Strict discipline lifts school — at a cost

Students aren’t allowed to talk in the halls at UP Academy Holland in Boston.

To turn around a chronically low-performing, disorderly school in Boston, the state education commissioner gave control to a nonprofit network, reports Peter Balonon-Rosen for WBUR. Now discipline is strict and scores are rising, but so are suspension rates. Is it worth it?

Each teacher clasps a stick striped in rainbow colors, with clothespins bearing the students’ names clipped on from top to bottom. If your clothespin is at the bottom, in the red zone, it means you’ve misbehaved. And everybody knows it.

It’s all part of the “broken windows” theory of discipline at UP Academy Holland, a Dorchester public school that was declared “failing” in 2013.

The school turnaround plan tells teachers to “sweat the small stuff,” writes Balonon-Rosen. There are “automatic consequence for rolling your eyes, or wiggling in your seat, or disputing an automatic, on up to fighting and other dangerous acts.”

While Holland’s test scores have gone up, the school suspended many more kindergarten and pre-k students than any school in Massachusetts in 2014-15. In response to a WBUR story, UP Education Network, which runs Holland and four other Massachusetts schools said it would stop suspending pre-K and kindergarten students.

$7 billion didn’t help worst schools

Pouring $7 billion into America’s worst schools has produced few “turnarounds,” reports Caitlin Emma in Politico.  Nationwide, “about two thirds of (School Improvement Grant) SIG schools nationwide made modest or no gains — not much different from similarly bad schools that got no money at all,” she writes. “About a third of the schools actually got worse.”

In Miami, a high school in Little Haiti has moved from an “F” rating to a “B,” with help from SIG money. Achievement remains low, but not as low as it used to be.

Security is a concern at Christian Fenger High School in Chicago. Credit: Peter Hoffman, Education Week

Security is a concern at Christian Fenger High School in Chicago. Credit: Peter Hoffman, Education Week

At a low-performing school in Chicago, nothing changed. Fewer than 10 percent of juniors are proficient in reading, math and science, the same level as before.

Miami Superintendent Alberto Carvalho lined up “the support of teachers, unions and parents,” before SIG money arrived, writes Emma. With union buy-in, he was able to move strong teachers to low-performing schools, transferring weaker teachers to other placements.

“In Chicago, where teachers fought the program and officials changed almost yearly, schools churned through millions of dollars but didn’t budge the needle, reports Emma.

In 1989, 16 high-poverty, low- scoring elementary schools in Austin, Texas, were awarded $300,000 a year for five years, above normal school spending, to settle a desegregation suit. After five years, little had changed at 14 of the 16 schools, I wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle column. Two schools improved dramatically in achievement and attendance.

Only two of the 16 schools had plans for raising achievement before they got the money, researchers Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy wrote in an analysis of the “natural experiment.”

In the 14 schools that didn’t improve, the money was used to lower class sizes, but teaching and curriculum stayed the same — and so did results. In the two schools that improved, principals lowered class size, but that was just the start of many changes.

Here’s the Education Department’s new SIG report.

NYC’s door-to-door push to involve parents

Tameka Carter, left, and Bliss Requa-Trautz, knocked on doors of families with Public School 112 students in the Edenwald housing projects in the Bronx. Photo: Karsten Moran, New York Times

In hopes of turning around struggling schools, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has spent a million dollars to “train parents in organizing techniques and to hire people to knock on the doors of roughly 35,000 parents,” reports the New York Times.

“Bringing families into their child’s education is essential,” Mr. de Blasio’s schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said. “Study after study shows that family engagement improves student performance and attendance.”

The initiative is modeled after Cincinnati’s “community schools.”

 So on a hot afternoon in late August, one of the outreach workers, Tameka Carter, a single mother of four from Brooklyn who said she had always been active in her children’s schools, went from building to building in the Edenwald housing project in the Bronx, knocking on doors of families with children in Public School 112.

When Ms. Carter did find the parents who were listed on her clipboard, typically mothers, they listened as she explained what it meant that their child’s school was becoming a “community school.”

Parents were asked to rate “how much they would value potential new programs, like medical services, tutoring or summer activities” or “an opportunity for parents to sit at the decision-making table.”

“Meaning?” Maria Pena, a 31-year-old mother of three, asked.

Ms. Carter explained that she could “sit at the table” with P.S. 112’s “community school team,” a group of parents and staff members who would decide what programs the school needed.

“I would definitely sit,” Ms. Pena said. “The problem is if they would listen.”

The administration will spend $106 million over two years to add social and health services at schools.

Parents will come to student performances or award ceremonies, but not to workshops on how to help their children with schoolwork, says Susan Barnes, principal of P.S. 112. “Most of my parents are non-readers,” she said. “People don’t want you to know that they can’t read or write.”

Most types of parental involvement have little or no effect on children’s academic performance, said Keith Robinson, a University of Texas professor who’s studied the issue. Parents’ expectations — will their child go to college? — does make a difference.

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.

No Child’s lesson: We don’t know how to fix schools

Achievement gaps are closing at a glacial rate.

