Charter myths

Philly School Choice highlights “five charter myths.”

Test answers are in the (missing) book

Pennsylvania’s state exams can be “gamed” by a “shockingly low-tech strategy,” writes Meredith Broussard, a Temple professor of data journalism. All it takes is reading “the textbooks created by the test makers.”

Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing because they don’t have the right books, she writes in  The Atlantic.

On  the 2009 Pennsylvania exam, third-grade students were asked to write down an even number with three digits and how they know it’s even.

Here’s an example of a correct answer from a testing supplement put out by the Pennsylvania Department of Education:

This partially correct answer earned one point instead of two:

Everyday Math’s third-grade study guide tells teachers to drill students on the rules for odd and even factors and be able to explain how they know the rule is true, Broussard writes. “A third-grader without a textbook can learn the difference between even and odd numbers, but she will find it hard to guess how the test-maker wants to see that difference explained.”

I’m not shocked that tests are aligned to textbooks. What’s truly disturbing is Broussard’s research into whether Philadelphia schools have the right books. She found district administrators don’t know what curriculum each school is using, what books they have or what they need.

According to district policy, every school is supposed to record its book inventory in a centralized database called the Textbook Storage System. “If you give me that list of books in the Textbook Storage System, I can reverse-engineer it and make you a list of which curriculum each school uses,” I told the curriculum officer.

“Really?” she said. “That would be great. I didn’t know you could do that!”

Principals use their own systems for tracking supplies and books. Short of support staff, schools stack books in closets and forget they’re there. Teachers scavenge materials from closed schools and spend their own money to supplement their $100 a year supplies budget.

Broussard built a program, Stacked Up, which found the average Philadelphia school has 27 percent of the books it needs. But that’s just a guess because nobody really knows who’s got what.

A ‘culture of chaos’

Two weeks after a 17-year-old fractured the skull of Bartram High’s “conflict resolution specialist,” Philadelphia school officials sent a team to assess the troubled school, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Violence is “the new normal,” said a teacher.

A brawl erupted in the school cafeteria, students set off firecrackers and the 17-year-old who assaulted the staffer was seen at school for two days.

Administrators don’t remove problem students, say teachers. That’s created a “culture of chaos and disregard for authority.”

The cafeteria melee was captured by a cellphone camera and posted on social media.

. . . dozens gathered, with several students exchanging punches. A male school police officer attempts to separate the combatants as the room fills with screams.

In short order, a larger brawl erupts, mostly between female students. A female police officer attempts to break up one skirmish, then others. At one point in the video, that officer appears to fall to the floor.

“We have to go beyond police officers,” said Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get these young people to care for others.”

“The administration has begun attempting to crack down on students who come late to school, and those who ditch class or use cellphones, but many students, accustomed to having wide latitude in the building, aren’t taking the adults seriously,” reports the Inquirer

I’m sure many students at Bartram High would prefer a safe, orderly school where they can learn. But nobody can learn — or teach — in a “culture of chaos.”

Students at high-poverty high schools receive “an average of half an hour less instruction per day than their higher-income peers” due to disruptions and “poverty-related challenges,” according to a new study, reports Education Week.

Less dangerous but still ‘on the edge’

One of  Philadelphia’s most dangerous schools for six years, Strawberry Mansion High School escaped closure and made it off the “persistently dangerous” list, reports ABC News. But the school — with less than 500 students — remains “close to the edge.” Budget cuts have meant fewer guards and police — and fewer teachers.

‘Jones Jail’ gives peace a chance

Known for violence and disorder, Philadelphia’s John Paul Jones Middle School was dubbed “Jones Jail,” writes Jeff Deeney in The Atlantic. Last year, when a charter took over the failing school, American Paradigm Schools didn’t beef up security. They removed the metal detectors, stripped metal grating from the windows and replaced security guards with coaches trained in conflict resolution by the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP).

The number of serious incidents fell by 90 percent at what’s now called Memphis Street Academy.

