Choice raises graduation rates

 Vouchers, charters,  lotteries and small schools of choice have been shown to increase high school graduation rates without raising costs, according to Fourteen Economic Facts on Education and Economic Opportunity from Brookings’ Hamilton Project.

Also effective — but not cost free — are “double-dose algebra” in ninth grade, an intensive mentoring pilot and increased funding.

“Many urban charter schools are able to significantly improve test scores in math and English in one year,” the report found.

Atlanta merges best, worst high schools

Atlanta has merged its highest-performing high school with one of its lowest-performing schools, reports Molly Bloom for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Dr. Thomas Gosha teaches his world geometry class at Early College High School At Carver on Wednesday, Jan. 20. Atlanta school superintendent Meria Carstarphen has combined one of the worst high schools in the city with the very best one. If Carver School of Technology doesn’t improve this year, it could be eligible for state takeover under Gov. Deal’s Opportunity School District plan, if voters authorize it in November. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Dr. Thomas Gosha teaches world geography at Early College High School. Photo: Hyosub Shin, AJC.com

In 2005, Carver High was split into an Early College school for motivated achievers and several open-enrollment schools, including Carver School of Technology, an F school at risk of takeover by the state.

“They’ve gotten rid of their top performing school by combining it with the lowest performing school,” says Sandra Bethea, who chose Early College High for her daughter two years ago. “They’ve set the school up for failure.”

There are more fights, she said. Her daughter’s teachers spend more time disciplining students and less time teaching. School staff have less time for extra help. And her daughter spent the first semester her English class reviewing last year’s material, so School of Technology students could catch up.

Suspension rates are down and attendance rates are up for School of Technology students this fall, writes Bloom. “Significantly fewer fights were reported.” But suspensions are up for Early College students and “three fights were reported, compared to none reported last fall.”

Early College students meet most high school requirements in their first two years, then take college classes at Georgia State University or Atlanta Metropolitan State College as juniors and seniors.

Study: School closures helped students

Closing low-performing New York City high schools helped students, according to a NYU Research Alliance report. Most of the middle schoolers who would have gone to the closed schools ended up at smaller, higher-achieving schools. Fifty-five percent earned a diploma in four years, compared to a 40 percent graduation rate for the now-closed schools.

A 2013 MDRC study found students attending smaller high-schools were 10 percent more likely to graduate on time than students at other schools, notes WNYC.

From 2002 to 2008, the city closed 29 large, low-performing high schools and opened more than 200 new, small high schools.

Post-closure students did better, but not well, researchers said. Fewer than half earned a Regents diploma.

Klein gets to say ‘I told you so’

Joel Klein, former New York City schools chancellor, has a book coming out today, Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools.

His timing is great, writes Rick Hess. Two new “gold-standard” studies on Klein’s reforms show promising results.

Klein closed large, low-performing high schools and opened small schools that are more likely to graduate their students and more likely to see them enroll in college, according to MDRC.

The Equity Project, “one of the many boundary-pushing charter schools that opened on Klein’s watch,” is raising achievement for its low-income students, according to a rigorous Mathematica evaluation.

It takes time to see what works, writes Hess. Klein didn’t get everything right, “but he led with courage and conviction, was constantly eager to inquire and learn, showed astonishing fortitude in the face of exhaustive personal attacks, and left New York’s kids a helluva lot better off than when he started.”

Improving teacher quality is the key to improving schools, Klein told New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.

Firing a teacher “took an average of almost two and a half years and cost the city over $300,000,” when he started as chancellor, Klein writes. Due to union contracts, it was “virtually impossible to remove a teacher charged with incompetence.”

Klein wants schools of education to raise their selection criteria and update their curriculum, he told Bruni.

Klein urged “a rational incentive system” that doesn’t currently exist in most districts. He’d like to see teachers paid more for working in schools with “high-needs” students and for tackling subjects that require additional expertise. “If you have to pay science and physical education teachers the same, you’re going to end up with more physical education teachers,” he said. “The pay structure is irrational.”

In an ideal revision of it, he added, there would be “some kind of pay for performance, rewarding success.” Salaries wouldn’t be based primarily on seniority.

