Why people fight to save bad schools

Can a bad school be good for the neighborhood? asks Andy Smarick on Education Gadfly.

It’s very difficult to “turnaround” a chronically low-performing school, he writes. By contrast, closing a bad school and starting from scratch “can move the quality curve to the right.” That’s his argument in  The Urban School System of the Future.

Furthermore, some arguments for keeping bad schools open are unpersuasive, he writes.

Their “closures-are-a-civil-rights-violation” argument causes most to reply, “It’s a far greater violation to force low-income African American and Latino children to remain in failing, unsafe schools.”

However, it’s not so easy to dismiss the argument that closing a school — even a failing, unsafe school — will destabilize the neighborhood, making things even worse, Smarick writes. It’s clear that “good schools are a powerful asset for troubled neighborhoods.” But “every school, even the lowest-performing, is woven into the fabric of its neighborhood—and tugging on that thread affects the entire cloth.”

Even if educationally dysfunctional, the school likely has its share of caring, educated adults who serve as role models and mentors for needy children.

The school may serve as the community hub for social services or civic activities.

Maybe its athletic teams still serve as a source of community pride.

. . . Maybe the neighborhood sees that school as the last thing that is actually theirs. Other families moved away. Businesses shut down. Churches closed their doors. But their school remains.

In There Are No Children Here Alex Kotlowitz describes how two boys try to survive in a dangerous Chicago housing project. “A government policy developed by mostly benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—in this case, by razing old, low-income, ostensibly decaying neighborhoods in favor of gigantic public-housing skyscrapers—did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help,” writes Smarick.”Those who cleared Chicago’s ‘slums’ to make way for new high-rise public-housing towers didn’t realize that they were severing intricate, generations-old social bonds.”

‘Blackboard Wars’ in New Orleans


Blackboard Wars, a six-part documentary on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network looks at the struggle to turn around New Orleans’ John McDonogh High School, which has been known for low performance, high dropout rates and violence. The Recovery School District consider closing the school, but instead gave control to Future is Now (FIN) Schools, a charter group run by Steve Barr, Green Dot‘s founder, who worked on the turnaround of Locke High in Los Angeles. Dr. Marvin Thompson took over as principal and  hired a new staff.

Some community members oppose turning “John Mc” over to “outsiders,” writes Dave Walker in a Times-Picayune review. Others complain the documentary too harsh.

The final minute of the premiere is a preview of the season to come. A student shooting. More fighting. More heat from community activists. Sobbing teachers. Future Is Now CEO Steve Barr saying, “Teachers are just getting their asses kicked.”

“I know what y’all are capable of,” Thompson says at a student assembly at the end of the premiere’s season-preview segment. “The question is, do you?”

The first episode aired Feb. 16 on OWN.

Yesterday, a teenager was shot at a bus stop near the school after a fight broke out between students.

 

How bad schools got better

Twenty-five years ago, the public schools in Union City, New Jersey were so bad the state threatened to seize control. “Fear of a state takeover catalyzed a transformation,” writes David Kirp, a Berkeley professor,  in the New York Times.

From third grade through high school, students’ achievement scores now approximate the statewide average. What’s more, in 2011, Union City boasted a high school graduation rate of 89.5 percent — roughly 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

Union City is the sort of places where expectations are low:  Most students come from low-income, immigrant families. But, gradually, principals became educational leaders, teachers learned to work together and “parents were enlisted in the cause,” writes Kirp, a public policy professor at Berkeley who spent a year in Union City. The district’s “best educators were asked to design a curriculum.” Excellent teachers mentored the not-so-good teachers.

Union City decided to provide two years of pre-kindergarten classes that teach cognitive and noncognitive skills. Nearly every 3- and 4-year-old enrolls, Kirp writes.

One December morning the lesson is making latkes, the potato pancakes that are a Hanukkah staple. Everything that transpires during these 90 minutes could be called a “teachable moment” — describing the smell of an onion (“Strong or light? Strong — duro. Will it smell differently when we cook it? We’ll have to find out.”); pronouncing the “p” in pepper and pimento; getting the hang of a food processor (“When I put all the ingredients in, what will happen?”).

