Private managers take over Michigan schools

Two high-spending, low-performing Michigan school districts are now under for-profit management, reports Ed Week. Emergency managers hired Mosaica Education to run Muskegon Heights schools and the Leona Group to take over Highland Park, which borders Detroit. Can charter managers turn around failing school districts?

Both districts primarily enroll low-income black students. Both ran up huge budget deficits, while test scores remained very low. In both, schools have been plagued by violence.

In the middle of the first year, attendance was up and fighting was down, Mosaica’s Alena Zachery-Ross told Muskegon Heights parents.

Reading and math scores were up since the fall for 2nd to 7th graders, although many students continued to lag behind where they should be, she said, and many 8th to 12th graders remained far behind where they should be to graduate on time.

. . . According to tests administered at the beginning of the school year, 92 percent of 9th graders scored at least three grade levels below where they should have been in reading, and 82 percent were at least three grade levels below in math.

Teacher turnover has been high. Mosaica uses a structured, prescriptive curriculum and stresses “bell-to-bell instruction.” Some teachers quit as a result. In addition, Mosaica’s base teacher salary in Muskegon Heights is $35,000, with no retirement plan, compared with the former district’s $49,132. The company also cut  administrative positions to save money.

In Highland Park, Leona also pays lower salaries — an average of $39,400 compared with the $54,700 before — and spends less on administrators.

Cutting costs is essential.

The now defunct (Highland Park) school district operated under a $20 million budget in 2011-12. The new charter district is currently operating with a $14.6 million budget.

. . . (In Muskegon Heights) the charter district is operating on a budget of $8.9 million compared with the previous year, when the budget totaled $15.9 million, which does not include debt service.

Can Mosaica and Leona produce significantly better outcomes with significantly less funding? In both districts, the schools are safer. But that’s just the first step.

‘Won’t Back Down’ isn’t true — yet

Hollywood’s Won’t Back Down has “accomplished the impossible,” writes Glenn Garvin in the Miami Herald. It’s made “teachers’ unions demand strict accuracy” in a movie about schools.

For decades, Hollywood has been making movies that show teachers as superhuman caring machines without a peep from the unions. That math teacher played by Edward James Olmos in Stand And Deliver, the one who took over a classroom of kids who couldn’t do simple arithmetic and in nine months had them aceing calculus exams? History does not record a single union official complaining that, in real life, that process took several years.

Won’t Back Down stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a single working-class mom with a dyslexic daughter and Viola Davis as a sympathetic teacher and parent. They join forces to take over a failing elementary school.

It’s “based on true stories,” the movie claims.

“That conveys the message that parents and teachers took over and ran a school somewhere,” wrote Rita Solnet, a founding member of the teacher-union front group Parents Across America, in a widely reprinted blog item. “That never happened.”

Not yet. But soon.

In southern California, Compton parents lost their parent trigger bid on a technicality. Some moved their kids from McKinley Elementary to Celerity Sirius, a new charter school in a nearby church. The new charter’s Academic Performance Index scores were significantly higher than McKinley’s scores after one year.

Mojave Desert parents are on track to take over Desert Trails Elementary in the fall. Friday, a Superior Court judge ordered the school board to comply with the court order authorizing the conversion. The parents union plans to choose a charter operator on Thursday. Two non-profits that run nearby charter schools are in the running, reports Ed Week.

“We wanted to keep it within the community, to keep it local,” said Doreen Diaz, who is helping lead parents seeking to convert the school to a charter. “They’re very different applicants and they speak to our community.”

At the same time, neither of the two finalists, LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy, in the nearby city of Hesperia, and the Lewis Center for Educational Research, a nonprofit group in neighboring Apple Valley, which oversees two charters, has experience turning around an academically low-performing school.

“Anybody who’s looked at this situation has said it will be very rough,” said Rick Piercy, the president of the Lewis Center.

Can the school be improved under new management? This time, we’ll see.

'Restructuring' needs restructuring

Restructuring of failing schools has failed again and again, writes Robert Manwaring in an Education Sector report. He looks at LA’s Markham Middle School, labeled low-performing in 1997 when the average student scored at the 16th percentile in math and 12th percentile in reading. The state enacted a series of interventions to turn around the school, which enrolls Mexican-American and black students in a gang neighborhood in Watts. Then the feds intervened under No Child Left Behind.

. . . They drew up plans, disbursed funds, and hired specialists. Principals and teachers came and went, while politicians of all stripes vowed to get tough and do what it takes to reform these schools or close them down. Yet, at the end of all that, Markham Middle School was still open for business, still serving low-income and minority students, and still low-performing. In 2009 only 3 percent of the students were proficient in math and 11 percent in English.

The challenge in public education isn’t deciding which schools need help, Manwaring writes. “It’s determining how to help them, and when to decide that no amount of help will do.”

Unfortunately, many states “avoid tough choices,” instead lowering achievement standards to make bad schools look better, he writes.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is targeting turnaround efforts at the lowest 5 percent of schools. We’re not going to “tinker” any more, he says. But what does that mean for a school like Markham?

Markham is one of the LA schools that laid off half its young teachers because of seniority rules, then found veteran teachers refused to take jobs there. So the school, now run by the mayor’s office, is relying on substitutes, who aren’t allowed to teach there long enough to qualify for higher pay.

An 'unfriendly wake-up call'

T.C. Williams High School in Virginia has many high achievers, but it’s a “persistently low-achieving school.” It’s an “unfriendly wake-up call,” writes English teacher Patrick Welsh in the Washington Post.

