$6 billion buys inSIGnificant gains

School Improvement Grants were supposed to produce “dramatic” improvements in our most troubled schools, writes Andy Smarick. Arne Duncan “transformation not tinkering.”  After two years and $6 billion — several million dollars per low-performing school —  SIG is “the greatest failure in the U.S. Department of Education’s 30-plus year history.”

A third of SIG schools got worse. The “increased proficiency” touted by the Education Department represents the same modest gains showed by “all other U.S. schools that didn’t get these huge cash infusions.”

Newark principals sue over suspensions

Five Newark school principals suspended for speaking out against the superintendent’s school reorganization plan have filed a free-speech lawsuit reports the Newark Star-Ledger.

New Jersey took over the troubled district. Superintendent Cami Anderson’s turnaround plan is very controversial.

Four principals — H. Grady James of Hawthorne Avenue School, Tony Motley of Bragaw Avenue School, Dorothy Handfield of Belmont Runyan School and Deneen Washington of Maple Avenue School — were suspended with pay Jan. 17, two days after they spoke at a community meeting at a Newark church intended to oppose Anderson’s One Newark plan.

The principals work at schools affected by the plan. Hawthorne and Bragaw are targeted for use by charter schools and Maple is set to become an early childhood learning center. Belmont Runyon has been designated a “renew” school, which means new leadership will be installed and teachers will be asked to reapply for their positions. Brown’s school, Ivy Hill, is designated for “redesign.”

The fifth principal, Lisa Brown of Ivy Hill Elementary, was suspended for not heeding the district’s ban on Daryn Martin, the head of Ivy Hill’s parent-teacher organization who was escorted from the school Jan. 15 after he protested the removal of fliers he posted that were critical of the reorganization plan.

Motley, James and Handfield are now back to work at their schools. Brown and Washington will be reassigned.

“The school district has violated their rights and we’d like a judge to say that,” attorney Robert Pickett said. “Public employees have a right to talk about issues of public concern.”

Do principals have a right to oppose district policy and keep their jobs?

SIG: Big bucks, small gains

Most low-performing schools in the School Improvement Grant program are showing signs of progress, reports the U.S. Education Department. But, big bucks have produced small gains. It’s an open question “whether an eye-popping infusion of federal cash—$3 billion in stimulus funding alone—and some serious federal strings had a dramatic impact on the nation’s lowest-performing schools,” reports Education Week.

While more than two-thirds of schools in the first cohort (which started in 2010-11) saw gains in reading and math after two years in the program, another third of the schools actually declined, despite the major federal investment, which included grants of up to $500,000 a year. And schools that entered the program in its second year (the 2011-12 school year) didn’t post gains in math and reading as impressive as those the  first cohort saw in their first year.

Even U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the progress “incremental.”

Training great principals

How to Train and Retain Great Principals in Struggling Urban Schools on PBS NewsHour looks at a Chicago campaign to recruit, train and support leaders who can turn around low-performing schools.

Turnaround dream turns to nightmare

When Jill Saia was hired to turn around a low-performing Baton Rouge elementary school, she was promised autonomy in decision-making and School Improvement Grant funding to pay for extra staff and a longer school day. Her turnaround dream became a nightmare, she writes on Teacher in a Strange Land.

Two months into the first school year, the new district administration dismantled the “dream team” that had planned the transformation of Delmont Elementary and moved two teachers and an aide to another school. Saia was cited for insubordination for insisting SIG entitled the school to extra staff.

Still, Delmont started to improve. While there was little progress on test scores in the first year, “we did change the culture and climate of the school, increase enrollment, and foster a high level of parental involvement,” Saia writes.

In the second year, she got funding for the extended day program.

We began to turn the corner – more children were reading, asking questions, and flourishing. Fewer behavior problems, more time on task. Children were communicating with each other, with teachers, with staff. They understood what the parameters were for being a student at Delmont, and they rose to our challenges. We planted our vegetable garden, had choir concerts, and participated in the Kennedy Center for the Arts program to integrate arts into the curriculum. We partnered with the local hospital’s health program to host the “Big Blue Bus” every week, which provided medical and mental health care to children and families. We were awarded a sizable grant from a local foundation to adopt a parenting program, and worked with a local university to design a new playground.

But, in November, the superintendent told her Delmont would close after two years of its three-year turnaround plan. Then the board decided to turn it into a K-2 school, then a pre-K center and finally a preK and K school. The final decision was announced in the middle of state testing week.

Students were assigned to a school three miles away, which has an F rating.

