” writes Gerilyn Slicker on Gadfly.

Russo reports teachers with blood-shot eyes, exasperated with their efforts, puking before starting class in the mornings, or crying quietly in the bathroom after a long day with the students. He chronicles powerful stories—both positive and negative—that have helped to shape Locke over the past three years. Among them: The tale of Keron, a football player who was pepper-sprayed by a rogue security officer after being caught gambling at school and one of Miss K., who battled to keep David, a defiant upperclassman filled with potential, in the school through graduation. This honest on-the-ground portrayal reminds us: School turnarounds are a hard business, indeed.

Terry Moe has a new book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, which Fordham’s Checker Finn calls “deeply informative, profoundly insightful, fundamentally depressing, and yet ultimately somewhat hopeful about an educational future that unions won’t be able to block—though they’ll try hard—due to the combined forces of technology and changing politics.”

On the other side of the political and educational spectrum, Alfie Kohn has published his “contrarian essays” as Feel-Bad Education.

Locke lessons

Two years after Green Dot Public Schools took over low-performing Locke High School, test scores rose modestly from 13.7% to 14.9% proficient or advanced in English, and from 4% to 6.7% proficient or better in math, reports the LA Times.

Enrollment and attendance rates surged, even as enrollment has declined elsewhere.

Locke began last year with about 250 more students than in its final year under L.A. Unified. And Green Dot asserts that 95% remain enrolled; independent state figures are unavailable.

More Locke students are taking exams in courses required for admission to state four-year colleges. Last year, 785 more students took math tests, 894 more took science tests and 603 more took history tests. Also, Locke’s passing rate is up for the mandatory high school exit exam.

In Lessons from Locke, the Times gives Green Dot credit for admitting all students in the attendance area.

It rightly made reducing the dropout rate its first priority, and some of its lack of progress on test scores might in fact be the result of its success in keeping more troubled students in school.

But Green Dot needs to bring more Locke students to proficiency in the next few years to be considered a success, The Times editorializes.

Green Dot Public Schools billed the standardized test results as a dramatic improvement compared to years under district control. Looking at the percentage increase makes the numbers more impressive.

Students stay at new Locke High

Two years after turning LA’s low-performing Locke High School into a charter school, Green Dot Public Schools reports a dramatic improvement in the retention rate.  The new Locke is retaining 93 percent of students, compared to 69 to 84 percent retention rates when the district ran the high school. That means 800 additional students have stayed at the new Locke instead of dropping out or transferring.

Green Dot’s first freshman class has now completed two years, and the trajectory is looking much better, with 73 percent still enrolled. This compares to 43 to 44 percent of a cohort retained after two years under LAUSD.

A majority of Locke’s tenured teachers signed a petition to turn Locke into a Green Dot school in 2008-09. Green Dot broke the huge school into seven small schools, hired new teachers and principals, cleaned up the campus and created an alternative education program. The school serves the same attendance area as before.

My retention rate link isn’t working for some readers.  It should be up on Green Dot‘s site in the news section soon.

Turnarounds don't come cheap

To turn around a persistently low-performing Los Angeles high school, the Green Dot charter group will spend an extra $15 million over four years’ foundations will provide most of the funds. The New York Times asks if turnarounds are too costly.

As recently as 2008, Locke High School here was one of the nation’s worst failing schools, and drew national attention for its hallway beatings, bathroom rapes and rooftop parties held by gangs. For every student who graduated, four others dropped out.

Now, two years after a charter school group took over, gang violence is sharply down, fewer students are dropping out, and test scores have inched upward. Newly planted olive trees in Locke’s central plaza have helped transform the school’s concrete quadrangle into a place where students congregate and do homework.

Locke’s $15 million turnaround budget is “more than twice the $6 million in federal turnaround money that the Department of Education has set as a cap for any single school,” the Times reports.

Locke’s teachers voted to turn the huge school into a Green Dot charter in 2008.

Green Dot divided Locke into small academies. Several, modeled on the charters it operates elsewhere, opened in fall 2008 with freshman classes of 100 to 150 students and are to reach full enrollment of 500 to 600 students by fall 2011.

Other academies concentrate on remedial classes for older students, including some returning from jail. Another focuses on preparing students for careers in architecture.

Green Dot required Locke’s 120 teachers to reapply for their jobs. It rehired about 40, favoring teachers who showed enthusiasm and a belief that all Locke students could learn. The campus stays open each day until early evening for science tutoring, band and other activities.

Green Dot is spending on security and busing for students who live in dangerous neighborhoods. It’s also adding classroom space because attendance is up and fewer students are dropping out.

Dividing Locke into academies required adding more staff.  Green Dot also hired two psychologists and two social workers.

Locke’s turnaround will cost $1,250 per student, writes Alexander Russo, who’s writing a book on the school. Some of that replaces lost state funding and some is required by the school’s huge size and very dangerous neighborhood.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sided with local charter schools hoping to take over low-performing schools, reports the LA Times. In the first round of school takeovers, teacher groups were given control of most schools.

California’s 188 lowest-performing schools will get $416 million in federal turnaround money over three years, reports Educated Guess.

But districts won’t learn until late next month how much they’ll be entitled to, leaving virtually no time to prepare teachers and parents for the massive changes the schools will be forced to undergo this fall.

Ohio is giving $31 million in turnaround funding to 11 district-run schools that would be closed for low performance under the rules governing charter schools, notes Flypaper. Ten of the 11 schools will adopt the least rigorous turnaround model; all will have three years to show results.

No miracle at Locke

One year after low-performing Locke High was taken over by Green Dot, the school’s scores remain low. On the plus side, 38 percent more students took the state exam, notes a Los Angeles Times editorial. More kids are in school; truancy and campus crime rates are way down.

. . . by enrolling all the students within its attendance boundaries — including the perpetual truants, gangbangers and likely dropouts along with the honors students — Locke accepted the same challenges faced by L.A.’s more troubled public schools.

Green Dot and other successful charter operators should stick to what they do best — starting new schools —  writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper.

I think it’s too soon to give up on the Locke turnaround: It will take more than a year to make a difference in achievement for students who fell way, way behind long before Green Dot took over the high school. But if next year’s ninth and 10th graders show no improvement . . .

Messing with success

Baltimore’s highest scoring middle school, KIPP Ujima Village, will have to cut its hours and drop Saturday classes to meet union demands for time-and-a-half pay for teachers, reports Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. With a nine-hour school day and Saturday classes, the all-black school has been the best in the city three years running; reading and math scores beat the state average in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Brad Nornhold, 31, a math teacher at Ujima Village, told Mathews the union never contacted the teachers before making the pay demand.

“This is a school of choice for teachers, too. I knew what I was getting into.” Ujima Village teachers were already the highest-paid in Baltimore for their experience level, and the union’s demands seem to overlook the appeal of what Nornhold called “the freedom to teach the way I want to teach.” The union ignores the lure of a school that supports teachers and structures their day so they can raise student achievement to levels rarely seen in their city. “To teach in a school that works, that’s nice,” Nornhold said.

A union leader responds. “Effective teachers can get the same results in a seven-hour-and-five-minute day.”

KIPP has been paying teachers an extra 18 percent to work longer hours. The Baltimore union said that wasn’t enough. In New York City, Mathews points out, the American Federation of Teachers contract with Green Dot accepts 14 percent more for a longer school day and year.