Same schools for all?

Upper-middle-class parents aren’t rallying to reform the schools, writes Lewis Andrews in The American Spectator.  Affluent parents are getting the schools they want, responds Mike Petrilli.  The question is whether they’ll support reforms to help other peoples’ children. If those reforms — think test-based accountability — hurt their own children’s schools, they’ll resist, he argues.

Some high-spending districts get mediocre results, Andrews writes.

Affluent parents, confident their own children will do well academically, may not care about rigor, writes Petrilli.

 . . . I bet that many upper-middle class parents want to reach for something more: Emotional, spiritual, and physical growth, especially. And thus the frills that Lewis derides (like all manner of extra-curricular activities and “specials”) become quite important. And as for the test scores–well, who cares if they are really, really high or just really high?

Low-income and working-class parents have different priorities, Petrilli writes. Their children need a different sort of school.

So am I saying that we should provide one kind of education for the rich and another kind for the poor? That affluent kids get to develop their bodies, minds, and spirits, while low-income children suffer through endless weeks of test-prep?

Not exactly. The best schools for children of poverty focus on all aspects of their students’ development. At the same time, they look a lot different than the schools affluent families send their kids to. They are more focused on making sure their charges have have mastered the basics; they spend a lot of effort inculturating their kids in middle-class mores; they give regular assessments to diagnose progress. These elements would be overkill in many affluent schools. One size does not fit all.

It’s useless to debate whether students have too much homework, he writes. Which students? The ones who go to “hothouse schools in upper-middle-class enclaves” may be working too hard, while low-income and working-class students may not be challenged at all.

The No Child Left Behind backlash in the suburbs isn’t due to concerns that the law isn’t working to fix urban education. Plenty of evidence shows that it’s helped. The anger comes from a feeling that the federal law is starting to make affluent public schools worse–or at least worse in the eyes of their customers. If a principal asks a beloved teacher to scrap her favorite unit on dinosaurs or poetry or jazz or whatever in order to make room for test-prep, you better believe the affluent parents are going to be mad. As well they should be. Mandating statewide, test-based teacher evaluations will only make the situation worse.

Smart policy would focus on troubled schools and offer “benign neglect” to those that are meeting students’ needs, Petrilli writes.

Building the future of school reform

The Futures of School Reform blog with a cast of researchers, teachers and policymakers has debuted on Ed Week. Harvard Education Prof. Jal Mehta introduces the blog, which will include commentaries:

. . .  one seeks to make a data-based case for the need to integrate schooling and social services; another challenges “factory model” schooling and asks for a transformation towards a “knowledge profession”; a third seeks to challenge our current desire to find more teachers who are “superpeople,” and instead suggests we should “unbundle” teaching into a more manageable job.

Mehta and Robert Schwartz, a Harvard colleague, launched the futures project three years ago.

Our premise was straightforward: If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re not going to get there. We have some amazing schools, but few if any districts that consistently produce strong results for all of their students, particularly for high poverty students. We have some exceptionally strong charter schools and charter networks, but even the staunchest members of the entrepreneurial movement would acknowledge that there are serious questions about scale. We have many, many, talented and committed people across the sector, but we would submit, that if they continue to do their work in the same ways in the same institutions, the collective result is likely not to be too different from what it is today.

I like the idea of making teaching a job that can be done well by people who aren’t “super” or saintly or destined to burn out in a year or two.

The “future” looks a lot like the past, writes Alexander Russo, looking at who’s who.

Déjà vu on turnarounds

The feds are spending $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants to “turnaround” the bottom 5 percent of schools. But we’ve tried this before with no success, writes Rick Hess, who warns, We’re not learning from our mistakes.

Avoiding Déjà Vu: Lessons from the Federal Comprehensive School Reform Program for the Current School Turnaround Agenda discussed a new WestEd report (pdf), on the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program (CSRD).

First enacted in 1998, and wrapped into No Child Left Behind, CSRD required low-performing schools to implement eleven “school reform” components in return for federal funds. The eleven entailed: proven methods and strategies, comprehensive design, professional development, measurable goals, support from staff members, support for staff members, parent and community involvement, external assistance, evaluation, coordination of resources, and scientifically based research. Good stuff, right? Thoughtful, based on careful research, backed by new funding, yada yada.

The results? Dismal.