T.C. Williams has always been proud of its student achievement and its diverse community. But as the demographics of the school shifted over the past 25 years and low-income students — many of them minorities and immigrants — began to outnumber middle-class kids, one thing that didn’t change was the way the school thought about its students. Even though we knew better, many of us — both teachers and administrators — acted as if all our students came to school with basic reading and math skills and had a parent at home actively supervising their education. The stragglers could do the work, we insisted, if they were in a room full of other kids who could do the work, too. The school definitely did not want to create tracking classes, in which kids are separated according to ability, or anything that could resemble ethnic or class-based segregation.

Instead of zeroing in on the relatively small number of students who came to us unprepared and needed a great deal of help to catch up, we opted for appearances. The school mixed kids of different academic levels into the same classes in hopes that the best students would pull up those on the bottom. We also continued passing kids through the system, whether they had learned the skills they needed or not. Gary Thomas says many students enter T.C. Williams not knowing how to add or subtract without a calculator, and even the better students do not understand fractions.

A task force suggested creating an alternative school for challenged students, but a “small but vocal cadre of short-sighted community activists,” mostly black, saw it as “a ruse to bring back segregation.” So nothing happened.

The school’s scores also are lowered because it enrolls newly arrived 18- to 20-year-old immigrants who speak little English, instead of sending them to an adult program tailored to their needs.

Because of the low-achieving label, T.C. Williams will submit a detailed plan for improvement. At a dinner, the superintendent “opened the floor for the most honest discussion I have heard in all my years at the school.”

One by one, teachers walked up to two microphones and addressed the problems — and solutions — they saw at T.C.: the lack of clear, consistent discipline; kids roaming the halls freely during class; the failure to curb cellphone and iPod use; the need to identify and focus on those students who are woefully behind in reading and math.

Under Arne Duncan’s revision of No Child Left Behind, schools like T.C. Williams would have to report scores by race, income level, disability status, etc., but wouldn’t face sanctions for not helping hard-to-educate students achieve. There are benefits in reducing the tyranny of test scores, but there will be fewer wake-up calls for schools where some kids are doing great and some are not.

Stanford charter school falters

One of the worst-performing elementary schools in California is run by Stanford University’s School of Education, reports the Palo Alto Weekly.

East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School, started three years ago, was reorganized with a new principal last fall. It ranks in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, according to the California Department of Education’s preliminary list. The school serves a low-income community that’s primarily Hispanic, black and Pacific Islander.

Stanford New Schools, a non-profit, runs the elementary and a high school, which is somewhat more successful but still posts below-average scores compared to schools with similar demographics. The high school does send 90 percent of graduates to college.

The elementary school hasn’t met expectations, Stanford Education Dean Deborah Stipek told the Weekly in December.

“In a lot of ways we’ve been very successful in the kind of emotional and family support, but our kids’ skills are not up to what they need to be. It just takes time to get things right.”

In petitioning for renewal of the elementary and high school charter, Stanford New Schools conceded, “We were not satisfied with our students’ achievement gains,” and pledged to redesign “all levels of our system, from governance and management structures to instructional practice and the use of data to drive decision-making.”

Stanford’s Education School has focused on secondary education, so perhaps they have  a lot to learn about running an elementary. I visited the high school when it was new:  Turning theory into practice was proving a challenge. I give Stanford credit for putting its reputation on the line.

Some East Palo Alto charter schools are thriving, including the very successful EPAC, where I once tutored.

'Stuck' on low

Low-performing schools are not alike, concludes an Education Trust report. Analysis of 10 states’ data shows “some low-performing schools remain stuck year after year, and others that started low performing are among the fastest improvers in their states.”

Stuck Schools: A Framework for Identifying Schools Where Students Need Change—Now! (pdf) will help target turnaround efforts, said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy at The Education Trust and coauthor of the report.

Turn around, end up in same place

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to “turn around” 5,000 low-performing schools. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to save failing schools, writes Andy Smarick in Education Next. Millions of dollars have been spent trying with little success.

Despite years of experience and great expenditures of time, money, and energy, we still lack basic information about which tactics will make a struggling school excellent.

What does work? Closing bad schools and starting new ones from scratch, he writes. Operators of high-performing, high-poverty schools prefer to start fresh so they can create a new culture, a NewSchools Venture Fund study found.

Tom Torkelson, CEO of the high-performing IDEA network agrees: “I don’t do turnarounds because a turnaround usually means operating within a school system that couldn’t stomach the radical steps we’d take to get the school back on track. We fix what’s wrong with schools by changing the practices of the adults, and I believe there are few examples where this is currently possible without meddling from teacher unions, the school board, or the central office.”

Chris Barbic, founder and CEO of the stellar YES Prep network, says that “starting new schools and having control over hiring, length of day, student recruitment, and more gives us a pure opportunity to prove that low-income kids can achieve at the same levels as their more affluent peers. If we fail, we have only ourselves to blame, and that motivates us to bring our A-game every single day.”

When Duncan ran Chicago schools, he closed persistently low-performing schools. But elementary students didn’t benefit, because they were transferred to other low-performing schools, reports the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.  The only students who showed progress were the small number who moved to high-performing schools.

Update: New York City wants to close as many as a dozen failed schools and turn them into charter schools, reports the New York Post. But charter operators worry they won’t have flexibility to run the new schools, said Peter Murphy, policy director of the New York State Charter Schools Association. “It makes no sense to try to turn around a school [while keeping] all the impediments that got it into trouble in the first place,” he said.