. . . because I stood up for my school and tried to keep it open, I was given another letter of insubordination. I was also rated “ineffective” at midyear because of my refusal to change my ratings of teachers to match their pre-identified quota in the value-added system. Their assumption was that if test scores were low, then the teachers must be ineffective.

. . . I was placed on an Intensive Assistance plan. Two months later, I turned in four binders full of data, observations, meeting notes, mentor reviews, etc. My mentor was a local award-winning principal who was part of the original “Dream School” team. Needless to say, she loved Delmont and what we were doing there. . . . After looking at all of my documentation, the director said that it “looked complete,” but then a week later told me that I was still ineffective and would have to wait for his final evaluation.

Saia began looking for a new job, but found “no public school district in this area would hire me because of my track record in a ‘failed’ school.”  After 29 ½ years in the state retirement system, she retired with less-than-full benefits to become dean of instruction at a public charter school about ½ mile from Delmont. Many former Delmont parents have enrolled their children.

Test scores from Delmont’s second turnaround year were “outstanding,” Saia adds. Delmont would no longer be a “failing” school — if it had remained open.

Videotaping helps teachers improve

At a low-performing Indianapolis high school, instructional coaches use classroom videotapes to help teachers improve their lessons and learn from colleagues, reports Scott Elliott in the Indianapolis Star. The Star is following the turnaround (it’s hoped) of Arlington High, which was taken over by the state after six years of very low test scores. EdPower, which took over the school a year ago, installed a camera in every classroom.

As a video played showing first-year high school English teacher Katie Bonfiglio at work, Spanish teacher Patrice Patton watched in awe.

“Wow, I’ve never seen those kids behave like that in my class,” Patton gushed, as she watched a room of typically restless ninth-grade boys fully engaged in a discussion of literature.

That’s just the reaction Paul Chin, Arlington High School’sassistant principal, was hoping for when he asked Bonfiglio if he could show her recorded lesson to about 15 of her colleagues.

.  . . (Bonfiglio) found the discussion with her peers so eye-opening she made changes to some of her other teaching routines.

As a teacher at a high-performing, high-poverty charter school in Newark run by Uncommon Schools, Chin recorded himself teaching so he could analyze his lessons and discuss the video with the principal. He shows Arlington teachers videos of teachers at his old school teaching effectively and helps them analyze their own lessons.

Video recording of teachers also can be used to evaluate teacher performance, which means it’s controversial. Indiana is requiring public schools to create teacher evaluation and rating systems.

Harvard researcher Thomas Kane analyzed 7,500 lessons taught by 1,300 teachers in six school districts for the  Methods of Effective Teaching Study, which was funded by the Gates Foundation.

“Digital video may be more valuable than an observer’s notes for allowing a teacher to “see,” literally, the strengths and weaknesses in their practice,” Kane said. “Someone cannot remember what they did not notice in the first place.”

Kane believes all teachers should record themselves teaching and submit “lessons they are proud of” for their performance reviews. “We would then train principals on how to use the video for evaluating and providing productive feedback to teachers.”

‘Trigger’ parents fire principal: Unfair? Satanic?

A majority of parents at Weigand Avenue Elementary School signed a parent trigger petition asking for a new principal for their chronically low-performing school. Los Angeles Unified will replace Principal Irma Cobian.  Parents had hoped to keep Weigand’s teachers, but 21 of 22 teachers say they’ll transfer, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The story portrays Cobian as a child-hugging, teacher-mentoring paragon who had a plan to turn Weigand around.

Third-grade teacher Kate Lewis said Irma Cobian is the best principal she’s had in nine years at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts.

Joseph Shamel called Cobian a “godsend” who has used her mastery of special education to show him how to craft effective learning plans for his students.

The story implies Weigand was making progress during Cobian’s four-year tenure, which started in 2009-10. The school’s low Academic Performance Index scores have declined slightly; students are doing about the same in reading and worse in math. The school rates a 1 out of 10 compared to all elementary schools in the state, a 2 compared to schools with similar demographics.

LA Times commenters attack the parents — most are low-income Latinos — as too stupid, lazy and uncaring to help their kids learn at home or appreciate their principal’s efforts. Many blame Parent Revolution, which is organizing parent trigger campaigns.

Anti-reformer Diane Ravitch assigned a “special place in hell” to Parent Revolution and its supporters. Ben Austin, who runs the group, is a “loathsome” person who . . . ruined the life of a good person for filthy lucre, she writes.

I agree with Rick Hess. Replacing Cobian may not help, but it’s not unreasonable for parents to seek new leadership.