In Los Angeles, John Deasy “is the fourth California superintendent in the last two years to be driven from a job that has the shelf life of homogenized milk,” writes Larry Sand of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. The new superintendent, as yet unknown, may be “a Deasy-type provocateur, burning out after a short time or, more likely, we will be treated to a make-nice type who will not rock the LAUSD boat.”

Small high schools help in NYC

New York City’s small high schools, once derided as a Gates-funded flop, increase students’ odds of graduating and going to college and cost less per graduate, concludes a new MRDC study that compared small school students with applicants who applied but lost a lottery.

Some 200 small schools were created between 2002 and 2008, usually serving disadvantaged students in buildings that had housed large, low-performing high schools.

Black males showed the strongest gains, writes Patricia Willens on NPR.

Because more students earned a diploma in four years, rather than five, costs were 14 to 16 percent lower per graduate, MDRC estimated.

While critics have labeled the Gates effort a failure, other researchers have been monitoring small schools for decades and have found generally positive impacts.

review of studies published between 1990 and 2009 found “the weight of evidence … clearly favors smaller schools.” An MIT study of New York City public small high schools also found positive effects: higher graduation rates, better test scores and an increase in college enrollment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has been critical of closing large high schools to create smaller specialized schools, notes the New York Times editorial board.  He pledges to help improve schools before closing them. “Given the clear benefits that have accrued to the city’s most vulnerable students, Mr. de Blasio should not shy away from the option of shutting down big schools and remaking them from scratch, particularly in cases where the school has been failing for a long time and its culture is beyond repair.”

Small school students show gains

New York City’s small public high schools are producing gains for disadvantaged students, according to a new MDRC study, Sustained Progress.

Students who win the admissions lottery to these schools are significantly more likely to earn a high school diploma (70.4 percent) than applicants who lost the lottery (60.9 percent) than lottery losers. Small schools  increased the graduation rates of special-education students by 13.8 percentage points and of English Language Learners by 4.9 percentage points, MDRC suggests, though the sample size is small.

‘Converted’ school fires activist teachers

Half the teachers at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles were fired this month as part of the latest plan to turn around the low-performing school, writes Dana Goldstein. The “conversion” got rid of Alex Caputo-Pearl, an activist teacher and reform leader. One of the first Teach for America recruits in 1990, Caputo-Pearl taught in high-poverty Los Angeles schools for more than two decades. He helped design the Extended Learning Cultural Model, which drew federal and philanthropic dollars to the troubled high school. He led Crenshaw’s Social Justice and Law Academy, a small school within the school with high expectations.

For their final project, (10th graders) had to analyze a data set that included test scores at various schools; neighborhood income levels; school truancy rates; and incarceration rates.

In math, students graphed the relationship between income and social opportunity in various south L.A. neighborhoods. In social studies, they read conservative and liberal proposals for school reform and practiced citing data in their own written arguments about how to improve education. In science, students designed experiments that could test policy hypotheses about how to improve education. And in English class, they read Our America, a work of narrative non-fiction about life in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago.

Some Crenshaw students were placed in paid community-service internships. Others worked with local colleges to conduct research in their neighborhoods.

With 30 different administrators in seven years, Crenshaw relied on teachers to lead the reform effort. Test scores began to grow, especially for African-American and disabled students, Goldstein writes. But the district has rejected teacher-led reforms at Crenshaw.

Superintendent John Deasy announced in November that Crenshaw would be reconstituted with three new magnet programs on the arts, entrepreneurship, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). There will be more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings and no Social Justice and Law Academy.

Teacher had to reapply for their jobs. Cathy Garcia, the teachers’ union chair, charges the district targeted reform leaders, Social Justice teachers and experienced black teachers who live in the neighborhood. She lost her job too.

Cities are breaking up large comprehensive high schools across the country, Goldstein writes. In New York City, the small specialty schools are superior to the big high schools, according to research from the New School. But who gets to go?

. . . students whose schools close may not end up enrolled in those better schools; instead, a significant number of them will be enrolled by default in the nearest large high school that is still open, which itself has extremely low test scores. That school, in turn, will eventually be shut down, creating what the New School researchers call a “domino effect,” in which the most disadvantaged teenagers are shuttled from failing school to failing school, while those with more active, involved parents win spots at new schools.