Compared to similar schools, CSR schools were less likely to implement the 11 reform elements; the “reformed” schools showed no gains in reading or math over a five-year period.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s new SIG model for turnarounds won’t work either, Hess predicts. Charter operators aren’t eager to take on very bad schools. Closure works only if “there’s plenty of room at terrific schools that will welcome these kids, and if it won’t disrupt those schools.” Which there isn’t.

As for the “fire half of ‘em” turnaround model, I’ll just note that firing half your employees usually isn’t a one-time solution. Most well-run outfits, private or public, don’t fire half their folks in one big bonfire, replace them, and then enjoy a miraculous transformation. Rather, weeding out mediocrity is a natural, sustained part of how they manage their team. That’s not an option here.

School improvement requires “practice, fidelity of implementation, and on-the-ground commitment” by local leaders, Hess writes. The feds can’t make that happen.

Update: Inside School Turnarounds by Laura Pappano is “a no-nonsense book delineating, sometimes in excruciating detail, the circumstances that surround genuine and courageous attempts at urban school reform,” writes Graham Down on Ed Next. Improving test scores isn’t enough, writes Pappano. “Culture, attitude and student aspirations” also must change dramatically.

School reform hasn’t lifted achievement

School reform has promised a lot and delivered little except for “intellectual dishonesty and political puffery,” writes Robert J. Samuelson in the Washington Post.

Since the 1960s, reading and math achievement has improved in elementary school but faded out by high school, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  The racial achievement gap narrowed modestly but stopped improving in the late 1980s.

Standard theories don’t explain this meager progress. Too few teachers? Not really. From 1970 to 2008, the student population increased 8 percent and the number of teachers rose 61 percent. The student-teacher ratio has fallen sharply, from 27-to-1 in 1955 to 15-to-1 in 2007. Are teachers paid too little? Perhaps, but that’s not obvious. In 2008, the average teacher earned $53,230; two full-time teachers married to each other and making average pay would belong in the richest 20 percent of households (2008 qualifying income: $100,240). Maybe more preschool would help. Yet, the share of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool has rocketed from 11 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 2008.

Samuelson sees two reasons reforms have produced meager results.

First, we still don’t know how to teach inner-city students well enough to overcome their disadvantages. A few schools have succeeded, but the changes haven’t been replicated widely.

Second, students are less motivated to work hard.

The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.

As more students attend high school, standards fall, Samuelson writes. An estimated “60 percent of incoming community college students and 30 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges need remedial reading and math courses.”

School reform ignores these realities, he writes.

Vermont: Good results, weak reforms

In ALEC’s Report Card on American Education, Vermont is ranked first in the nation for educating low-income children, but gets a D on its reform policies. Well, maybe Vermont doesn’t need to reform. Massachusetts, second in performance, gets a C; Florida, ranked third, gets ALEC’s highest reform grade, a B+.

For once, the District of Columbia (C for reform) isn’t on the bottom of the rankings: Looking at the performance of low-income students, the tail enders are Michigan (B- on reform), West Virginia (C)  and South Carolina (B).

Best (and worst) school reform cities

New Orleans, Washington, D.C., New York City, Denver, and Jacksonville are the most open to education reform, concludes a Fordham study, America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents, by Rick Hess,  Stafford Palmieri and Janie Scull.

Charlotte, Austin, Houston, Fort Worth, and San Francisco also make the top 10 reform-friendly cities.

The study looks at “human capital, financial capital, quality control, municipal environment, charter school environment, and school district environment,” Hess writes.

This study starts from the premise that transformative, sustainable reform is about creating room for problem-solvers to more effectively serve students, teachers, and systems — freeing “nontraditional” providers from spending all their time and energy overcoming bureaucracies or getting permission to proceed.

In openness to reform, San Jose, San Diego, Albany, Philadelphia and Gary earned D grades; Detroit earned an F.

Edujobs backer covets reform funds

Forget about school reform: Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, wants to use $800 million in reform funds to pay educators’ salaries. His proposed amendment would shift $500 million from Race to the Top to partially — very partially — offset the cost of a $10 billion education jobs bill. Another $200 million would come from the Teacher Incentive Fund, which helps districts create pay-for-performance programs, reports Education Week. The final $100 million would come from innovation funds, apparently hitting charter schools.

“Mr. Obey has said, “When a ship is sinking, you don’t worry about redesigning a room, you worry about keeping it afloat,” (Obey spokesman Ellis) Brachman said. “He is not opposed to education reform. But he believes that keeping teachers on the job is an important step.”

Maybe the ship is sinking because it’s overloaded,” writes EIA Intercepts.

