like duh

School conditions matter for student achievement, new research confirms

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Move over, teacher quality. A new study on New York City schools could make school climate the next frontier in the ongoing quest to boost student learning.

A first-of-its-kind study released Thursday found that significant gains in key measures of a school’s climate, like safety and academic expectations, can be linked to the equivalent of an extra month and a half of math instruction and, in some cases, a 25 percent reduction in teacher turnover.

The researchers say these findings could help shift the debate about what factors are most important in boosting student achievement. Individual teacher effectiveness may be key, but if a school simply has an ineffective principal or unclear disciplinary code, the authors argue, “efforts to measure and strengthen individual teacher effectiveness are unlikely to produce desired results.”

“The status quo has really focused on policies directed at individual teachers,” explains Matthew Kraft, an economics and education professor at Brown University and lead author of the study. But “teachers do not work in a vacuum.”

The report, which comes from NYU’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools, might seem so self-evident that they’re hardly worth studying. After all, why wouldn’t a better learning environment boost student achievement and make teachers more likely to stay in their jobs?

But Kraft said that measuring school climate is notoriously difficult, and no other study has looked at the effects of in school climate and student achievement over time. “We may have known that,” Kraft says, referring to the connection between school climate and student outcomes, “but whether we’ve been able to provide evidence that policymakers find relevant and convincing has been unclear.”

To find that relevant data, the researchers tapped into annual surveys collected by the city education department across 278 New York middle schools, which specifically ask teachers about their school’s climate. They zoomed in on middle schools because they tend to have challenging school climates and serve students at a crucial moment in their social and academic development.

Based on 31,000 responses to teacher surveys between 2008 and 2012, the authors honed in on four measures of school climate: school safety and order, leadership and professional development, high academic expectations, and teacher relationships and collaboration. The study tracked those indicators of school climate over time and compared them with student test scores and school data on teacher retention.

Each measure, the report found, is independently linked to decreases in teacher turnover. And gains on two of those measures, high academic expectations and school safety, were directly connected to better scores on state math exams.

The study found that if a school improved from the 50th percentile across the study’s four measures of school climate (leadership, expectations, relationships, and safety) to the 84th percentile, teacher turnover would decline by 25 percent, or 3.8 percentage points.

A similar percentile increase in measures of school safety and high academic expectations alone boosted math scores enough to account for an extra month and a half of instruction. (Improvements in school climate also boosted language arts scores on state tests, but those gains weren’t statistically significant.)

Kraft acknowledged that these findings show that schools would need fairly large improvements across multiple measures of school climate before seeing even modest returns on student achievement and teacher retention. But that shouldn’t discount the potential benefits of focusing on learning environments.

“Moving the needle on student achievement at scale is a very difficult thing to do,” he said. “What we’ve shown here is a potential avenue where that sustained investment [in school climate] is likely to pay off.”

These data may provide some support for schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s emphasis on cross-school collaboration and support for teachers over strict accountability.

For its part, the education department wrote that the findings are “exciting” and “demonstrate that school climate and capacity building, as measured by the survey, provide crucial feedback that helps drive school improvement and are closely linked with important outcomes.” The department added that 160 schools are participating in programs designed to promote best practices, including some that focus on school culture – and there are plans to expand them.

Nick Lawrence says he’s seen the benefits of paying attention to school climate firsthand. A middle school teacher who is part of East Bronx Academy for the Future’s administrative team, Lawrence says teacher retention and certain test scores have improved since the school started encouraging one-on-one coaching for every teacher, and offered opportunities for them take leadership positions.

“The teachers are more experienced, they’re more experienced with our particular population, [and] the curriculum gets stronger each year,” he said. “Our retention of teachers has gone through the roof compared with prior years.”

The study concludes that more research is needed to specify exactly how schools should try to improve their respective climates, but it does hint at the possibility that school climate data could be used to assess principal or school performance. “I think there’s a lot of potential for infusing the school improvement and personnel evaluation process with information on school climate,” Kraft said.

But some educators cautioned against that approach, arguing that one need look no further than standardized testing culture to see how it might go awry.

Using school climate data as an assessment tool, “would [create] pressure to boost their survey results in weird ways,” said Megan Moskop, a teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights. “In trying to meet whatever quantitative mark, the quality often gets lost.”

Generally speaking, though, Moskop was thrilled with the study’s findings. “School climate is not one of those things that’s easy to measure … so it goes ignored,” she added. “I’m delighted to see this empirical support for something I think me and my fellow teachers have always known.”

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uncertain future

Could Carmen Fariña be ousted if mayoral control expires? We asked the borough presidents, who may control her fate

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña (center) unveils a new evaluation agreement with teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew (left)

When state lawmakers left the capitol Wednesday night without a deal on mayoral control of New York City schools, several questions went unresolved. One of them is whether Chancellor Carmen Fariña would retain her post if mayoral control lapses on July 1.

While no one is predicting her ouster, it’s one of many strange outcomes that could result if the education system’s governance structure is upended. With the session now over, legislators have until the end of the month to renew Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of the nation’s largest school system.

With the state Senate and Assembly still at odds, it remains possible that the law could expire — setting off a chain of events briefly initiated the last time it lapsed, in 2009.

If that happens again, the city will resurrect the city’s Board of Education, which consists of five members selected by each of the borough presidents and two appointed by the mayor. That board, in turn, has the power to select the chancellor. (In 2009, this went off without incident and the board unanimously decided to reappoint the sitting chancellor, Joel Klein.)