. . . only 6 percent of students whose schools are shut down end up enrolled in a school within the top achievement quartile, and 40 percent of students from closed schools ended up at schools on academic probation.

Smaller, themed schools seem to be better for kids, Goldstein writes. But the transition may leave behind the students who need help the most.

At Crenshaw, a “politically and intellectually challenging” themed school-within-a-school reform was dumped and its leaders dispersed. That’s “discouraging,” Goldstein writes. It certainly doesn’t encourage the remaining teachers to become leaders.

Graduation rates are up, but is it real?

High school graduation rates are up, but why? Tonight, PBS NewsHour looks at charges schools are increasing numbers artificially by “labeling dropouts as transfers, encouraging home schooling for their most troubled students, or creating alternative systems such as computer-based ‘credit recovery’ courses.”

The show also examines small theme-based schools in New York City and early college programs in Texas that seem to be getting more students to a valid high school diploma.

Small-school students do better in NYC

Students at New York City’s small high schools earn higher test scores and are more likely to graduate in four years, according to a MDRC study.  The analysis compared students who won a lottery for admission to a small high school with others who applied but lost the lottery.

The latest findings show that 67.9 percent of the students who entered small high schools in 2005 and 2006 graduated four years later, compared with 59.3 percent of the students who were not admitted and instead went to larger schools.

. . . This increase was almost entirely accounted for by a rise in Regents diplomas, which are considered more rigorous than a local diploma; 41.5 percent of the students at small schools received one, compared with 34.9 percent of students at other schools.

Small-school students earned higher scores on the English Regents exam, but there was no difference on the math Regents.

Here’s a link to the policy brief pdf).

Gates: Was the $5 billion worth it?

After spending $5 billion on education grants and scholarships, Bill Gates tells the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley,  “It’s been about a decade of learning.”

The Microsoft co-founder’s foundation is worth $34 billion, more than the next three largest foundations (Ford, Getty and Robert Wood Johnson) combined.

Small schools, an early Gates Foundation initiative, didn’t improve achievement. I was impressed by the foundation’s willingness to admit that.

Small schools improved students’ attendance and behavior, but “didn’t move the needle much” on college attendance, which is a foundation priority, Bill Gates told Riley.  “We didn’t see a path to having a big impact, so we did a mea culpa on that.”

The foundation decided to focus on curriculum — Gates strongly backs a core curriculum — and teacher quality — the foundation is researching what makes good teachers effective.

Many worry that a multi-billionaire has too much power, even if his intentions are noble. (And not everyone thinks they are.) And Gates tells Riley he’s trying to use his money to influence how public money is spent.

 Instead of trying to buy systemic reform with school-level investments, a new goal is to leverage private money in a way that redirects how public education dollars are spent.

However, the foundation’s approach is scientific, not political, Gates say.

“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.” Compared with R&D spending in the pharmaceutical or information-technology sectors, he says, next to nothing is spent on education research. “That’s partly because of the problem of who would do it. Who thinks of it as their business? The 50 states don’t think of it that way, and schools of education are not about research. So we come into this thinking that we should fund the research.”

Gates supports charters — he’s a KIPP fan — but not school vouchers.

. . .  the politics, he says, are just too tough right now. “We haven’t chosen to get behind [vouchers] in a big way, as we have with personnel systems or charters, because the negativity about them is very, very high.”

Gates’ approach is doomed to fail, responds Jay Greene. While trying to influence education policy is sensible, “education does not lend itself to a single ‘best’ approach.” The foundation invokes science “to advance practices and policies they prefer for which they have no scientific support,” Greene charges.

Attempting to impose particular practices on the nation’s education system is generating more political resistance than even the Gates Foundation can overcome, despite their focus on political influence and their devotion of significant resources to that effort.

Greene’s part 2 on the Gates Foundation is here.

In a new mini-book, Greene advocates school choice as the way to create incentives for school improvement.  Here’s his interview with Jason Riley.

Community College Spotlight, which I write for the Hechinger Institute, is funded, in part, by Gates money. Gates is funding almost every innovative idea involving community colleges, notably research on how to improve remediation and boost graduation rates. I think it’s money well spent, though the research isn’t likely to find a silver bullet.