Obey is bucking the administration to maintain the status quo, writes Flypaper.

Dropout Nation jumps in.

Arne Duncan should give a little to keep teachers working, writes John Thompson on This Week in Education.

If the purpose of reform is to help schools, why push full speed ahead, as the educators who should be implementing these innovations are cut? Teachers have repeatedly seen the fiascoes that occur as schools buy hot new initiatives, but without funding the people necessary to do the work.

Nobody really knows how many education jobs are in danger.

Update: Why give more money to “a system that blindly allows effective teachers to be laid off but keeps those who do poor work but have been on the job longer? asks a Washington Post editorial.

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill if it includes Obey’s amendment.

It takes a system

High-performing districts have “a well-coordinated system that knows how to develop clear goals, assess needs, support educators, evaluate programs, and review and respond to data in a consistent manner,” writes Heather Zavadsky, a former Broad Prize manager and author of Bringing School Reform to Scale, in Education Week.

. . . layering on programs and purchasing tools such as laptops will not automatically result in innovative instruction. Teacher training and ongoing support mechanisms must be factored into the overall plan. Nor will purchasing a data system with all the bells and whistles make a difference if districts do not address trust issues over data use and ensure the information’s usability and accessibility for key stakeholders.

. . . Even if a school has the best teachers available, its students will not move smoothly through a math curriculum that mistakenly omits an important skill like rounding (and if the district lacks sufficient data to discover that omission). Likewise, creating small, 21st-century learning academies that offer cutting-edge subjects like biotechnology will not be an effective improvement strategy if a district continually sends these schools students with subpar reading skills because it lacks appropriate reading interventions.

In short, it takes a system.

Chicago school reforms fail to raise scores

Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, a school reform plan launched by Mayor Richard Daley and then schools chief Arne Duncan, has done little to improve educational performance, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis. Secretary of Education Duncan’s Race To The Top is based on Renaissance 2010 strategies, the Tribune points out.

Scores from the elementary schools created under Renaissance 2010 are nearly identical to the city average, and scores at the remade high schools are below the already abysmal city average, the analysis found.

The moribund test scores follow other less than enthusiastic findings about Renaissance 2010 — that displaced students ended up mostly in other low-performing schools and that mass closings led to youth violence as rival gang members ended up in the same classrooms.

Renaissance 2010 “dramatically improved the educational options in communities across Chicago,” said Peter Cunningham, Duncan’s spokesman. Advocates say it’s too early to judge the reform plan’s success.

Schools CEO Ron Huberman says “about one-third of the new schools are outperforming their neighborhood counterparts; one-third are identical in performance; the rest do worse.”

However, a not-yet-released study finds “pass rates in (Ren10) schools are now 4 percentage points higher than those in comparable neighborhood schools.”

The reform plan also closed chronically low-performing schools. Most students were transferred to other low-performing schools, where they did just as poorly as before. Violence increased as teenagers crossed “racial, cultural and gang boundaries” to attend school.

In response, Duncan decided in 2006 to replace the principal and teachers at turnaround schools but leave students in place. That’s worked at three of four elementary schools taken over by The Academy for Urban School Leadership, reports The Tribune.

Daley plans to expand Renaissance 2010. Huberman says the district will “put our energy behind the proven factors that work” and close underperforming Ren10 schools.

Scripted reform models do best

In a major, long-term study of school reform models, scripted learning did best in high-poverty elementary schools, reports Education Week.

Thirteen years ago, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education‘s Study of Instructional Improvement set out to study three models: Success for All requires teachers to follow a detailed, instructional script; America’s Choice is less scripted but uses coaches to get teachers to follow the same strategies; Accelerated Schools urges teachers to develop their own strategies to help “students to ‘construct’ their own knowledge through interactive, real-world activities.”

Over time, what the researchers found was that, while teachers in the 28 schools using the Accelerated Schools model were most likely to feel a sense of autonomy and trust in their schools, their teaching practices were not significantly different from those used in the 26 comparison schools. The study’s preliminary analyses suggest that students, likewise, did not learn any more than their control-group counterparts did.

. . . In comparison, classes in the 31 America’s Choice schools and the 29 Success for All schools developed their own distinctive looks over time. The different instructional patterns, in turn, led to different, and more successful, student-achievement patterns.

Success for All students excelled from kindergarten through second grade; the average student moved from the 40th percentile to the 50th percentile 2½ years later. In third through fifth grade, the America’s Choice students were the top performers.