AVP, which started in violent prisons and spread to violent schools, “emphasizes student empowerment, relationship building and anger management over institutional control and surveillance,” writes Deeney. “Engagement coaches  . . . provide support, encouragement, and a sense of safety.”

Carolyn Schodt, a registered nurse at Alternatives to Violence who also runs AVP inside Graterford State Prison, says, “We did this with the same students, same parents, same poverty. In one school year serious incidents – drug sales, weapons, assaults, rapes – went from 138 to 15.

The school’s students walk past prostitutes and drug dealers on their way to and from school. As Jones Jail, “street violence from the surrounding neighborhood occasionally spilled onto school property.” Yet neighbors feared the Jones students.

“Every day ,” says CEO of American Paradigm Schools Stacey Cruise, “they would set up a perimeter of police officers on the blocks around the school, and those police were there to protect neighbors from the children, not to protect the children from the neighborhood.” Before school let out the block would clear, neighbors coming in off their porches and fearfully shutting their doors. Nearby bodegas would temporarily close shop. When the bell rung, 800 rambunctious children would stream out the building’s front doors, climbing over vehicles parked in front of the school in the rush to get away.

School police officers patrolled the building at John Paul Jones, and children were routinely submitted to scans with metal detecting wands. All the windows were covered in metal grating and one room that held computers even had thick iron prison bars on its exterior.

Engagement coaches were recruited from Troops to Teachers. I assume that means they’re male role models in a community where few kids are growing up with responsible fathers.

Dr. Christine Borelli, Memphis Street Academy’s CEO, grew up in the neighborhood, which makes it easier to build relationships with neighbors and parents. “I don’t just fit in here, I’m from here. I’m proud to be from here. When I go out to look for a student who’s not coming to school I run into people I know. Parents appreciate that you’re not fearful of the community.”

In anonymous questionnaires, 73 percent of students said they now felt safe at school, 100 percent said they feel there’s an adult at school who cares about them and 95 percent said they hope to graduate from college one day, writes Deeney.  “Nearby bodegas have stopped locking their doors when school lets out.”

No credential, no job for Vallas

Once superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, reformer Paul Vallas is unqualified to lead the Bridgeport, Connecticut school district, because he lacks an administrative credential, a Superior Court judge ruled. She said Vallas can’t stay in the job while appealing.

The state board of education created an independent study program for Vallas to meet the credential requirements, which normally require 13 months of study at a Connecticut college or university. The judge rejected the board’s alternative.

Like a number of urban superintendents, Vallas isn’t a professional educator. “A longtime state legislative aide and budget director for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, he took over the job of running the Chicago schools in 1997 after the state put them under Daley’s control,” notes Governing. Narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary for governor of Illinois in 2002,” he was hired to run Philadelphia schools after Pennsylvania took them over. Then he went to New Orleans to run the Recovery School District.

“I think it’s bizarre that we’d allow paper credentials from programs with lackluster reputations disqualify a candidate with an extensive track record,” writes Rick Hess. “Seems to me like it makes a lot more sense to just judge Vallas on what he’s done, his skills, and his temperament. I think Vallas is an impressive guy and that it’d be a bad thing if he were actually pushed out of office.”

Normally hostile to reformers, Diane Ravitch published a defense of Vallas by a commenter who worked for him in Chicago.

The pension squeeze

Pension reform is essential — and possible– argues a new Fordham report, The Big Squeeze: Retirement Costs and School District Budgets.

Philadelphia schools could spend as much as $2,361 per pupil by 2020 on retiree costs alone, more than 10 times the current level — and 13 percent of the school district budget —  if the governor’s pension reform plan doesn’t become law, the report warns.

Milwaukee will spend $1,924 per pupil on pensions and health care for retirees, but that’s $1,588 less per pupil because Wisconsin passed Act 10, a reform measure.

Ohio’s pension reform means Cleveland schools will spend less on retirement costs in 2020 than it did in 2011; the new laws are projected to save it about $1,200 per pupil that year.

