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.

Charters are ‘new normal’ in New Orleans

KIPP Central City Academy students march in the 2012 Krewe of Pontchartrain parade.  Photo: Sabree Hill, UptownMessenger

Charters are the “new normal” in New Orleans, writes Richard Whitmire on Real Clear Education. Ten years after Katrina transformed the city’s schools, 95 percent of public school students attend charters.

Nationally, 5.8 percent of students attend charters.

Data on attendance, graduation rates or test scores don’t tell the full story, writes Whitmire.

Take KIPP Central City Academy, which replaced a low-performing school that was a football powerhouse. It’s the highest performing middle school in the Recovery School District — and it has a football team,  cheerleaders, a marching band and majorettes.

At Arthur Ashe Charter School, part of the FirstLine charter network, 37 percent of students have “learning challenges.” That’s sustainable because the new school funding system in New Orleans provides more money for students with special needs.

There is no “backfill” controversy over adding students in later grades, he adds. All the schools backfill and all take mid-year transfers. Students coming out of the judicial system are assigned to a school via a “round robin” system run by the RSD.

Tests are high stakes for principal

Common Core tests are high stakes for a first-year principal determined to improve her struggling New Orleans elementary school, reports Peg Tyre in the Christian Science Monitor.

Krystal Hardy leads Sylvanie Williams College Prep, a charter school in New Orleans that enrolls low-income African-American students.

Third graders read in class. Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman, Christian Science Monitor

Third graders read in class at a New Orleans charter school. Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman, Christian Science Monitor

Students take lots of tests, including state exams in science and social studies, two rounds of Core-aligned PARCC tests in English and math. In some grades, they take benchmarking tests several times a year.

The school’s improvement started with diagnostic exams that enabled Hardy and her staff to spot patterns of errors.

That’s “dramatically changed the way teachers teach,” writes Tyre. “And the teachers are noticing that student achievement is picking up.”

“We were able to administer targeted medicine,” says Hardy.

“Instead of saying, ‘Some of these students aren’t good at multiplying,’ ” she says, “we could start to say, for example, that 40 percent of these students in this class don’t seem to understand the place-value concept in three-digit numbers and about 40 percent, say, understand the concept but are not paying attention to details when they compute.”

None of the school’s parents have opted their child out of testing.

The school also has a social-justice focus. Hardy took 40 students to Selma, Ala. for the 50th anniversary of the march to Montgomery. And one morning, she “taught a unit on poverty in America, which included having third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders compare weekly expenses with median income for high school dropouts, college graduates, and those with a master’s degree.”

How many charters are just right?

ednext_XV_3_forum_img01How large a share of urban schools should be charters? asks an Education Next forum.

In dozens of U.S. cities, more than one in five students now attend charter schools. In New Orleans, nearly all public schools are charters.

D.C. Students Benefit from Mix of Charter and Traditional Schools, argue Scott Pearson and Skip McKoy, who serve on the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board.

Neerav Kingsland, former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, makes the New Orleans Case for All-Charter School Districts.

Suspension doesn’t explain charter scores

High suspension rates don’t explain high test scores at no-excuses charter schools, write Robin Lake and Richard Whitmire in USA Today.  She directs the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, while he’s the author of On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope.

What counts is not whether students are suspended, but whether they transfer to another school, Lake and Whitmire argue.

Take Boston’s high-performing Brooke Charter Schools as an example. The suspension rate there is 20%. Sounds high, but the attrition rate is only 5.5%.

“We use suspension to help draw clear lines about the responsibilities all members of our school communities have to each other,” says Brooke founder Jon Clark.

In high-poverty Ward 8 of Washington, D.C., about 90% of Achievement Prep students re-enroll each year — an astonishing number for a high-transient neighborhood. Their academic record is just as striking, and there’s no evidence the school pushes out “bad” students.

New York’s Success Academies draw the most complaints, in part because their low-income and minority students outperform many middle-class schools in the city. Something must be amiss, right? And yet the attrition rate there for the past few years is about 10%, far lower than many schools in the same neighborhoods.

New Orleans charters with high expulsion rates are modifying their discipline policies to retain more students, they write.

Choice vs. regulation in New Orleans

Will Regulation Ruin School Choice in New Orleans? asks a Reason video.

Graduation rates and test scores are rising. “We’re going to be the first mostly black city to outperform its mostly white state in the history of this country,” says Julie Lause, principal of Harriet Tubman Charter School in Algiers.

Yet Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans worries about “death by a thousand regulatory cuts.”

How strict is too strict?

How Strict Is Too Strict? asks Sarah Carr in The Atlantic.  Many high-performing urban charter schools “share an aversion to even minor signs of disorder,” she writes. Critics say students — most are black and Latino — face harsh discipline for low-level misbehavior.

Many parents “appreciate the intense structure, but only if they also come to trust the mostly young educators who enforce it,” writes Carr.

From the moment Summer Duskin arrived at Carver Collegiate Academy in New Orleans last fall, she struggled to keep track of all the rules. . . . She had to say thank you constantly, including when she was given the “opportunity”—as the school handbook put it—to answer questions in class. And she had to communicate using “scholar talk,” which the school defined as complete, grammatical sentences with conventional vocabulary. . . .

. . . Teachers issued demerits when students leaned against a wall, or placed their heads on their desks. (The penalty for falling asleep was 10 demerits, which triggered a detention; skipping detention could warrant a suspension.) . . . The rules did not ease up between classes: students had to walk single file between the wall and a line marked with orange tape.

Students wear a school uniform. Hats, sunglasses and “bling” are banned.

Summer was 14. It felt like elementary school.

Parents are very concerned about student behavior, writes Carr. “The margin for error is much smaller in black communities, especially for black boys,” Troy Henry, a New Orleans parent, told her.

But there’s been pushback from high school students.

Summer—who had received countless demerits and three out-of-school suspensions in her first semester as a freshman—was among the roughly 60 students who walked over to a nearby park wearing orange wristbands that read LET ME EXPLAIN. In a letter of demands she helped write, the teenagers lamented, “We get disciplined for anything and everything.”

High on their list of complaints were the stiff penalties for failing to follow the taped lines in the hallways, for slouching, for not raising their hands with ramrod-straight elbows. “The teachers and administrators tell us this is because they are preparing us for college,” the students wrote. “If college is going to be like Carver, we don’t want to go to college.”

Carver has modified its rules and decided to end out-of-school suspensions. Other charters also are rethinking strict discipline policies and reducing suspensions.

The changes came too late for Summer, who transferred to a low-performing magnet school.

“Restoring order and discipline” has helped New Orleans’ schools improve dramatically, writes Greg Richmond on Education Post. “From 2007 to 2013, the share of students reading and doing math at “proficient” levels surged from 37 percent to 63 percent in New Orleans. From 2005 to 2011, the high school dropout rate declined from 11.4 percent to 4.1 percent.”

New Orleans: How to go from C to A

School reform moved New Orleans schools from an “F” to a “C”, writes Matt Candler on the 4.0 blog.

The tools of reform – parent choice, alternative paths to teaching, paying for results, labor reform, and charter schools – were deployed effectively and frequently.

Beyond the bumper-sticker issues were details many miss: high-quality charter school authorizing from state officials, vigilant oversight by charter boards who kicked out low-quality for-profit operators, self-policing by charter operators willing to take responsibility for low quality schools, even if they didn’t start them, and tireless work by parents to navigate a system of choices that remains a work in progress.

Going from “C” to “A” will “require less hubris” and “more listening,” he writes.