Time will tell

Is one year enough time to make a bad school better? Experts are divided.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Phalen Leadership Academies is running School 103.

As Indianapolis Public Schools pursues a radical new approach to saving its most troubled schools, district leaders face an increasingly pressing question: Are their reforms working?

In the first year at the first failing school to be restarted as an “innovation” school, the number of students who passed state tests actually dropped. But whether or not one year of test scores says much about a school depends on who you ask.

It is “absolutely” concerning that student passing rates dropped at School 103 in its first year in the district’s innovation program, said Gary Henry, a professor at Vanderbilt who has evaluated turnaround efforts in Tennessee and North Carolina.

“Most of the recent literature on turnover … showed positive results in the first year,” he said.

When the district converts struggling schools to “innovation” status, new principals are given full control over their budgets, staffing and curriculum. Teachers must reapply for jobs and they are not part of the IPS union. But the restarted schools are still part of the district and they still accept all neighborhood kids.

Since the innovation program began, IPS board has restarted three failing schools as innovation schools. The district’s first test case was School 103, where the charter network Phalen Leadership Academies took over management in 2015.

School supporters were likely hoping to see scores creep up a bit since Phalen took over but when ISTEP scores were released this month, the school saw its passing rate on ISTEP fall from 9.6 to 4.6 percent.

Henry says that’s a bad sign. In a recent review of research, he found that every turnaround that was successful had improvements in test scores and proficiency rates in the first year.

But other experts argue that it can take time for new or restarted schools to ramp up.

Brian Gill, a fellow with Mathematica Policy Research, lead a study of takeover schools that found that scores fell in the first year but rebounded in later years.

“I would not expect turnaround efforts that involve major changes to show improvements in student achievement in the first year,” Gill wrote in an email.

The leader of the charter network that runs School 103, Earl Phalen, takes ISTEP passing rates seriously, and he said that in the longterm, the school aims to exceed the state average. But for the first year, test scores weren’t their top priority. Instead, school officials were focused on creating a warm culture where students feel supported and encouraged to be leaders.

“You’ve got to get culture right first before you can really focus on the academics,” Phalen said. “Next year, we expect the state results to go up significantly.”

Some experts agree that the district shouldn’t expect immediate improvement in test scores. In part that’s because it could take a few years for their work to translate into test scores, said Steven Glazerman, who is also at Mathematica. For example, if a school is doing a good job in the early grades, it would be years before those students take the state standardized test.

But other researchers are more concerned by declining passing rates. Henry said that most of the research that shows it takes a few years for a turnaround school to improve was focused on less intense interventions when the teachers were retrained, rather than replaced.

At schools like the IPS innovation schools, where the existing teachers must reapply for their jobs, he said the district should expect to see immediate improvements in student test scores.

Despite his misgivings, Henry said that turnaround schools should be given at least a few years to make improvements before the district decides whether to renew their contracts.

Both Glazerman and Henry agree that there are other indicators the district can look to when it is evaluating restarted schools in the early years.

The turnaround schools Henry has studied where leaders recruit high-quality, experienced teachers and principals have improved significantly, he said. But turnaround schools with novice teachers and principals have actually had drops in performance.

“The disruption (to teaching staff) is probably needed, but the results will depend on what happens after the disruption,” Henry said. “Who is recruited? Are they experienced, high-quality, dedicated teachers and do they get compensation for the extra work that is required in these turnaround schools?”

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”

chancellor chat

Chancellor Betty Rosa hits back on criticism that New York is abandoning education reform

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York has moved sharply away from innovative education reforms with “bewildering and humbling speed.” That’s what Robert Pondiscio of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute wrote in an op-ed posted earlier this month on the organization’s website.

Here in New York City, he writes, Mayor Bill de Blasio is ushering in the “bad old days” by pumping money into struggling schools and relaxing school discipline.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state officials, after trying to pack too many reforms into a short period of time, have largely backed away from education reform. That coupled with the growing opt-out movement and the departure of New York State Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Pondiscio wrote, spurred the end of an “era of high standards and accountability for schools, teachers, and those who train them—an era that never entirely gained traction in New York.”

New York State Chancellor Betty Rosa hit back Thursday with her own piece for the Fordham Institute, saying that she “could not disagree more.” She argues that focusing on high-stakes testing is not synonymous with having high standards — and that while her standards take a different form, they are no less rigorous.

For example, she cites the Board’s decision to jettison the controversial Academic Literacy Skills Test as part of teacher certification. While Pondiscio blasts the move, Rosa says New York’s certification process remains among the country’s most stringent. “We simply eliminated a costly and unnecessary testing requirement that created an unfair obstacle for too many applicants,” she writes.

Her op-ed is part of a broader push by the Board of Regents to articulate a new vision of accountability that moves away from a strong focus on New York state’s much-maligned 3-8 math and English tests. She and the Regents seem eager to convince critics that those changes do not, in the end, represent a watering down of the goals the state sets for its students.

“We need an opposite narrative,” Rosa said in an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat. She sees her job as not simply setting high bars, she said, but more importantly, “building the steps” to help students succeed.