. . . “My goal is to do for these kids what I do with my own children,” the teacher, Susana Rojas, tells me. “It’s all about exposure to concepts — wide, narrow, long, short. I bring in breads from different countries. ‘Let’s do a pie chart showing which one you liked the best.’ I don’t ask them to memorize 1, 2, 3 — I could teach a monkey to count.”

Union City High School was on the “needs improvement” list — until it improved. Principal John Bennetti is persuading students that education can be a ticket out of poverty.

On Day 1, the principal lays out the house rules. Everything is tied to a single theme — pride and respect in “our house” — that resonates with the community culture of family, unity and respect. “Cursing doesn’t showcase our talents. Breaking the dress code means we’re setting a tone that unity isn’t important, coming in late means missing opportunities to learn.” Bullying is high on his list of nonnegotiables: “We are about caring and supporting.”

Bennetti wants teachers to expect more of students and prepare them for success in college.

Turnaround districts like Union City aren’t “magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and gluing them together,” Kirp writes. “Instead, each devised a long-term strategy reaching from preschool to high school. Each keeps learning from experience and tinkering with its model.” He writes about Union City’s transformation in  Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.

In the State of the Union speech, President Obama said he’ll work with states “to make high-quality preschool available to every child.”  I guess that means he’ll propose federal grants.

Obama is wrong when he says high-quality preschool is critical for all children. Children raised by educated parents tend to do well whether they go to preschool or not. By promising preschool for all, Obama diverts funding from the disadvantaged children who really do need a high-quality (and high cost) preschool education to develop language and behavioral skills that aren’t being taught at home.

‘Culture of Can’t’ weakens school leaders

School superintendents can lead, despite rules, regulations and union contracts, argue Rick Hess and Whitney Downs in Combating the ‘Culture of Can’t’ in Education Next. It’s not easy, but “school officials have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed,” they write.

Contracts, rules, regulations, statutes, and policies present real problems, but smart leaders can frequently find ways to bust them—with enough persistence, knowledge, or ingenuity.

The problem is . . .  the “culture of can’t,” in which even surmountable impediments or ankle-high obstacles are treated as absolute prohibitions.

Reformers fight for new policies on teacher evaluation, school turnarounds or school choice, but don’t  provide the support school leaders “need to tackle rules, regulations, and contracts in new ways,” write Hess and Downs.

Thus, reformers struggle to narrow the scope of collective bargaining, only to see administrators fumble the hard-won opportunities. They enact teacher evaluation and turnaround policies whose efficacy and impact rest entirely on the ability of officials to execute them competently and aggressively in the face of contracts, embedded routines, and recalcitrant cultures.

Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute has a new book, Cage-Busting Leadership.

“In selecting, training, socializing, and mentoring leaders, we have unwittingly encouraged ‘caged’ leadership,” he writes in Ed Week.  “Cage-dwellers spend most of their energy stamping out fires or getting permission to lead, and most of their time wooing recalcitrant staff, remediating ineffective team members, or begging for resources. Cage-busters wake up every morning focused on identifying big challenges, dreaming up solutions, and blasting their way forward.”

No ‘parent trigger’ fight in Los Angeles

California’s first two parent trigger campaigns were bitter fights, but Los Angeles parents seeking to transform 24th Street Elementary have found a “willing partner” in the school district, reports EdSource Today.

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy met them and promised “to work side by side with you so every student – todos los niños – gets an outstanding education.” United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher showed up unexpectedly at their press conference and vowed to collaborate with them, too.

The school’s parents union say 68 percent of parents signed the trigger petition, far more than the 50 percent needed.

Los Angeles Unified already has identified 24th Street Elementary as one of the worst performing in the district.

. . . before the parents handed in their petition, Deasy returned the school’s transformation plan, written by the principal and a team of teachers in consultation with a half-dozen parents and Parent Revolution organizers, as insufficient.

