school cloning

Can top charters truly ‘replicate’? In Boston, yes — elsewhere, it’s not so clear

The Renaissance Charter Public School in Boston is pictured on Aug. 1, 2017. (Photo by Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Excel Academy in Boston started as a single charter school in 2003. Nine years later, its leaders created a second school in the city, bringing their philosophy and some original staff members to the offshoot.

The network now spans four schools, and Nina Cronan, who once worked at the original campus and currently leads one of the newer schools, said they have key similarities: their college pennants on display, their exams and curriculum, even their policy that teachers rotate classrooms while students stay put.

“We have shared and used a lot of the existing systems from the flagship campus in our school, even though we are a different building,” she said.

Excel’s expansion was part of a two-year growth spurt for charter schools in Massachusetts, after the state law changed in 2010 to help charter schools with successful track records add new sites.

Now a new study finds that Excel and the other Boston charters maintained their high performance as they rapidly grew — perhaps because of how closely they were able to emulate original schools’ practices.

“The average effectiveness of Boston’s charter middle school sector increased after the reform despite a doubling of charter market share,” write researchers Sarah Cohodes of Columbia Teachers College, Elizabeth Setren of Tufts, and Christopher Walters of Berkeley.

The results are significant because they illustrate a potential benefit of one controversial aspect of some charter school networks: “a highly standardized school model that limits teacher discretion,” as the researchers put it.

The findings also differ from some past research, which has found that some networks see their academic performance weaken a bit as they grow.

So what’s going on in Boston? The new study, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, is the latest in a long line of research showing that students improve substantially on tests after attending one of the city’s charter schools.

On average, a middle schooler who started at the 50th percentile in performance jumped to the 58th percentile in math and 55th percentile in English after one year at a charter middle school, the latest study finds. (The researchers use lottery data for 14 of the city’s 15 charter middle schools to be sure that the differences in performance were the result of charter attendance.)

Most of Boston’s charter schools seem to use a “no excuses” approach, a somewhat ill-defined term that many charter leaders now reject as pejorative. The researchers define it as including strict behavior standards, a college prep curriculum, student uniforms, and “high expectations.”

The study can’t isolate which aspects of the approach are successful at raising test scores, or if the results are driven by other characteristics of the schools. But the researchers do note that the “expansion” schools had school days and school years of the same length, and devoted the same amount of time to math and reading as their flagship schools.

“Expansion schools similarly implemented their parent campuses’ No Excuses practices, tutoring, homework help, and Saturday school programs,” they write.

Comparisons to Boston’s district schools are tricky, since the data is limited. But Boston’s charters generally had fewer experienced and credentialed teachers, longer school days and higher suspension rates. Charters also enrolled more black and more female students, and fewer students with disabilities and those learning English, though that gap closed substantially after the 2010 expansion law.

The success of these schools’ replication gives a boost to the “portfolio model,” whose backers argue that good schools should grow and that bad ones should be closed.

Others are likely to react skeptically, especially since the Boston results are limited to test scores.

A recent report from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, questioned that portfolio philosophy, pointing out that there is sometimes a disconnect between schools’ test score growth and high school graduation rates. (In Boston specifically, previous research showed that charter high schools boosted four-year college enrollment, but actually reduced on-time high school graduation.)

Meanwhile, other research on this replication strategy is less rosy.

Studies of KIPP charter schools nationwide and charter schools in Newark, New Jersey (most of which are affiliated with the KIPP or Uncommon networks) show that performance declined as the number of schools grew, though in both cases the charters still substantially outstripped comparison district schools.

Few charter networks have had such detailed analyses of their performance done while they were expanding, but research on networks broadly has found that a number of large ones post high scores, though others are average or low performers. Charter schools also weren’t successful at raising test scores in the case of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which had select networks take over struggling district schools.

And there may be other reasons Boston families and policymakers don’t want to see charters continue to grow. Massachusetts voters, including those in Boston, roundly rejected an effort at further expand the state’s charter sector in 2016. Critics emphasized that more charters meant fewer resources for traditional public schools.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to certain Boston charter schools that did not use a “no excuses” approach. That reference has been removed.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”