No Child Left Behind “forced states to identify schools that were failing according to scores on standardized tests,” writes Libby Nelson on Vox. But we don’t know how to fix low-performing schools.

NCLB set in place restructuring options for schools that failed to show progress year after year.

Research in North Carolina by Thomas Ahn and Jacob Vigdor found that the most effective interventions were at opposite ends of the spectrum: Schools that had missed the progress goal for only one year and weren’t yet facing consequences improved. So did schools that faced the biggest consequence, a total restructuring.

But everything in between — transfers, tutoring, a new curriculum or hiring consultants, threatening to restructure — didn’t help much.

The next steps — the various “corrective actions” ranging from firing staff to hiring consultants — were equally ineffective, Ahn and Vigdor found. It wasn’t until schools had to hire new leadership that schools made meaningful change.

Research shows that “No Child Left Behind improved fourth-grade and eighth-grade math test scores, but didn’t do as much for reading abilities,” writes Nelson. Black and low-income students gained the most.

But achievement gaps remain large, according to Sean Reardon at Stanford. “Comparing the magnitude of these effects is akin to comparing the speed of different glaciers,” he wrote. “Some are retreating, some advancing, but none so fast that one would notice a meaningful difference except over a span of decades (or centuries).”

A new ESEA?

The long-delayed revision of No Child Behind (aka the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA) might actually happen this year. Or not.

A conference committee will try to reconcile a bipartisan Senate bill with a Republican-only House bill, reports Alyson Klein in Ed Week‘s Politics K-12. Key issues to resolve include “whether the updated law should include a preschool program, whether states should be able to allow federal funding to follow students to the school of their choice, and just how states should measure school performance.”

Both versions of the new ESEA limit the Education secretary’s power, writes Klein. There’d be no more setting policy by waiver.

Under the Senate bill, the secretary of education is prohibited from monkeying around with standards, tests, state goals, school turnaround remedies, and accountability systems. And the secretary would be specifically barred from offering conditional waivers, as Duncan has done. The department would get to approve states’ plans for using federal Title I money for low-income students, but it would only have 90 days to review them. (That’s compared to 120 days under current law.)

And states whose plans aren’t approved by the education department would get the opportunity to revise them, and even demand a public hearing exploring the reasons for their rejection. That would eliminate a lot of the behind-the-scenes-back-and-forth on the finer points of accountability plans that’s been a hallmark of the waivers.

The two bills are weak on accountability, editorializes the Washington Post. The Senate bill would let states “define which schools are struggling and when and what — if any — remedies should be adopted,” while the House bill would “water down testing requirements and allow parents to opt their children out of tests.”

Here’s Mike Petrilli’s cheat sheet for ESEA.

Can this school be saved?

Instead of closing low-performing schools, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Renewal” program offers help meeting students’ academic, health and social needs, reports Patrick Wall on Chalkbeat. Brooklyn Generation School — and 93 other struggling schools — have until 2017 to show improvement.

Twins Elodie and Ismaelle Oriental study after school at Brooklyn Generation School.

Elodie and Ismaelle Oriental, 15-year-old twins, earn straight A’s at Brooklyn Generation School. But will they be prepared to achieve their college dreams? Photo: Stephanie Snyder.

BGS is one of six small schools in a building once occupied by South Shore High, which was closed for low performance in 2006. The small school’s graduation rate is only 50 percent, well below the city average.

 In early February, Andrew Annunziata spent part of his morning at a weekly “kid talk” meeting, where 10th-grade teachers and a school social worker discussed a boy who was asking teachers for money, a girl battling arthritis and a truant boy whose foster mother wasn’t returning the school’s calls.

Renewal uses the “community school” approach, putting medical and social services into schools.

Only 11 of 20 students showed up to Annunziata’s social studies class, reports Wall.  “A few who did rested their heads on their desks” as he tried to explain the causes of World War I.

He compared the shootings of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the rapper Notorious B.I.G., and the Allied and Central forces to the Giants and the Patriots. He also had the teenagers complete a fill-in-the-blank worksheet that didn’t require much writing or critical thinking, asking questions like “Germany wanted to build up her empire. This is known as ___.”

Most students are way behind academically; some read at the elementary level. Renewal promises teachers training and coaching, but it hasn’t materialized yet, reports Wall.

Teachers are trying to encourage more “higher-order thinking” in class. However, in the weeks before the “quality review” team’s visit, teachers “spent hours assembling review binders with lesson plans and student work,” he writes. Some came to school on spring break to “make sure their classroom bulletin boards met the administration’s standards.”

High school vs. lobstering

Boys start lobstering in their early teens on Deer Isle, Maine. They can be millionaires by age 30. So how do you keep them in high school? asks Sarah Butrymowicz. A marine studies program is showing future fisherman that high school matters.

The island’s small high school had the lowest graduation rate in the state at 57 percent, writes  Now it’s up to 90 percent.