Yet, there’s no guarantee that would happen again. So we reached out to each of the five borough presidents to see if they would commit to backing Fariña. One borough president said “yes,” the others did not commit. The borough presidents spoke Thursday and requested a meeting with the mayor, according to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

Still, it is early to make predictions — especially since the law has not even expired yet.

“In the immediate, there’s still time on the clock for Albany to act,” said education department spokeswoman Toya Holness in an email. “If mayoral control is to lapse, that could be a legitimate concern.”

For each borough president, we asked the question: If mayoral control lapses, would you commit to keeping Carmen Fariña as chancellor? Here’s what they said:

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Adams sent the most extensive statement, saying that although he strongly supports mayoral control, he has serious critiques of the education department’s leadership.

“I have repeatedly expressed my frustration with leadership at the DOE [Department of Education], who I do not believe are effectively carrying out Mayor de Blasio’s vision for improving our schools. Outstanding issues include underinvestment in school technology infrastructure, significant inequities in allocation of Fair Student Funding dollars, disparities in gifted and talented education, resistance to training and support for new learning devices like tablets, inaction on liberalizing school space usage policy for community-based organizations, and poor community notification on significant changes to school utilization. Regardless of who is in charge at Tweed, it is critical that impactful issues like these are addressed.

Ensuring that these issues are addressed is the only pledge or commitment I am comfortable making today.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer

Brewer’s office gave the most direct answer. “The answer is yes,” wrote Jon Houston, her director of communications, in an email. But with Brewer’s vote and, assuming the mayor’s appointees all select Fariña, the board will still be one vote short of keeping the current chancellor.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz

Katz’s office said she would not fully commit to keeping Fariña, but her stance suggests she is not looking for a permanent shake-up.

“Borough President Katz is a firm believer in mayoral control, and has been throughout her entire tenure in public service,” said her spokeswoman in a statement. “She has worked very closely with Mayor de Blasio on the great work he’s done on education, and, as always, believes the mayor should remain responsible for the schools under mayoral control. Any app‎ointment she may have to make to a reconstituted Board of Education‎ would be temporary until mayoral control is re-extended.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

Reached Thursday morning, officials from Diaz’s office did not have a comment. But the last time this happened, he was the only borough president who refused to back the chancellor prior to the vote, though he did vote to retain him.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Reached Thursday morning, officials from Oddo’s office did not have a comment. We’ll update this post if that changes.

tailoring transformation

How a Memphis school that missed the turnaround tide plans to catch up under Hopson’s budget

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey shows kindergarteners how to blow bubbles during a graduation celebration at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in the Frayser community of Memphis.

Located in one of the most concentrated neighborhoods of school turnaround work in America, Hawkins Mill Elementary School is in many ways a throwback to Memphis public education before the city became a battleground for school improvement efforts.

It’s one of the few schools in the city’s Frayser community that hasn’t undergone a major intervention plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter and Innovation Zone schools that surround it.

But that’s about to change.

As part of his initiative to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson picked Hawkins Mill to join more than a dozen other Memphis schools that will receive new resources under next year’s budget for Shelby County Schools. (You can see the full list here.)

Dubbed “critical focus schools,” the schools were chosen for reasons that range from poor test scores to low enrollment to aging buildings — all criteria that district leaders have used in recent years to close more than 20 schools.

Now, about $5.9 million in new investments soon will be spread across the schools based on transformation plans developed this spring with school administrators, teachers and parents in partnership with district leaders.

Principal Antonio Harvey says the process has inspired a climate of hope at Hawkins Mill, which has been among the state’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools since 2012.

“We’re getting the message out there that we’re invested in this community, we’re not giving up on this community, we support you,” said Harvey, who just completed his fourth year at the elementary school.

For years, the school’s leaders have tried to turn around academics in a zip code where about half the households live on less than $25,000 per year. But there’s never been a significant influx of resources, making progress negligible.

As part of Hopson’s budget, Hawkins Mill will receive an extra $300,000, mostly for staff hires that include a science teacher, teacher assistants, an instructional facilitator and an interventionist. The school also will require more team projects in classrooms; add a STEM specialty for science, technology, engineering and math; and host a dance academy under Watoto Memphis, an Afro-centric performing arts program.

“We were able to sit down and put a lot of energy into the plan because the thinking process was already there,” Harvey said of the new strategy.

Most of the needs had been identified in previous years but were a pipe dream without additional investments, according to Janet Rutherford, the school’s professional learning coach.

“Now we can make this happen,” she said.

 

Teams for other critical focus schools also have been developing transformation plans, each tailored to meet their individual needs and challenges.

Some are borrowing components from Shelby County Schools’ flagship turnaround program called the iZone. Those include an hour tacked onto the school day, retention bonuses for top teachers, and more teacher coaches.

Like other schools in the newest initiative, Hawkins Mill will have to meet benchmarks within three years if it wants to avoid closure. Those benchmarks are still being identified, but school leaders at Hawkins Mill are already figuring out how to address other challenges with enrollment, attendance and behavior. The plan includes home visits for chronically absent students and launching Hawks Buck Store, a weekly incentive program in which students can win prizes for good behavior.

Note: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16.

Community leaders are welcoming the investments in a school that was eyed for takeover in 2015 by Tennessee’s Achievement School District. At the time, Hawkins Mill was being considered for operation by the ASD’s direct-run Achievement Schools, which includes five Frayser schools already in turnaround mode.

Charlie Caswell, a longtime community leader and pastor at Union Grove Baptist Church, said he hopes Shelby County Schools will use the Achievement Schools’ community engagement model as it implements the transformation plans.

“Our hope is that it will be a game-changer for schools to have the autonomy based on what they know their needs are in the community,” he said.