It was, however, candid in explaining the need for change: “We have continued to operate in the same manner for years and have consequently yielded the same ineffective results,” it said. “Rather than learn from our operational miscues and poor communication and look to our past for guidance, we have allowed the accretion of our failures to weigh us down.”

The 24th Street Elementary School Parents Union has set deadlines for converting the school to a charter by next fall, but parents could agree to an in-district school transformation plan, says Ben Austin of Parent Revolution.

Turnaround … not so much

“Turnaround” schools didn’t turn very far, despite billions of dollars in School Improvement Grant (SIG) money, reports the U.S. Education Department. Two thirds of low-performing schools showed some improvement;  one third got even worse. What Ed Week calls “mixed results,” Andy Smarick labels “disappointing but completely predictable.”

Twenty-five percent of schools made “double-digit” gains in reading and 15 percent in math, which could mean a 10 percent gain from a very low base, Smarick points out.  “They are schools that went from really, really, really low-performing to really, really low-performing.”

“Single-digit” gains — as little as 1 percent — were reported by 40 percent of schools  in math and 49 percent in reading.

Yes, it’s only the first year, but the first year is the easiest, writes Smarick.

 Historically, schools subject to “turnaround” attempts are so low-performing that improvement efforts often see early gains. These schools are in such dire straits that initial quick-win efforts like instituting a school-wide curriculum or bringing a modicum of order to classrooms will bring about a bump in performance. The problem in the past has been sustaining and building on the gains made in year one. I can’t recall a study of previous turnarounds that showed so many schools falling farther behind after interventions.

Some SIG schools were improving before they received the grants, but then slid back, notes Ed Week.

 Twenty-six percent of schools in the program were on a trajectory to improve their math scores, but declined once they entered the SIG program, while 28 percent of schools where math scores had been slipping began to show improvement after getting the grant. In reading, 28 percent of schools that had been showing gains before SIG actually lost ground once they got the grant. A smaller percentage of schools, 25 percent, had been showing sluggish improvement in reading before the grant and began to improve once they got the funding.

So it looks like a wash — a very expensive wash.

Focus on elementary schools, where there’s a chance of success, suggests RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. Students are too far behind by middle school.

Unless the schools engage in intensive reading and math remediation with students, simply engaging in some curricula changes  (and offering some additional training to laggard teachers) will do nothing to help these kids onto the path to college and career success.

Districts rarely pick SIG’s strongest turnaround model, which calls for “shutting down dropout factories and failure mills, and then replacing them with traditional public and charter schools,” Biddle writes.

Obama touts turnarounds, but where’s the data?

School turnarounds are working claimed President Obama at the last two debates. But where’s the data? asks Alyson Klein on Ed Week‘s Politics K-12.

The Obama administration put $3 billion in stimulus funds into the School Improvement Grant program and required states to use one of four turnaround models. We don’t know if it’s working. “It seems pretty clear that the administration is sitting on the data until after the election,” writes Klein.

Saving a school

Michael Brick’s Saving the School  tells the story of Austin’s Reagan High School, a turnaround school that actually turned out better than it started, writes Pamela Tatz on Education Gadfly.

The book follows the principal, a young science teacher, the basketball coach and a star student athlete.

“At Reagan, the principal scoured the neighborhood to locate truants. The science teacher opened her home to her students for Bible study, free meals, and a sympathetic ear. The coach’s deep and enduring connection to his team helped revive the school’s flagging spirit. And the students responded.”

But it wasn’t easy.

 

Writing revolution: Back to the past

A Staten Island high school with mostly poor and working-class students, New Dorp High was tired of failure. After trying various reforms, such as small learning communities, Principal Deirdre DeAngelis and her faculty set a goal:  Teach students to write clearly.

When students learned to write — in history and science, as well as English — they learned to read, argue and analyze, writes Peg Tyre in The Atlantic. Test scores rose significantly and the graduation rate soared.

Nell Scharff, a lecturer at Baruch College, worked with teachers to figure out why New Dorp students couldn’t write. The poor writers had basic reading skills, but didn’t use “coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like forandnorbutoryet, and so.”

