Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child


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Consider a community in which people cannot own property. Where housing consists of trailers or old manufactured homes packed closely together, with options for food and shopping very limited. Where a large population of feral animals poses a consistent threat. With high crime rates, high alcoholism, high gang activity. Would you want to live – or teach – there?

Alchesay High School in Whiteriver, Arizona (part of the White Mountain Apache Reservation) is located in such a community. Prior to the arrival of Principal Roy Sandoval in the summer of 2010, the school had the lowest math scores in the state, a 47% graduation rate, and a large population of 18-20 year-old students with less than five credits. There were 291 on-campus drug and alcohol incidents in the 2009 school year (SY2009), and “bootleggers” were selling alcohol to students from land adjoining the campus. There was great rancor and mistrust between teachers and administrators. ...

Have we hit a plateau in student achievement in this nation? In a paper released today, Mark Schneider suggests that yes, we have.

Schneider was asked to study student achievement in Texas over the past few years, at the time their Governor Rick Perry was a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had suggested that Perry ran an inadequate school system, and the Fordham Institute wanted to determine whether or not that was true.

As Schneider reviews, Texas’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) over the past few years has been relatively flat, after a few years of rapid improvement. But in his research, Schneider uncovered a larger trend. And rather than blame stagnant performance on the governor, he suggests that it’s somewhat inevitable.

There’s a concept in biology known as punctuated equilibrium. It posits that systems typically exist in a steady state (equilibrium) in which little change occurs. Occasionally there is a shock to a system from ...

Are school start times, grade level configurations and teacher assignments low hanging fruit for school improvement efforts?

The University of Michigan’s Brian Jacob and Columbia Business School’s Jonah Rockoff think so. At The Hamilton Project’s recent forum on how to improve student performance in K-12 education, they joined a conversation on their recent paper Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement, which discussed how these “mundane” reforms could lead to substantial achievement gains at relatively low cost and avoid the fierce political battles that erupt anytime we mention charter schools, teacher tenure or new academic standards.

The authors reviewed the evidence on each of the three reforms they propose, calculating the possible academic benefit of each and converting it to lifetime earnings gains per student. They also estimate the potential costs of implementing each, coming up with a benefit/cost ratio suggesting that districts seriously consider enacting them.*

For example, their review of the research suggests that starting secondary schools later in the day results in an estimated benefit in lifetime earnings per student of $17,500. They also find that implementing this reform is relatively cheap, costing $0 to $1,950 per student (depending on context; transportation costs were thought to be the largest component here), making the benefit/cost ratio 9:1 or more.

Of course, the politics of this issue can get sticky. In a panel discussion, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Peter Gorman pointed out that when his district tried to move middle school start times, there was great concern about ...

Last week, NPR revisited Rhode Island’s Central Falls High School. You may remember the school from the controversy that erupted last year after the district proposed to fire all its teachers, a move that both the U.S. Secretary of Education and the President appeared to support. You may also remember that many of those teachers were ultimately retained, after stakeholders agreed to a series of reforms – a “transformation” that was to include a longer school day, more after school tutoring and a tougher evaluation for teachers, among other changes.

But the school has struggled ever since. Last year, just 7 percent of Central Falls’ students tested at grade level in math, and 24 percent did so in reading. Some anticipate this year's test results will be worse.

Why have they continued to struggle, in spite of a plan that included a great many reforms that in some contexts have had success? Some ...

The headline reads: Despite successes, charter school takeovers draw protests. The first two story highlights, taken directly from CNN.com (where the story was posted):

  • Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus has seen big rise in students' test scores
  • Some students, parents don't want their schools taken over by charter school operators

Neither is false. But are they related? No.

Mastery’s success – which is undeniable – has no predictive value on whether other charter school operators will have similar success. In fact, as we know from the often-cited CREDO study, the vast majority of charter schools perform no better than their neighborhood schools – and 37% perform worse. Yet in this article (as in countless others), while the author may acknowledge briefly, deep in the article, that not every charter school is successful, she certainly does not draw attention to that fact – or any specifics on charter school movement as a whole.

Instead, under the aforementioned headline and after showcasing the success of Mastery, this article tells the story of Audenried High School in South Philadelphia, which has been identified to be turned into a charter operated by Universal Companies (i.e., not Mastery).

According to the article, Audenried just reopened in 2008 after closing in 2005 because of its failing status, with students taking state standardized tests for the first time since ...

