ESSA advances: Will every student succeed?

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)– the long-awaited revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act aka No Child Left Behind — passed the House 359-64, and is expected to pass the Senate next week. Present Obama will sign it.

The compromise is endorsed by most major education groups, but it misses “the sweet spot of reason in evaluating schools and teachers,” editorializes the Los Angeles Times.

No Child Left Behind made the nation aware, as never before, of just how poorly students of color or with low incomes were faring.

The solution working its way through Congress, though more reasonable than No Child Left Behind, threatens to leave many poor and minority students in schools that middle-class parents would never accept for their children. At minimum, the bottom 20% of schools in California and other states with comparatively poor student achievement need to take concrete steps toward improvement; the looming federal compromise would require intervention only at the lowest-performing 5%. That’s unacceptable. And is this country honestly ready to allow high schools to continue graduating a mere 67% or 70% of their students, with no sense of public outrage?

California dropped its Academic Performance Index in hopes of creating  a broader measurement of school effectiveness,  notes the Times. “Early indications are that the state might end up dumping out a hodgepodge of data for each school, with no overall sense of student performance. How will the state help its neediest schools if it can’t even identify them?”

Conservatives should oppose ESSA, argues Lindsey Burke of Heritage. Although it eliminates average-yearly-progress mandates, the proposed ESSA would not make Title I funds portable or cut duplicative programs, she writes. The act “would maintain significant federal intervention in local school policy for years to come.”

Accountability worked — for some — in Texas

Texas’ test-based accountability system, introduced in 1993 under Gov. George W. Bush, improved academic performance and earnings (by age 25) for students in schools at risk of a low-performance rating, but hurt students in higher-scoring schools, according to a study reported in Education Next.

. . . pressure on schools to avoid a low performance rating led low-scoring students to score significantly higher on a high-stakes math exam in 10th grade. These students were also more likely to accumulate significantly more math credits and to graduate from high school on time. Later in life, they were more likely to attend and graduate from a four-year college, and they had higher earnings at age 25.

These schools increased math courses for students who’d failed the eighth-grade exam and boosted staffing and instructional time, the analysis found.

However, higher-performing schools seeking a “recognized” rating were likely to more low-scoring students to special education to exempt their scores from lowering the school’s overall rating.  These students were less likely to complete college and earned less at age 25.

“High-stakes testing creates strong incentives to game the system,” conclude the authors.

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.

Yes, New Orleans schools are better

New Orleans’ schools have improved significantly since Katrina devastated the city 10 years ago, writes Douglas N. Harris, a Tulane economics professors who directs the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

Within the span of one year, all public-school employees were fired, the teacher contract expired and was not replaced, and most attendance zones were eliminated. The state took control of almost all public schools and began holding them to relatively strict standards of academic achievement. Over time, the state turned all the schools under its authority over to charter management organizations (CMOs) that, in turn, dramatically reshaped the teacher workforce.

Test scores, once very low, are now higher than in comparison Louisiana districts that were affected by the hurricane but didn’t remake their school systems. More New Orleans’ students are earning high school diplomas and going on to college.

The research looks at various confounding factors: Students who returned to New Orleans were slightly better students than those who left — the poorest neighborhoods suffered the worst flooding — accounting for a small percentage of the gains. On the flip side, most returnees were struggling with trauma and dislocation, depressing school performance. ednext_XV_4_harris_fig01-small

The gains are real and significant, Harris concludes. “The effects are also large compared with other completely different strategies for school improvement, such as class-size reduction and intensive preschool,” even factoring in higher per-student spending in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The state has the authority to close low-performing schools and to choose new school operators with a record of academic success. In a city with 90 public schools, 16 schools have been closed and 30 taken over.

School leaders can hire and fire the teachers they want. Teachers are much less experienced and less likely to have traditional certification. Turnover is high. Yet despite these metrics going in the “wrong direction,” schools have seen large improvements in student learning, writes Harris.

Two factors helped: The schools were so bad before Katrina, they had “no place to go but up.” In addition, teachers saw New Orleans as an exciting place to live and work.

Parents can choose from an array of different schools with different specialties. They can use the OneApp to apply to multiple schools (89 percent of the city’s public schools participate), ranking their preferences.

Why charters are working in New Orleans

New Orleans is one of the fastest-improving districts in the nation since the move to charter schools, writes David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute  in Washington Monthly. Some 92.5 percent of students now attend charters.