Teacher Fran Simmons asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and answer a prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

. . . More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

Twenty-five years ago, schools of education began teaching new teachers that writing should be “caught, not taught,” says Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State.

Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. . . . Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

. . . For most of the 1990s, elementary- and middle-­school children kept journals in which they wrote personal narratives, poetry, and memoirs and engaged in “peer editing,” without much attention to formal composition. Middle- and high-school teachers were supposed to provide the expository- and persuasive-writing instruction.

Many kids didn’t “catch” writing, writes Dorp.  Pressured to raise reading scores, secondary school teachers neglected writing instruction.

The principal sent New Dorp teachers for training at Windward, a private school for children with language-related learning disabilities.

Children . . .  are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—butbecause, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.

In every class but math, New Dorp students wrote.  In chemistry class, Monica DiBella had to describe the elements with subordinating clauses.

Although … “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.”

Unless … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.”

Learning parts of speech improved Monica’s reading comprehension. Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”

In class discussions, students were required to use certain phrases, such as: “I agree/disagree with ___ because …”

In Monica’s fifth-period-English discussion of the opening scene of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, teacher Angelo Caterina asks why Willie Loman is so tired.

“Willie Loman seems tired because he is getting old,” ventured a curly-haired girl who usually sat in the front. “Can you explain your answer?,” Monica called out. The curly-haired girl bit her lip while her eyes searched the book in front of her. “The stage direction says he’s 63. That’s old!”

. . .  “I agree that his age is listed in the stage direction,” said John Feliciano. “But I disagree with your conclusion. I think he is tired because his job is very hard and he has to travel a lot.”

Robert Fawcett, a loose-limbed boy in a white T-shirt, got his turn. Robert had been making money working alongside the school’s janitors. “I disagree with those conclusions,” he said, glancing at the prompts. “The way Willie Loman describes his job suggests that the kind of work he does is making him tired. It is repetitive. It can feel pointless. It can make you feel exhausted.”

New Dorp is now considered a model school, writes Tyre.

Common Core Standards stress expository and analytic writing over personal narratives, she notes. But many writing experts think students will be bored by lessons in grammar, sentence structure and argument. Creative writing will motivate students, they believe.

Meanwhile, Monica DiBella is applying to college. Her Regents scores predict she’s ready.  “I always wanted to go to college, but I never had the confidence that I could say and write the things I know.” She smiles and sweeps the bangs from her eyes. “Then someone showed me how.”

‘Strategic staffing’ is oversold

On the cover of School Administrator, heroic-looking educators parachute into a school.  “Landing your best forces in schools with greatest needs” promotes a story lauding Charlotte-Mecklenberg’s success in turning around troubled schools. “Strategic staffing” — sending strong principals and teachers to weak schools — has “exceeded expectations,” writes Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark.

In fall of 2008, Charlotte-Mecklenberg paid bonuses to lure star principals and teachers to seven low-performing schools. No strategic staffing school has met the campaign’s goal – 90 percent of students at grade level in three years –reports the Charlotte Observer.

In 2012, four of the seven pilot schools had pass rates of 50 percent or lower. Devonshire Elementary, the strongest of the seven, had 71 percent on grade level.

The strategic staffing schools have improved, but so have most low-performing schools in the state, reports the Observer.  A tough new test set scores plummeting in 2008, just before the new principals took over. The next year, the state started requiring students who failed exams to try again. Across the state, scores surged.
In 2012, scores fell in the seven original schools, though newly added “strategic” schools improved.

 Clark’s article, written before the 2012 test scores were released, concludes that strategic staffing will become obsolete because of its success.

“A school district’s courage has led to academic success for students in the lowest-performing schools,” she writes. “To think all it took was recognizing talented principals and teachers and inviting them to share their talents with our neediest children and schools.”

At four of the seven original schools, the principal brought in to transform the school has gone. Closing three middle schools and sending older students into low-performing elementary schools also has caused problems. bbbbbbbb