across the pond

Does England’s rapid expansion of charter-like ‘academies’ hold a lesson for the U.S.?

PHOTO: Anjelika Deo / Creative Commons

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wants more schools to be free from what she characterizes as ineffective, bureaucratic rules.

“In too many places there isn’t the kind of autonomy at a building level to really kind of break out of that mold and do things differently to meet students’ needs,” DeVos said in a recent interview.

But is that autonomy itself likely to improve schools?

A new study offers a sobering answer: England’s mass conversion of primary schools to “academies,” which function in some ways like charter schools in the United States, did not produce any academic gains for students. (Incidentally, DeVos met this week with Jo Johnson, a United Kingdom education minister; a spokesperson for DeVos said the meeting focused on higher education.)

And although exporting lessons from other countries is an inherently fraught exercise, the English experience provides a cautionary tale — and aligns with research from the U.S. In short, there’s little evidence that providing schools with additional freedom will, on its own, boost student achievement.

Great Britain’s far-reaching effort to inject autonomy into its schools

England has a system of schools known as “academies” that are overseen by a board of directors and organized as nonprofits. The academies are not bound by national rules for staffing and curriculum, though they are authorized by England’s national Department for Education.

Unlike most American charter schools, many academies were existing schools that moved outside the control of a school district, either by choice or by government mandate. England also has allowed for the creation of “free schools,” which function like academies but start from scratch.

Academies first hatched in the early 2000s, and for about a decade they grew slowly and were used mostly in an attempt to improve low-performing secondary (upper-grade) schools. That initial effort did lead to significant gains in student achievement.

In 2010, a new Conservative government supported the dramatic expansion of academies, including among primary (lower-grade) schools. By the 2016-17 school year, nearly one in four primary schools and most of England’s secondary schools were academies.

Using language similar to DeVos’s, Michael Gove, then the British education secretary, highlighted the appeal of academies to skeptics of state regulation. “Schools are taking up our offer to become academies because they recognise the huge benefits – more autonomy, more power to teachers, and an opportunity to thrive, free from interference from government,” Gove said in 2011.

But this policy doesn’t seemed to have improved student achievement in lower-grade schools, as purveyors like Gove, hoped, according to a new peer-reviewed study. The analysis, conducted by researchers at the London School of Economics, finds that primary schools that became academies between 2010–11 and 2014–15 did not see gains in on the national test given at the end of primary school at age 11.

“The English government has radically restructured its school system under an assumption that academisation delivers benefits to schools and students,” the authors write. “There is neither any sign of a positive effect nor any suggestion that benefits might be increasing with years of exposure. If anything, the opposite is the case.”

Academies that were not part of what is a called a multi-academy trust — roughly equivalent to a charter management organization — seemed to have negative effects on student achievement.

To isolate the impact of “academisation,” the researchers compare schools that became academies between 2010-11 and 2014-15 to other schools before they became academies in later school years. The study does not look at measures beyond test scores or the effects of the policy beyond the first few years.

An important question is whether and how academies used their newfound autonomy. According to an analysis by the British government, about half of primary schools changed their curriculum, how they evaluated teachers, and who was in school leadership. Relatively few lengthened the school day or hired uncertified teachers.

The latest study finds that academies also received more money than schools that didn’t convert to academies. Most of those additional resources went toward administrative costs. That’s consistent with evidence from the U.S. showing that charter schools spend more on administration, perhaps because they lack the economies of scale of larger districts. The extra money may have been one reason so many schools became academies.

The research does not examine how local school districts were affected by the swift expansion of academies, but other work suggests they suffered as they lost money.

“Reduced funding forced many of the local authorities to reduce their staffs and made it more difficult for them to maintain high quality school support personnel,” wrote Helen Ladd and Ted Fiske, American researchers who looked the British academies experiment.

Does this matter for the U.S.?

The England-based research is fairly consistent with the limited research in the United States on the academic benefits of injecting autonomy into existing schools. A 2014 study found that an initiative in Chicago Public Schools to provide more freedom to principals of high-performing schools did not lead to gains in overall student achievement. Research in Boston and Denver showed that “pilot” and “innovation” school initiatives — where schools elect to take on certain flexibilities — have not improved student test scores.

