Are Children Learning

Innovation schools saw some of the largest gains on ISTEP in Indianapolis Public Schools. Here are the schools that had big changes.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Cold Spring is one of the IPS schools that had the biggest gains on ISTEP.

When ISTEP scores are released each year, buried in the rankings of the highest and lowest scoring schools is another story — schools that have made significant progress or seen precipitous drops.

So this year, we’re focusing on the schools with the largest changes in passing rates on the math and English tests for 3-8 grades. Changing tests scores can be driven by many factors beyond how much students learn, but they offer a hint at which schools are going through big shifts.

In IPS, several traditional neighborhood schools made the top of the list. But many of the schools that saw the biggest gains in passing rates were innovation schools, which the district began creating two years ago. The schools are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, but they are still considered part of the district. The strong gains in passing rates are one of the first indications that the controversial strategy could pay off for the district.

Schools of every type show up on the list of campuses that saw the biggest declines in passing rates. But some schools on the list are particularly surprising because they have earned high marks from the state in the past.

These 10 schools had the biggest gains on ISTEP from 2016 to 2017

  1. William McKinley School 39 — This neighborhood school in Fountain Square had the biggest jump in passing rates in the district. About 28 percent of students passed both the math and English tests, an increase of 9.7 percentage points over the prior year.
  2. Cold Spring School — Formerly an environmental science magnet, this school converted to innovation status last year. Passing rates rose to 30.2 percent, up 8.7 percentage points.
  3. Center for Inquiry at School 27 — An International Baccalaureate magnet school on the near north side, this school saw passing rates reach 33.8 percent, an increase of 8.4 percentage points.
  4. Phalen Leadership Academy at School 93 — This innovation school on the far east side was taken over by the Project Restore team about three years ago. Last year, it became an innovation school in partnership with the PLA charter network. The passing rate at the school reached 38.2 percent, up 8.2 percentage points from the previous year.
  5. Phalen Leadership Academy at School 103 — This far east side first school was the first struggling school to be restarted as an innovation school. Last year the passing rate jumped to 12.8 percent of students, up 8.1 percentage points.
  6. Global Prep Academy at School 44 — After years of academic problems, this campus was restarted as an innovation school last year, and it now uses a Spanish and English immersion model. Last year 14.6 percent of students passed both tests, more than double the prior year with an increase of 7.5 percentage points.
  7. Emma Donnan Elementary School — This innovation elementary school was founded in partnership with Charter Schools USA at the Emma Donnan Middle School campus on the south side. The passing rate was 22.6 percent last year, up 6.2 percentage points.
  8. Daniel Webster School 46 — This neighborhood elementary school on the southwest side had a passing rate of 27.4 percent, up 5.2 percentage points.
  9. Eliza A Blaker School 55 — A neighborhood elementary school on the north side, School 55 could become a magnet school next year. The passing rate was 24.1 percent of students, up 4.3 percentage points.
  10. Raymond Brandes School 65 — At this neighborhood school on the far south side, 36.1 percent of students passed both the math and English tests, up 2.7 percentage points over last year.

These 10 schools had the biggest drops on ISTEP from 2016 to 2017

  1. George Julian School 57 — At this neighborhood school in Irvington, 23.1 percent of students passed both the math and English tests, down 11.7 percentage points from the prior year.
  2. Christian Park School 82 — This neighborhood school on the east side had a passing rate of 28.9 percent, down 10.9 percentage points.
  3. Anna Brochhausen School 88 — This far east side neighborhood school had a passing rate of 19.8 percent, down 9.9 percentage points from last year.
  4. Lew Wallace School 107 — At this neighborhood school on the west side, 22.7 percent of students passed both the math and English tests, a drop of 8.2 percentage points.
  5. Rousseau McClellan School 91 — A Montessori magnet school on the north side, School 91 has one of the highest passing rates in the district at 49.4 percent. But it’s down 8 percentage points from the prior year.
  6. Center for Inquiry at School 2 — This downtown magnet school offers the International Baccalaureate program. The school has the third highest passing rate in the district at 57.7 percent, but it had fallen 7.3 percentage points.
  7. Kindezi Academy at School 69 — This neighborhood school was restarted as an innovation school last year. It had a 7.1 passing rate on the test, down 7 percentage points.
  8. Ernie Pyle School 90 — This magnet school uses the Paideia educational philosophy, which emphasizes seminar discussions as well as mastery of information. The school had a 35 percent passing rate, down 6.4 percentage points from the prior year.
  9. Jonathan Jennings School 109 — This neighborhood school on the northwest side had a passing rate of 26.7, a decline of 6.3 percentage points from the prior year.
  10. Clarence Farrington School 61 — This neighborhood school on the northwest side had a 9.3 percent passing rate, down 6.2 percentage points.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.