A Deer Isle-Stonington High School student works on a model of a boat hull he created in a marine studies math/science class.  Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz

A Deer Isle-Stonington marine studies student builds a model of a boat hull for math/science class. Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz

Principal Tom West added a 45-minute “intervention” period to help students catch up. Some also are required to attend before- or after-school tutoring.

Then teachers designed courses with a marine studies focus. They talked to marine-based nonprofits and fisherman to see what graduates will need to know, such as how to handle the financial end of a fishing business.

Fifteen-year-old Elliot Nevells, who makes good money lobstering in the summer, was planning to drop out till he enrolled in the marine studies program.

. . . Elliot and the other 15 marine studies students are taking math and earth science with a marine twist. Sometimes that means solving math problems with hands-on projects, like building Styrofoam boat hull models to scale. Other times, the class looks more traditional, with students working their way through algebraic expressions.

“Last year, three-quarters of graduates either enrolled in college or got their lobster license, up from two-thirds the previous year,” writes Butrymowicz.

In addition to marine studies, the school has designed courses with an arts focus and plans to add a pathway for students interested in health careers.

Why turnarounds don’t work

The Obama administration spent $3.5 billion on School Improvement Grants to “turn around” very low-performing schools, reports the Washington Post. However, most states lacked the staff, technology and expertise to improve failing schools, according to a U.S. Education Department research brief.

In Ed Week, Peter Greene, a high school teacher and Curmudgucation blogger, speculates on why turnarounds have done so poorly. Some states cheated by using SIG money to lower state funding, he writes. Others find the federal intervention models don’t fit the problems.

Feds: You can use this big tarpaulin or we can bulldoze your house.

You: But I have a hole in my dining room floor. I need some lumber to patch that up.

Feds: This tarpaulin is excellent for covering leaks in the roof, which is one of the most common problems we have found.

You: I don’t have a leaky roof. I have a hole in my floor.

Feds: Well, we can always bulldoze the place.

The turnaround premise is flawed, argues Greene.

The whole turnaround model seems to be, at heart, the story of a wise man who descends on a sad school, stands on a podium and points, “That way, you fools!” The assembled locals smack themselves on the forehead and say, “Silly us. Thanks for straightening us out,” and then march cheerfully into a bright new day.

It’s harder than that, he concludes. “Drive-by do-gooders for hire” haven’t proven they can transform troubled schools.

About a third of the schools that received School Improvement Grants improved, a third of the schools performed about the same, and a third got worse, according to preliminary research released in 2013.

About that ‘miracle’ school

When Chris Stewart tweeted about George Hall Elementary — “99% black. 98% student poverty. All proficient.” — skeptics wondered if the “miracle” was real.

The turnaround school in Mobile was one of the highest-performing schools in Alabama in 2013, according to Education Trust, I noted.

A George Hall student

A George Hall student

Ed Trust’s Karin Chenoweth explains how George Hall went from one of the worst-performing schools in the state in 2004 to one of the best. No miracles were involved, she writes.

A new principal followed “what research indicates is important” and aligned “curricula, lessons, professional development, schedules, budgets, discipline — everything — . . . to support high-quality instruction.”

“Our children can’t help what they come from,” Terri Tomlinson told me when she was the principal. “It’s our job to teach them. And I think we do a pretty good job of it.”

At George Hall I have read student essays, heard students read, and talked with them about what they’re learning and what they hope to be when they grow up. The children at George Hall are not “miracle” children but children who have ambitions and — like all humans — are hardwired to learn.

I believe the faculty and staff would find deeply offensive the idea that the only way that their students can achieve at high levels is through divine intervention.

Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011) by Chenoweth and Christina Theokas profiles Tomlinson and other leaders of  24 high-performing, rapidly improving schools that serve disadvantaged students.

Hall students strive to improve in behavior and academics. Photo: Dan Carsen

Hall students strive to improve in behavior and academics. Photo: Dan Carsen

WBHM profiled George Hall in 2012 as part of a series on turnaround schools.

In 2004, the district transferred most of the teachers, hired Tomlinson and let her recruit a new set of teachers with “a strong work ethic and a belief that all kids can learn at a high level,” reports Dan Carsen. Teachers were offered $4,000 signing bonuses plus performance bonuses.

The community was angry about the changes, says Tomlinson. “We were a predominantly white staff and a white principal who came into a black school with a predominantly black staff and a black principal, and it was … it was hard for it not to be racial. And there were threats.”

Now, people lie about where their kids live so they can enroll them at George Hall, writes Carsen.

The principal and teachers “leave nothing about teaching and learning to chance. They’re very strategic,” says Alabama Superintendent Tommy Bice. “They know where every child is. They have a plan ensure that they move from point A to point B. If they’re not moving along that trajectory, they have a plan to intervene.”

Teachers assess students very frequently, and principal Tomlinson analyzes the data every day. Faculty planning time is protected, and instructional time is guarded like treasure. Tomlinson says you practically need a letter from the Pope to get on the intercom, and teachers recently voted to lengthen the school day by 50 minutes.

Teachers use common lesson plans, and group planning sessions often span grade levels. Collaboration is key.

There are a few white students now, writes Carsen. They are the children of teachers.