School turnaround tales

School turnarounds are tough. As the Department of Education reported last week, even “a big infusion of cash” from the School Improvement Grant program offers no guarantee of success. From Education Week:

Two-thirds of chronically underperforming schools that tapped into a big new infusion of cash under the federal School Improvement Grant program made gains in math or reading, but another third saw student achievement decline in their first academic year, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Education.

A quarter, or slightly more, of the schools in the program had seen their student progress slip before they got the grant, then saw gains after they received SIG funding, the analysis found.

But slightly more than a quarter of the schools in the program already were beginning to show improvement before they got SIG dollars—only to see student achievement dip afterwards.

Over all, the analysis paints a mixed picture of the first year of the supercharged SIG program, which received $3 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the largest federal investment in school turnaround in history. The program, which requires schools to take dramatic steps such as closing schools, removing staff, and extending the school day, has been the subject of significant controversy, all the way from district central offices to Capitol Hill.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carried an interesting story about one school district’s slow but real progress.

ST. LOUIS—Five years ago, students in the public-school system here were almost as likely to drop out as earn a diploma. School-board meetings routinely devolved into shouting matches, with a board member once pouring a pitcher of ice water over an administrator’s head.

Then, the state of Missouri stepped in, stripped the district’s accreditation and installed a new board to run the schools. That board hired Kelvin Adams, an unpretentious leader who had spent the previous 18 months as the chief of staff of the New Orleans Recovery School District, which had been created by the state to transform the hurricane-ravaged schools.

Since taking over here, Mr. Adams has lifted the high-school graduation rate by 18 percentage points and eliminated $25 million in debt. Attendance is up and misbehavior is down. State test scores are still painfully low—about three-quarters of elementary-school students can’t read or do math at grade level—but the progress on tests was enough to persuade state officials last month to grant the district provisional accreditation.

So what steps did this school superintendent take?

The turnaround is grounded in using data to drive every decision and getting the best leaders and teachers in schools. Students now take standardized math and reading exams three times a year, and Mr. Adams insists principals craft proposals—delivered to him—that detail plans to boost scores in each classroom. He holds principals accountable for the results and has replaced more than half. He also worked with teacher-union leaders to create a mentoring program that aids teachers who struggle, but dismisses those who fail to improve.

Further down, the article offers more – encouraging – details about cooperation between the teacher’s union and the school district:

Byron Clemens, a vice president with the St. Louis teachers union, said Mr. Adams made clear that decisions would be transparent, collaborative and based on data. He said Mr. Adams let local and national union leaders comb through budget documents to ensure money was not being “squirreled away” to avoid raises; displayed school records, down to monthly utility bills, to show parents why under-enrolled schools needed to be closed; and agreed to add 800 preschool slots after teachers collected reams of data to show the need.

Teachers, principals and students say they feel a new energy. “People at this school talk about college,” said Byron Haynes, 17, a senior at College Preparatory High School, a new school. “We never talked about that before.”

Blog readers know that I’m happier with a data-intensive (and yes, in this case this means more testing-intensive) approach, and that I believe improvement requires active cooperation with and by teachers, as well as more power (and willingness) for principals to address teacher performance.  So I find this an encouraging tale. Before I get an onslaught of anti-testing comments, let me note that more frequent testing may actually give teachers more immediately usable feedback data while reducing the stakes of any individual test. I’d be curious to know more about what kind of performance data these tests generate, and how teachers can use them to retool instruction.

Sorry about the very long quotes, by the way. Articles from Education Week and the Wall Street Journal aren’t always fully available to non-subscribers.



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