Future of Schools

IPS approach to improving schools could go statewide

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence visited IPS School 88 in May.

Indianapolis Public Schools likes to brag these days about Project Restore, a home-grown school improvement plan invented by two of its teachers that has helped turn schools around.

But today, the whole idea of giving teachers the freedom to try out new ideas the way Tammy Laughner and Dan Kriech did at School 99 went statewide. It’s no longer just something clever happening in a few IPS classrooms.

Gov. Mike Pence this morning held a signing ceremony for House Bill 1009, which allows for “innovation network schools” anywhere in Indiana, at the second Project Restore site, School 88, to highlight the newfound flexibility he touted to teachers everywhere.

“We will take the concept of ‘innovation network schools’ from the heart of our state to the four corners of our state and make it possible for freedom to teach and innovation schools to be a reality in every school district in the state of Indiana,” Pence said surrounded by elementary school kids in the gym.

Project Restore aims to improve discipline through consistent rule enforcement and promote better student learning through frequent testing and review of what’s been taught.

Pence signs House Bill 1009 while IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee (left) and Indiana House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, and School 88 students look on.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Pence signs House Bill 1009 while IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee (left) and Indiana House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, and School 88 students look on.

School 88, named the first Project Restore expansion site in the fall of 2012, jumped from an F to an A in one year on the strength of a 19-point jump on ISTEP to 56 percent passing. About 90 percent of School 88’s students come from families poor enough to qualify for federal lunch aid, 78 percent are ethnic minorities and 18 percent are in special education.

Last year, School 93 also adopted the program.

The district was able to more easily expand the program using an “innovation school network,” special flexibility in state law which previously applied only to IPS, to allow more school districts to partner with outside groups, such as charter school networks or in this case the organization Laughner and Kriech formed to expand Project Restore.

But Project Restore started before the law was in existence. The district has mostly used its newfound flexibility to partner with charter schools, including Phalen Leadership Academy, to try to improve struggling schools. The school board will vote tonight to work with charter school groups Enlace Academy and KIPP.

House Bill 1009 was once the “freedom to teach” bill, which would have made big changes to rules surrounding teachers unions, but that concept was scaled back and the bill was rewritten to emphasize the innovation school approach.

The final bill also includes a “career pathways” pilot program, which IPS had lobbied for. The district is working on ideas to give extra pay to teachers who take on leadership roles.

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

***

From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

***

From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

***

From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

***

From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

***

From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

***

From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

***

From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

***

From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

***

From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.