Does Houston deserve the Broad Prize?

The Houston Independent School District has won the 2013 Broad Prize for Urban Education. Houston also won in 2002.

Achievement gains included a 12-point increase in graduation rates from 2006 to 2009, double the average increase at the 75 urban districts eligible for the prize, reports U.S. News. “The district also slashed the achievement gap between low-income and Hispanic students and their more affluent, white peers.” And more students — especially Hispanics — are taking AP exams.

End. The Broad Prize. Now., writes Andy Smarick. In Houston and San Diego, one of the finalists for the prize, “only 10 percent of African American eighth graders can read proficiently!”

One of the prize’s four goals explains is: “Restore the public’s confidence in our nation’s public schools by highlighting successful urban districts.”

By praising such low performance, the Broad Prize doesn’t do a favor for public education. Instead, it serves to obscure the truth—that the urban district has been an unmitigated failure for 50 years—and to perpetuate a myth—that if we are to care about public education, we must commit ourselves in perpetuity to the district structure.

The Broad Foundation has been trying to fix urban districts rather than looking for alternative ways to educate disadvantaged city kids, writes Smarick. ”We must build The Urban School System of the Future, not double down on the failed urban district of the past.”

Stop rewarding districts for getting to average, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

Houston eyes student grading of teachers

Houston may use student opinion as part of teacher evaluations, reports Fox 26. Student ratings could account for 20 to 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, according to a district document sent to teachers.

Effective teachers aren’t always the most popular teachers, warns Houston Federation of Teachers president Gayle Fallon. “Those student surveys will amount to very little more than a popularity contest.”

Student evaluation of teachers is not district policy — or even a staff recommendation — said district spokesman Jason Spencer. Not yet, anyhow.

Career paths for remedial students

A Houston community college is linking low-level remedial students to career paths, while a South Dakota technical college sets different requirements for each job training program, virtually eliminating remedial education.

Need a job? Welding is hot.

Cheating: It’s not just Atlanta schools

Signs of cheating, such as test scores that go up sharply one year and crash the next, can be found in nearly 200 large school districts nationwide, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.

As Atlanta learned after cheating was uncovered in half its elementary and middle schools last year, falsified test results deny struggling students access to extra help to which they are entitled, and erode confidence in a vital public institution.

. . . In nine districts, scores careened so unpredictably that the odds of such dramatic shifts occurring without an intervention such as tampering were worse than one in 10 billion.In Houston, for instance, test results for entire grades of students jumped two, three or more times the amount expected in one year, the analysis shows. When children moved to a new grade the next year, their scores plummeted — a finding that suggests the gains were not due to learning.

In 33 districts, the odds the tests results were valid were worse than one in a million.

Here’s a map showing districts in which more than 10 percent of schools reported suspicious results.

 

Human tutors beat computers in Houston

Intensive tutoring — two kids to one adult — raised math achievement dramatically in Houston’s Apollo turnaround schools, while computer tutoring helped only modestly, writes Mike Goldstein of MATCH on Larry Cuban’s blog. MATCH helped hire and train the tutors.

Math tutoring for sixth and ninth graders raised achievement by the equivalent of five to nine months of extra schooling, concluded economist Roland Fryer in a study of Apollo’s results after one year.

In other grades, students who were behind took double math or reading, depending on the subject in which they needed help the most. Their classes used Carnegie Math’s  software featuring differentiated instruction based on previous student performance.

Computers are great for helping people learn what they want to learn. They’re not particularly good at getting someone to learn something they do not want to learn. For that, you need very skilled people (teachers and tutors) who can build relationships, use that to generate order and effort from kids, and then turn that effort into learning. A computer needs to start on “third base” — take effort and flip that into learning.

While the schools adopted a “no excuses” model, it was the intensive math tutoring that made the difference, writes Matt Di Carlo of the National Education Policy Center.

‘No excuses’ helps Houston public schools

Math scores rose significantly in the first year of Houston’s Apollo experiment, but reading scores did not. Emulating high-performing charter schools, the low-performing Apollo schools feature a longer school day and year, data analysis, “trying to hire the best teachers and principals and cultivating a ‘no excuses’ attitude,” reports the Houston Chronicle.

Students in sixth and ninth grades got daily tutoring in math from specially hired tutors, one of the program’s most expensive elements. Struggling upperclassmen took an extra computer-based class in reading or math.

(Harvard economist Roland) Fryer’s research found that the tutoring was extremely effective but that the double courses generally were not.

A “back-of-the-envelope calculation,” according to Fryer, showed that the Apollo program produced a 20 percent return on investment – which is higher than other educational reforms such as lowering class sizes and preschool.

Five of the nine schools improved enough to escape the “unacceptable” rating.

Fryer summarizes the first-year results in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper. The Houston results are “strikingly similar to reported impacts of attending the Harlem Children’s Zone and Knowledge is Power Program schools,” both no-excuses adherents, Fryer notes.

Houston schools try charter ideas

Houston’s Apollo 20 experiment is trying to improve low-performing schools by  using successful charter schools’ tactics, reports the New York Times.

Five policies are common to successful charters, says Roland Fryer, an economist and head of Harvard’s EdLabs, who advised Houston.

. . . longer days and years; more rigorous and selective hiring of principals and teachers; frequent quizzes whose results determine what needs to be retaught; what he calls “high-dosage tutoring”; and a “no excuses” culture.

The Apollo schools have a longer school day and year, though not as long as KIPP schools.