Llury Garcia, coordinator for Weigand Parents United, said in a private communication, “We love the teachers at our school and don’t want them to leave. However… many of the teachers have turned on us, calling us ‘uneducated’ and unable to make good decisions for our children. By trying to support the principal who is leaving after years of failure, the teachers are the ones now trying to divide our community.”

It’s possible the principal was “on the cusp of turning things around . . . but parents didn’t think so,” Ben Austin wrote Hess. “The parents felt they had waited long enough.”

Hess knows both Ravitch and Austin personally, which I don’t. He thinks Ravitch has gone off the deep end rhetorically: Austin is “smart, well-intentioned, passionate, humble, and nice,” according to Hess.

Austin is a liberal Democrat who thinks empowering parents is the way to force schools to improve. I’m not sure he’s right, but I’m fairly sure he’s not doomed to burn in hell for trying.

“Once-respected education historian Diane Ravitch no longer deserves to be taken seriously,” writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

Turnaround in Cincinnati

It’s possible to turn an urban school district around without cheating, writes Greg Anrig in The Atlantic. Cincinnati schools have improved thanks to a “data-driven collaborative strategy to promote good teaching and learning,” rejecting school reform fads, he writes.

In 2009, newly promoted Superintendent Mary Ronan launched an elementary initiative aimed at revitalizing the district’s 16 worst-performing elementary schools.

 . . . a wide variety of instructional approaches (Montessori, Success for All, Direct Instruction, etc.) were not being followed as designed in classrooms. (Auditors) also saw that many of the schools taught English for less than 45 minutes a day, that teachers were partial to whole-group instruction instead of breaking the class into smaller groups, and that testing data was not being used for any practical purpose.

Administrators and “lead teachers” adopted changes including “90-minute blocks of literature-rich units, small-group activities with teachers rotating among students, and reorienting teachers’ and administrators’ approach to test results, so that they could be used as diagnostic tools for identifying particular areas in which students need greater support.”

Data-driven instruction is not a reform idea?

In addition, principals and lead teachers from the targeted schools were trained in solving problems as a team with “minimal confrontation or defensiveness.”

Four years later, all 16 targeted schools have emerged from “academic emergency” with 12 rising to the mid-level  “continuous improvement” ranking or higher.

“Deep collaboration between administrators and teachers” is the first step, writes Anrig. “Also required are effective approaches for developing coherent instructional systems with active teacher input; close attentiveness to testing data to identify problems students are having so they can be provided with extra support; and strong connections between the schools, parents, and community groups.” Tests are OK as a tool to improve instruction, but not to “punish or reward teachers,” he concludes.

Pulling the parent trigger

More than a half-dozen states now have parent trigger laws that let a majority of parents seize control of a low-performing school, notes Education Next.

Empowered Families Can Transform the System, argues Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, which has led the parent trigger drives.

Parents enduring a parent trigger campaign are transformed. Some, like the parents at Desert Trails, are forced to endure lengthy legal battles, a process most of them have never experienced. Others, including the parents of 24th Street Elementary School and also Haddon Avenue Elementary in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), find a responsive school district that wants to collaborate with them in changing their school.

. . . Many of these parents, for the first time in their lives, feel real power, not only over their child’s destiny but over their own as well. These parents, and parents like them, are the key to the future of public education in America.

“Parents don’t care if a public school is a traditional district school or a charter school,” writes Austin. “They just want it to be a good school.”

There’s a Better Way to Unlock Parent Power, responds Michael J. Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation. While “it’s worth experimenting with the parent trigger,” it’s not likely to turn around many schools or force significant reform.

First, the parent trigger mechanism itself will continue to get bogged down in lawsuits and other blocking tactics, as has been the case to date. Second, if and when the trigger gets pulled, the resulting school turnarounds won’t generally amount to much. And third, empowering parents via the parent trigger (creating a “bargaining chip”) won’t be enough to force larger changes in dysfunctional districts—because nothing will force such change.

Petrilli favors expanding school choice with more charter schools, vouchers and digital learning. Even if choice doesn’t force districts to improve, it will give parents more options for their children, he argues.

Try the trigger, writes Checker Finn, also of Fordham. Since “most bad districts are going to stay bad,” serious reformers need to “give kids every possible exit” into something better. “Helping an entire school to extricate itself from the dysfunctional system is surely one such strategy. Instead of pooh-poohing it, how about we put it on the list of possibilities, wish it well, and do our damnedest to help it succeed as often as possible?”

‘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.