Last week, the LFA held its annual Leadership Council meeting for our member organizations.  The meeting featured a presentation by Mona Mourshed—a partner and researcher at McKinsey and Company—on a great resource for school improvement. Clearly many people feel they have winning formulas for school success, but this McKinsey research presents a truly compelling set of recommendations based on extensive research.

In the report, "How the world's best performing school systems come out on top,"—a follow-up to the 2007 publication by the same name—researchers examined the common attributes of school systems that exhibited continued performance. To do so, they conducted hundreds of interviews and gathered a large body of statistical data to create a comprehensive analysis of global school system reform. From this, they identified reform elements that they feel are replicable for school systems everywhere.

Diverse Case Studies ...

I was intrigued by two stories in the December 13 issue of Newsweek on the subject of public school reform in the United States: the cover story, an essay authored by Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools whose picture and quote “I’m not done fighting” graced the cover (as a former English Language Arts teacher, I would have hoped for a more elegant word choice, but then I suppose space was an issue); and a second story, buried in the middle of the magazine entitled “Give Peace a Chance”, featuring a full page photograph of the president of the Hillsborough County, FL teacher’s union and chronicling the successful school improvement efforts in that school district, the result of collaboration among all the professionals in the system, including the teachers’ union. As a career educator, I think the more provocative magazine cover would have featured photographs of both women juxtaposed with the question: What will it REALLY take to improve all our schools?? ...

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Lessons From Denver

Last week The Denver Post ran an instructive article about the small school movement in Colorado. Downsized Schools Raise Bar, But Not All Reach It touches on some of the efforts in the state to transform struggling high schools by turning them into small schools, sometimes by dividing large comprehensive high schools into multiple academies, sometimes by starting a new small school from scratch.

The theory behind small schools is that they foster closer personal bonds between students and the school and (as one of a number of changes in a school’s climate) improve everything from attendance to graduation rates to academic achievement. And it has had success in raising attendance and graduation rates. But it has a mixed record on improving standardized test scores.

Feeling that they were not getting enough bang for their buck, the Gates Foundation (which for several years invested millions into this reform strategy) pulled its small schools money, now focusing its work on developing effective teachers. But the small school strategy does have its supporters, including some hoping to ...

Denver’s North High School looks like a persistently struggling school. Back in 2006 (and also 2007), only 7% of 9th graders and 5% of 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on state math tests. Just 22% of 9th graders and 23% of 10th graders did so on reading tests. Fast forward to 2009. Just 6% of 9th graders and 3% of 10th graders met state proficiency standards in math. 22% of 9th graders and 34% of 10th graders did so in reading. It was the district’s lowest performing high school and in the bottom 5% of schools in the state as indicated by assessment scores. The district was recently awarded over a million dollars in grants to improve it.

Knowing this, you might not guess that North has “turned around.” But it has, if you use the definition of the term currently in vogue.

In 2007, the school’s entire faculty was dismissed (though they could reapply for their jobs). The next year, about 75% of the faculty was new. There were other changes, too. The school was selected to participate in a program that focuses on teacher training and development to change expectations and drive student performance, includes a math and English curriculum and provides access to study skills programs, among other things. The school would also ...

Dubious school turnaround outfits are rushing in where some more experienced groups fear to tread, The New York Times reports. Of course, we can expect this sort of thing to happen whenever speculators and pitchmen smell billions of federal dollars. But the hype that attends much of the talk about school reform can make matters worse.

The uncomfortable truth is that no single turnaround strategy is a sure bet. A recent review  (PDF) of major turnaround models found that none rested on strong evidence. The research base remains thin.

That has not stopped quite a few people from insisting that, to save a struggling school, you have to start from scratch. You have to give the staff its walking papers if you want to see big changes, the theory goes. Powerful people often invoke the Harvard School of Excellence in Chicago as proof of this strategy. After the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) cleaned house at this elementary school, test scores soared.

Few have paid much attention to the Chicago public schools whose gains have equaled or surpassed Harvard's. Cardenas and Cather elementary schools were among the most improved schools in the city, and neither school fired staff to jump start its reform efforts.

Cardenas and Cather are among eight schools working with a Chicago non-profit called Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI). Those schools have made big strides since 2007 without replacing staff. And their turnaround efforts have cost a fraction of what the restart model costs. None of the SLI schools has enjoyed the kind of praise heaped on Harvard. (For more information on SLI's work, see our interview with SLI president John Simmons).

Harvard has earned the praise, but the uneven media coverage of school reform efforts offers a very skewed vision of our turnaround options. Indeed, the New York Times piece on turnarounds implicitly endorses the restart model. It quotes someone from AUSL who calls ...

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