Lee High School hired 50 full-time math tutors, who are paid $20,000 a year — under $14 an hour — plus benefits and possible bonuses if their students do well.

Lee High’s new principal, Xochitl Rodríguez-Dávila, described a torrent of challenges, including the exhaustive review of transcripts and test results to organize class schedules and tutoring for 1,600 students; persuading parents to sign KIPP-style contracts pledging that they will help raise achievement; and replacing about a third of Lee’s 100 teachers.

“Teachers by far have been the biggest struggle,” said Ms. Rodriguez-Davila, 39, who previously had been a middle school principal.

In faculty meetings, she said, some people insisted that Lee’s immigrant students would never master biology or physics. Other veterans, though, told the complainers to stop belly-aching and get on with the turnaround.

Lee High’s gains pushed the school into the “acceptable” category after years in “unacceptable.”  Overall, five of the nine Apollo schools moved up.

 

Houston may cut teacher bonuses

Ninety-two percent of Houston teachers earned performance bonuses this year. Superintendent Terry Grier said he’ll take a “hard look” at the $42 million program, reports the Houston Chronicle.

On average, classroom teachers received more than $3,000.  The largest teacher bonus, $11,330, went to Andres Balp, who’s taught fourth grade for 17 years.  Principals averaged $5,000. Jose Espinoza, a middle-school principal, received the top award, $15,530, in his category.  Top administrators averaged $10,000. Grier received $18,000.

The bonuses are based on a value-added analysis of students’ scores on a state and national exam compared to their past performance.

Among teachers, those in the core academic subject areas — such as English and math — qualify for the most money.

Other school employees, teachers in non-tested subjects and those at younger grade levels earn money based on campus-wide student performance. The teachers whose students improve the most get the most money.

The formula is too complicated to understand, said Jennifer Blessington, an English teacher who pocketed a $7,800 bonus. “It truly feels like you’re winning the lottery,” she said.

With the state in financial trouble, the grant that funds the bonuses may be cut. Even if the money is there, Grier wants to be more selective about who gets it.

Online credit recovery hikes grad rates

High schools are boosting graduation rates by adopting online “credit recovery” programs, reports the Texas Tribune and the Hechinger Report in the New York Times. It’s not clear whether recovering students have learned as much as students who passed the original class.

Brett Rusnock can follow his students’ every move on his laptop: how much time they spend on computers each day at Waltrip High School in Houston, their scores on quizzes and when they stop working. He even gets e-mail alerts when they toil at home into the wee hours. “I can play Big Brother a little bit with this,” Mr. Rusnock said.

Students at Austin High work on their courses in a school computer lab that is run by two teachers and two assistants.

Mr. Rusnock is not a teacher. He is a grad coach, one of 27 in Houston monitoring thousands of students who take so called credit-recovery courses online. Like many other districts across the state, particularly those with high dropout rates, the Houston Independent School District offers these self-paced make-ups to any student who fails a class. In the spring and summer terms, 6,127 Houston I.S.D. students earned 9,774 credits in such courses, which are generally taken in conjunction with a full load of regular classes. About 2,500 more students are enrolled this fall.

Apex Learning provides Houston’s online curriculum; Apex also provides pencil-and-paper tests.

Texas also has raised the maximum age for high school students to 25 and authorized “dropout recovery” charter schools.

T. Jack Blackmon, who heads up the Dallas I.S.D. credit-recovery program, said the old model would continue to crumble.

“It’s the vision for the future as far as I’m concerned: kids going at their own pace,” Mr. Blackmon said. “The traditional school is only good for about a third of the kids, the ones who want football or choir or social activities — kids who have the school bug. For the rest of them, it’s just standing in line, waiting for the factory model to give them an education. A lot of kids don’t want to wait in line.”

While Houston’s grad coaches decide whether students have learned the material and are ready to move on, many districts do not provide that level of support or supervision. In some places, students take computer-generated multiple-choice tests online but don’t have to do any writing to “recover” a class.

Houston school tries big classes

At a low-performing Houston middle school, the new principal is trying something very different: Classes of 75 students taught by five or more teachers.  Often, one teacher starts with a lesson, then the class breaks up into small groups based on level or learning style.  

(Instructional specialist Raymond) Cain said he first thought the change was too ambitious, but after a month of visiting classes, he rattles off positives: Teachers switch off taking charge based on who is best at explaining the topic of the day. One might have a trick for fractions while another excels at integers. Teachers can learn from each other. And if a student misbehaves, instruction doesn’t have to halt.

“When you don’t have to spend so much time on managing a class, you can deliver a more rigorous lesson,” said Principal Lannie Milton, Jr.

On a recent morning, about 70 seventh-graders filed into the old band room for math class. One of the seven teachers, Corey Gonsoulin, launched the lesson on dividing numbers with decimals. Writing on the dry-erase board, he showed the students how to move the decimal point.

“Do the opposite of Beyoncé Knowles,” he said. “Instead of going to the left, to the left” – as she says in one of her songs – “we go to the right, to the right.”

Gonsoulin then handed the marker to his colleague, Andre Roper, who wrote out four practice problems. Clifford Thomas, another math teacher, used a board on the side wall to explain to a group of confused students how to show their work process. Teacher Tereva Wright stopped at the desk of a boy not doing anything.

“In the beginning,” Wright said of Milon’s plan, “we felt like he was invading our privacy. We’re used to having our own area. It’s gotten better and better everyday.”

Class sizes averaged 35 students before the chance. It’s not clear to me how the principal could double class size and quintuple the number of teachers in the room.