The charter school research is somewhat complicated. In both Boston and Denver, those same studies show charter schools producing big gains.

In general, though, charters perform comparably to traditional public schools on standardized tests. This suggests that specific practices — rather than autonomy itself — are responsible for the success of some charters.

Ladd, a Duke professor who has also studied charter schools in North Carolina, argues that the English experience points to the limits of autonomy.

“Flexibility may be one step, but, by itself, I’ve seen very little evidence that it can address in any serious way the problems of struggling schools,” she said.

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.

How I Lead

When this Colorado principal learned about a student’s tough home life, she put him to work at school

Karen Shaw, principal of Columbia Elementary School, in Colorado Springs District 11.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here and pieces in our sister series “How I Teach” here.

After a student’s mother used an expletive to describe her son, Karen Shaw decided to act.

The principal of Colombia Elementary School in Colorado Springs thought that giving the boy “jobs” might help him succeed. So Shaw tapped him to become a daily helper in the library and later in a kindergarten class — being careful to put him around adults he liked and trusted.

Shaw talked to Chalkbeat about how that experience changed her perspective, why teacher evaluations sometimes go awry and how poverty affects the school.

Shaw was the 2016 National Distinguished Principal of the Year for Colorado. The award is sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
My first job in education was teaching second grade in Great Falls, Montana. My interest in education was sparked when I was in high school. I had the opportunity to teach vacation Bible school at our church. I really enjoyed working with the kids in my class. The rest is history.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?
Visit every classroom. The success of every student and staff member is my number one priority. At Columbia, “All means all!”

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
Having been at Columbia for the past eight years really puts me ahead of the game when it comes to getting to know the kids. We have weekly data meetings with either primary or intermediate teachers. I have my own system that I keep up to date with student data, just like the teachers. This helps me track how kids are learning and growing academically. Being visible in classrooms and other areas of the school is another way to get to know students. I supervise the fourth- and fifth-graders daily at lunch as well as work with my own intervention groups.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
On two occasions, I had teachers who were new to the profession. Both believed they already knew everything. I would show them data that documented kids weren’t learning. We would visit highly effective classrooms highlighting more efficient ways for students to learn and high standards for behavior. I would provide multiple levels of coaching from the building level and district level. These teachers didn’t want to take feedback to improve.

Even after 20- some years in education, I believe none of us have arrived. We can always learn ways to do things better.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
Five years after being at Columbia we were named one of Colorado’s five 2013 National Blue Ribbon Schools. This was a true team effort. Columbia was recognized based on student achievement growth over that five-year period. I was so proud of our staff, students and families. Being Colorado’s 2016 National Distinguished Principal was pretty awesome as well! I still can’t believe that was me!

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
I speak to all involved to hear all sides of the story and proceed with an appropriate resolution. My favorite resolution is when there is a natural consequence. I also work hard to build relationships with our students. It is always my hope that when a student has made a mistake that disappointing me is one of the biggest consequences.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is working with reluctant staff members. When there isn’t an innate desire to grow and improve, it is very difficult to impact change.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
We have a student who is in his second year with us at Columbia. When our social worker first met his mom she was told by the mom that the boy is a little sh**. Knowing that is what his mom shared with the school, I knew I would have to take a different approach with him. So I quickly “employed” him with a caring adult at our school. Our library technology educator gave him a job in the library. My purpose in doing this is to build a relationship with an adult in our school. The student gets to participate in the job regardless of behavior.

When there is a discipline problem, I have the student’s “supervisor” help me work with the child to reflect on the behavior and talk about different choices. This year I have him “employed” as a kindergarten helper for 15 minutes a day with his favorite person in our school, Ms. Rene. Ms. Rene is always positive with him and happy to work with him. I hope this little intervention will help change his life.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

Families in poverty. The RJ Montgomery Center for homeless families is in our school boundaries. We assess students the first day that they come to our school and use the data to put students in appropriate math and reading intervention groups. This year we offer yoga classes to all kindergarten through fifth grade students once or twice a week. We use our district funds and federal funds for low-income students in creative ways to have the most impact on our students’ academic and social emotional wellbeing.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“When you know better, you do better”