Furthermore, the students are just as likely to come from low-income families as they were before Hurricane Katrina.

Figure 1. Percent of Students at Basic (Grade Level) or Above on Standardized Tests, 2007-2014* The 2014 exams were more difficult because they were more closely aligned with the Common Core standards, which explains why progress leveled off in the RSD and the state and OPSB scores fell. The 2013 and 2014 data excludes end-of-course high school tests, which replaced the old Graduate Exit Exams. But on the “end-of-course” tests that replaced it, the percentage of RSD high school students in New Orleans who scored “excellent” or “good” rose from thirty-one in 2011-12 to forty-seven in 2013-14—more than twice as fast as the state average.

Figure 1. Percent of Students at Basic (Grade Level) or Above on Standardized Tests, 2007-2014* The 2014 exams were more difficult because they were more closely aligned with the Common Core standards, which explains why progress leveled off in the RSD and the state and OPSB scores fell.

In 2005, before Katrina, 62 percent of students attended “failing” schools. That’s down to 7 percent, even though the standard for failure has been raised.

The percentage of students scoring at grade level or above has risen from 35 percent to 62 percent.

Almost half of New Orleans students dropped out, and less than one in five went on to college before Katrina, Osborne writes. “Last year, 73 percent graduated from high school in four years, two points below the state average, and 59 percent of graduates entered college, equaling the state average.”

From 2006 to 2012, New Orleans’s charter students gained nearly half a year of additional learning in math and a third of a year in reading, every year, compared to similar students in the city’s non-chartered public schools, according to a new CREDO survey.

Eighty-four percent of public school students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 77 percent before Katrina, writes Osborne. There are slightly more whites (up from 3 to 7 percent) and fewer blacks (down from 93 to 85 percent). However, black students have made the greatest gains: They used to score 8 percentage points below the state average, but now exceed the state average by five points.

Most key decisions are made at the school level.

“If something does not work for my children here at Behrman, be it a teacher, be it a textbook, I can get rid of it,” says Rene Lewis-Carter, principal of Martin Behrman Charter School, where more than 80 percent of the largely African American students pass their standardized tests. “I got to handpick teachers—I’d never been able to do that before.”

. . . Sabrina Pence, who ran the charter that pioneered the use of educational software in New Orleans, says that would have been impossible in a traditional district. “I was a principal in a district school, and I only controlled a small amount of my budget. I got $14,000, for paper and supplies. If there is one reason I love being in a charter school, that’s it—prioritizing your resources around your strategy.”

New Orleans offers a variety of choices from Montessori schools to “no excuses” college-prep schools, he writes. “There are schools that offer the demanding International Baccalaureate program, a military and maritime high school, and three alternative high schools for students who are overage, far behind, or have been expelled.”

Parents have grown used to choosing their children’s schools: 86 percent of students attend a school other than the one closest to their home.

Why turnarounds don’t work

The Obama administration spent $3.5 billion on School Improvement Grants to “turn around” very low-performing schools, reports the Washington Post. However, most states lacked the staff, technology and expertise to improve failing schools, according to a U.S. Education Department research brief.

In Ed Week, Peter Greene, a high school teacher and Curmudgucation blogger, speculates on why turnarounds have done so poorly. Some states cheated by using SIG money to lower state funding, he writes. Others find the federal intervention models don’t fit the problems.

Feds: You can use this big tarpaulin or we can bulldoze your house.

You: But I have a hole in my dining room floor. I need some lumber to patch that up.

Feds: This tarpaulin is excellent for covering leaks in the roof, which is one of the most common problems we have found.

You: I don’t have a leaky roof. I have a hole in my floor.

Feds: Well, we can always bulldoze the place.

The turnaround premise is flawed, argues Greene.

The whole turnaround model seems to be, at heart, the story of a wise man who descends on a sad school, stands on a podium and points, “That way, you fools!” The assembled locals smack themselves on the forehead and say, “Silly us. Thanks for straightening us out,” and then march cheerfully into a bright new day.

It’s harder than that, he concludes. “Drive-by do-gooders for hire” haven’t proven they can transform troubled schools.

About a third of the schools that received School Improvement Grants improved, a third of the schools performed about the same, and a third got worse, according to preliminary research released in 2013.