But pension reform is always costly for someone. Both Wisconsin and Ohio in effect raised employee pension contributions and reduced retiree health benefits. While the changes in Milwaukee will be shared by all teachers, the impact in Cleveland will be felt disproportionately by new teachers, who will be essentially “taxed” to pay for the benefits of current and past employees.

That could discourage young people from entering teaching, the report warns. Young teachers will earn less — and less in the future — to maintain “relatively generous benefits for veteran teachers and current retirees —some of whom will spend more years in retirement than they did in the classroom.”

Pensions for public-sector employees will change dramatically in the future, Fordham predicts. Public employees may be offered 401(k)-style plans or “cash-balance plans. The current system isn’t sustainable.

Lawmakers have promised teachers retirement benefits that the system cannot afford, because the promises were based on short-term political considerations and willfully bad (or thoroughly incompetent) math. (For instance: assumptions about market returns that were wildly optimistic, and assumptions about longevity that were overly pessimistic.) The bill is coming due and someone’s going to get soaked.

Retirement benefits take 10 percent of the school budget in St. Louis, writes Stephen Sawchuk. Student enrollment is declining as pension costs are rising. ” The situation has hastened some of the district’s cost-cutting measures, and fights over whether and how to restructure pensions are looming.”

Cheating is not a big deal

The Atlanta cheating indictments — from the former superintendent down to principals and teachers — have brought calls to eliminate test-based accountability measures. If there’s no incentive to cheat, there’ll be no cheating, the argument goes.  Minimizing cheating shouldn’t be the top priority, argues Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

Incentivizing any field increases the impetus to cheat.

. . . If Major League Baseball instituted tenure, and maybe used tee-ball rules where you can’t keep score and everybody gets a chance to hit, it could stamp out steroid use.

Students have been cheating on tests forever — massive, systematic cheating, you could say. Why? Because they have an incentive to do well. Give teachers and administrators an incentive for their students to do well, and more of them will cheat.

Standardized test scores “account for no more than half of the criteria” for evaluating teachers in any state, Chait writes. Classroom evaluations and other factors count for the rest.

 States use complex models to measure how much a class increased its performance from the beginning to the end of the school year, accounting for socioeconomic conditions and other factors.

“There’s a useful debate to be had over how to design the criteria for measuring effective teachers,” he writes, but minimizing cheating is not the top priority. “The top priority should be teaching students better.”

The Atlanta scandal wasn’t about teachers cheating to look better. It was about administrators pressuring teachers to make low-performing schools look better. That’s true in Philadelphia’s cheating scandal too.

Philly sanctions two principals for cheating

After a nearly two-year-old investigation into cheating on state  tests at 53 Philadelphia public schools, two principals have surrendered their administrative credentials.

Barbara McCreery, who oversaw astronomical test score gains in 2010 at Communications Technology High in Southwest Philadelphia, was alleged to have “violated the integrity and security of the PSSA by erasing and changing student answers, creating an answer key and manipulating student data.”

Lola Marie O’Rourke, former principal of Locke Elementary in West Philadelphia, faced similar allegations, including that she directly provided answers to students.

McCreery was fired as principal of Bok Tech. O’Rourke left the district to work as an administrator in Trenton, New Jersey. Both will retain their teaching certificates but won’t be able to teach in the Philadelphia School District. Neither will be eligible to work as a principal in Pennsylvania.

The cheating investigation is continuing. Will there be indictments, as in Atlanta? Retiring a few years early or taking an out-of-state job isn’t much of a punishment.

Students overboard

Photo: Here in Philly the district is closing nearly 30 schools, sending some kids to other dangerous schools to save $$$.  Meanwhile a few miles away it's laptops for every kid.  This could work for other cities' schools, too.

Philadelphia is closing nearly 30 schools, sending some students to dangerous schools to save money, writes cartoonist Signe Wilkinson. “Meanwhile a few miles away it’s laptops for every kid.”