First Person

The good, the bad, the ugly: Turnarounds and profiteers

Van Schoales is executive director of A-Plus Denver, an education advocacy organization. He also is a member of the Democrats for Education Reform advisory board. This post also appeared on the DFER blog.

We recently did some research on the state of school turnarounds in Colorado. I was reminded of that great “spaghetti” western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. For those of you that don’t remember the movie, it was a tale of intrigue, deceit and murder among three men (not so good, bad, and ugly) in a quest for buried gold in the context of the chaos of the Civil War. It’s one of my favorite movies for the remarkable cinematography, directing, and character acting, not to mention one of the best scores ever. Oh yes, there’s also the interesting sub-texts on war and the West.

So, what’s the connection with the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG)/ turnaround schools program? The SIG program is hardly as interesting as the movie, but turnarounds are filled with struggle, conflict, and failure; often the only ones benefiting are the outside consultants making upwards of $5,000 a day. It’s like the end of the movie where after all the death and destruction, the “not so good” walks into the sunset with the gold. In this case it’s the consultants walking off with a check on their way to the next district. And who says education doesn’t pay?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for identifying the worst schools and doing everything possible to turn them around or, when necessary, replacing them with new high performing schools. My fear, however, is that while the SIG program will have done some good helping to support the development of a few new schools (like several here in Denver), most of the funds will go to ill-conceived and clumsily implemented interventions with little change in student outcomes.

I just don’t believe that many states and districts have the appropriate levels of oversight nor the capacity to manage turnarounds. The current program shovels out $4.5 billion over four years to states with the expectation that state departments of education can effectively oversee the distribution of these funds to improve schools.

Let’s take my home state of Colorado as a detailed example. In Colorado we have a reform-focused and relatively well-run state department of education, but even here, I fear the SIG program will do little to improve our schools. I can only imagine how terrible it is in those states where the departments are in the business of shelling out cash and developing simplistic, check-off the box compliance procedures.

Colorado is positioned to receive a total of $51.4 million in federal SIG dollars, the majority of which will be allocated to support approximately 30 school turnaround schools. So far, 19 schools were awarded grants receiving an average of $2.3 million over three years – not chump change. The state, as all states, encourages its schools to have an outside turnaround partner. The problem is there are very few turnaround partners that have been proven successful.

So the result is that you have numerous outside turnaround partners obtaining big money contracts, without having proven their ability to successfully turnaround a school. While it is fairly difficult to tell at this point who has these contracts, what they are expected to do and for how much, it’s clear there is a great deal of money being made by these contractors who have yet to prove their effectiveness. The only good news is that the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has just undergone reorganization and the new assistant commissioner has pledged to look into these questions and hold districts along with providers accountable.

Well, what about the results so far? I know it’s only the first year for test results, but you’d expect some schools to have shown improvement, right? As far as I can tell this has only occurred in a few schools like West Denver Prep in Denver, which is a school that was just opened as one of three schools (and the only new charter) housed in the Lake Middle School turnaround complex. Overall, SIG grant funded schools in CO have not really improved as a group and some have even gotten worse.

Pueblo, Colorado’s five schools, for example, have shown no substantive improvement. Student growth in reading and math ranged from 22% to a high of 47% compared to student growth at a high performing Denver SIG school (West Denver Prep) with reading and math growth at 63% and 88%. In short, in these already low-performing Pueblo schools, students are actually losing ground, their achievement scores will be worse as a result of attending these schools. There are, however, several Denver SIG schools showing some growth like Lake middle school, even if they have not yet made much progress on the percent of students reaching proficiency, which is the end goal.

And what about the money being spent on outside turnaround partners? While perusing the CO Department of Education’s website, I was surprised to discover that of those firms working as turnaround partners some disclosed cost structures which ranged from $800 per day (only one) to a high of about $7,000 a day; that must be one hell of a five-day workshop with an army of coaches.

Even more surprising was the fact that not one of the firms listed on the website responded “YES” to whether they provided a “performance guarantee contract,” regardless of cost. There was also a section on the website where the consulting firms gave references and examples of their work. The Leadership and Learning Center provided Carlile Elementary in Pueblo as a reference, a school that is far below the state median growth in all subjects (not a school I’d pitch as a success).

So where do we go from here? Do we wait till the feds have burned through $4.5 billion in the next couple of years, watch hundreds of new school turnaround businesses prosper while there is little change in student achievement for the nations’ worst schools?

I hope not. Let’s take a timeout and figure out how best to invest these precious public dollars so that our most disadvantaged kids have a quality education. While we may not know much about how to turn around low-performing schools, we do know how to create new high performing schools for the most disadvantaged students. Maybe more funding from SIG should go to new school development, not weaker transformations.

In addition, the SIG program should undergo its own “turnaround” so districts and providers are held accountable for results from each year of the grant. State departments of education should be easily able to retract or extend funding if the schools are not meeting performance targets. State departments of education should also have strict performance contracts for managing their portfolio of turnaround schools. The kids trapped in failing schools deserve better leadership from our district, state and federal officials.

Somewhat ironically as one of the consultants, a former New York City education commissioner, Dr. Rudy Crew, said in a New York Times article published shortly after the grants were being given out, “This is like the aftermath of the Civil War, with all the carpetbaggers and charlatans.”

Crew’s firm, Global Partnership Schools, has a multi-year agreement for more than $6 million dollars from the Pueblo 60 School District. Global Partnership received half of the funding from SIG for Pueblo. Not a bad return on investment for Global Partnership; I wish I could say the same for taxpayers given the results of those Pueblo schools. I’ve heard a rumor that CDE may intervene in some way given the progress in Pueblo.

It’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in education reform.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.