No evidence of ‘push-out’ at NYC charters

Attrition is lower at elementary charter schools in New York City than at neighboring schools, concludes a new analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

About 64 percent of students attending charter schools in kindergarten in school year 2008-2009 remained in the same school four years later, compared with 56 percent of students attending nearby traditional public schools.

In addition, special-needs students are more likely to remain at a charter than a traditional school, the IBO reported. That’s a change from last year’s report, which looked only at students in full-time special ed classes, notes the New York Times. Most special-needs students are mainstreamed.

High-needs students are segregated in low-performing district schools in the city, charges Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter group.  Ninety-three district schools in New York City “serve less than 1% of either English Language Learner or Special Needs students.”

High-tech valley, low-performing schools

More than 15,000 students in Silicon Valley attend 28 persistently low-performing schools, according to Innovate Public Schools’ new report. Over the last five years, these schools have done worse than schools with similar populations of high-need, low-income, Latinos.

I helped edit the report for Innovate.

The report lists high-performing Silicon Valley schools — mostly charters — that educate disadvantaged students. It also includes profiles of successful turnaround efforts nationwide and research on what’s worked elsewhere.

I was very impressed by a rural California district, Sanger, that’s raised achievement levels dramatically.

Not surprisingly, the report has been controversial, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Superintendents say their schools, which haven’t improved reading and math scores in the last five years, are improving in other ways.

The move to Common Core standards has led to a moratorium on reporting test scores. It will be hard to track schools’ results over the next few years.

Bad NYC schools get cash, counselors

New York City’s lowest-performing schools will get more money and staffing, a longer school day and on-site social services, said Mayor Bill de Blasio at an East Harlem school, reports the New York Times.

Criticizing Mayor Bloomberg’s strategy of closing low-performing schools, the mayor said, “We reject the notion of giving up on any of our schools.”

He spoke at the Coalition School for Social Change, where the attendance rate is 74 percent. It is one of 94 “renewal schools” with low test scores and graduation rates that will extend the school day by one hour. Teachers will have extra training.

. . .  the centerpiece of the proposal involves turning these institutions into so-called Community Schools, which try to address the challenges students face outside the classroom, with offerings like mental health services for those who need them or food for students who do not get enough to eat at home.

Nationally, community schools’ performance is “uneven,” according to the Times. In Cincinnati, a national leader, “some community colleges still showed dismal academic performances even after years of work and millions of dollars of investments.”

Where has De Blasio’s approach worked at any scale? asks Eduwonk. Why not target help at “middling schools” while continuing Bloomberg’s “aggressive strategy” (closure) on the worst.

“The track record on turning around the lowest-performers is pretty stark,” he concludes. “In the context of that evidence base do those parents and children deserve more immediate relief now?”

The renewal plan could “delay action on schools that are in desperate straits and should be reorganized or closed in fairly short order,” editorializes the New York Times.

‘Test and punish’ is a state of mind

Test-and-Punish Accountability is a State of Mind, not the State of Reality, argues Anne Hyslop , a New America Foundation policy analyst.

Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and AFT President Randi Weingarten want to move from “test-and-punish” accountability to a system built on “support-and-improve.”

President Clinton already tried that, Hyslop writes. “Support-and-improve”  became “do-nothing.”

Even when states and district do something to improve schools, results are meager.

After billions invested in retooled School Improvement Grants since 2010, with more resources and more intensive strategies, many under-performing schools have seen no improvements, and a third declines, under the program. Meanwhile, the research on NCLB-style accountability—with consequences—has found positive effects on student achievement, especially for low-performing students and in math.

Furthermore, the “punish” part of “test-and-punish” has vanished, Hyslop writes. “Thanks to the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers, there don’t have to be stakes, for anyone, on upcoming state tests. None.”

The accountability moratorium will last till 2017 — or longer.

Most reformers believes states should try new “support-and-improve” approaches “in tandem with meaningful accountability systems,” not as an alternative, she writes.

What is incompatible with the support-and-improve mindset is the choices of some elected officials, school administrators, and educators. If drill-and-kill, or weeks of rote test prep, or a testing week “pep rally” is the best you can come up with in response to a system of accountability, then something went terribly wrong, and it isn’t the test.

Transform the response to accountability, Hyslop argues. The test-and-punish culture is a very bad choice. “There are alternatives that don’t sacrifice high-quality, rich instruction at the altar of test-based accountability.”