Community Schools: We all can help

What can be done when communities experience more income and racial segregation? It impacts school culture and the sense of equity and access to the wider world. The Florida legislature has mandated charter takeovers. Community schools are the public school answer to those takeovers. They are emerging as an effective strategy to counter the isolation. Florida has twelve. The first, Evans High School sponsored by the Children’s Home Society, is a marvel. Read about how Evans went from an ‘F’ rated school to a ‘B’ rated school and grew enrollment from 1600 students to over 2400. Its graduation rate went up from 50% to 80%.

What exactly is a community school? There is a report out that describes four essential qualities. We need to track these schools. We can also help these schools. Here in Alachua County we are meeting with our community school leaders to find ways to support their after school programs. You might find a way to help one of your schools.

Community schools have strong connections between educators and local resources, supports and people. Meaningful learning and well-rounded development is everyone’s top priority. This learning strategy is not about regurgitating facts. It is about tackling real world complex problems using collaboration to create deeper learning. Too aspirational you might say? Not so! Low expectations send a message to children. Helping children tackle real-world problems engages them.

Here’s what to look for:

  1. Student support services are integrated into the school and coordinated by a school staff member.
  2. After school, weekend and summer programs provide additional academic instruction and enrichment activities.
  3. Schools become a neighborhood hub where parents’ educational or other civic needs can be met e.g. specialty classes.
  4. Collaborative leadership and practice through teacher/leadership teams, teacher learning communities, and a community school coordinator.

Here’s where to look for other community schools in Florida.

Survival of the Fittest in New York City?

Who succeeds at New York’s Success Academy charter schools? The New Yorker provides some clues. The first high school graduating class at New York City’s Success Academies has made it through years of strict discipline and mind control. There is even a correct placement for your pencil when it sits on your desk. Suspension is ‘one tool in the toolkit’ and is used often, not to punish but to increase awareness of expectations. Only seventeen students made it to graduation, but their accomplishments are notable. Even the teachers tend not to last; an average of twenty-five percent leave every year.

The environment for learning attracts parents. Success charters receive large donations from the business community. There are well equipped classrooms and field trips. Instruction is both very directed toward skill mastery and somewhat more progressive. Teachers, however, do not develop their own lesson plans. They teach what the ‘network’ demands. Teachers and students alike operate within tightly controlled boundaries and frequent assessment, according to the authors.

The recipe for Success Academy is high expectations, strict and intense behavioral control, and formulaic teaching strategies. Test scores for those who last are excellent. Most do not last, and after second grade, new students are not added. By high school, enrollments are small.

College enrollment for graduates is high, but then something happens. Students do not complete college.

John Dewey’s educational philosophy gives a hint to what could be happening at Success Academy schools i.e. “The society for which a child is being prepared…should be replicated in a simplified form within the structure and culture of the school itself’. In other words, if a school prepares students in an authoritarian manner, then the students will expect to function in an authoritarian world as adults. They may well have problems, as students at a Success Academy high school experienced, when they were given the opportunity to structure their own time and academic activities. They simply did not know how.

We all have to ask ourselves what is important about education. Is it measured by test scores or is there something more fundamental? These are not simply philosophical questions. There is a constitutional amendment proposed in Florida to define the purpose of education the development of the intellect and preparation for the workforce. What’s missing in this definition?

FTC Private Schools: A Disturbing Trend

Over time, a higher percentage of FTC scholarship students are enrolling in private, high poverty schools. Their long term success rate decreases. FTC students in schools with more than 30% FTC students do less well than similar FTC students in private schools that enroll fewer FTC students. We can only speculate why this may be so. According to this report released by the Brookings Institute, differences could be related to teacher certification, length of the school year, or the type of curricula.

Perhaps even more troubling is over a third of FTC students return to public schools in one year; over half return in two years. Students who struggle academically are the most likely to leave private schools, and they are further behind than before they left public schools. Choice is creating churn, and churn hurts students.

The Florida House Innovation subcommittee on Education hearing December 6, 2017 agenda focused on needed regulations. Representatives from the McKay Scholarship program, the Florida DOE, Step Up for Students and the A.A.A. FTC distribution agencies testified. The theme was predictable; you can’t regulate your way to quality. Private schools do not want the testing and accountability system mandated for public schools. About one third of the private schools do not choose to participate in the FTC program in order to be free of regulation.

Nevertheless, at least the Catholic Diocese representative differentiated regulation from quality standards. He reported that Catholic schools in Florida require accreditation and teacher certification, unlike many other types of private schools accepting FTC scholarships. Catholic (15%) and religious non Christian school students (5% Jewish or Muslim) tend to enroll in a community college at a higher rate than similar students in district schools. FTC students in other private schools tend to do about the same or less well than similar public school students.

The hearing agenda was focused on needed regulation in the FTC program. The State, by law, visits few schools. Moreover, of the over 1700 FTC schools that enroll 98,889 students, only 681 schools that receive more than $250,000 must file financial reports.

Proposed regulations to stem the mismanagement of schools included more DOE site visits, better background checks for private school owners, improved information about schools for parents, and quarterly rather than annual financial reports.

Little will come of these regulations. The DOE would need an army to visit nearly 2,000 private schools. Better paperwork won’t create quality programs. Expanding FTC enrollment in private high poverty schools, however, will make a bad problem worse. The difference between public and private high poverty schools is that the lack of oversight and transparency keeps parents in the dark. There is a message in all of this…students in schools with high quality staff and mixed income families do better. How do families get that choice?

There was at least one bright spot. Representative Lee made the comment that too little was said about the many successes public schools have. He is right.

Something is Happening in Chicago

Chicago’s children, all children, show dramatic gains in test scores, according to a Stanford University study.

Their achievement gain from third to eighth grade was six grade levels compared to five levels nationally. Third graders also had higher scores in recent years. Chicago test scores are still about 1 to 1 1/5 below the national average, and the achievement gaps remain even though Hispanic achievement grew faster than white students.

About 49% (415) of Chicago’s schools remain zoned neighborhood schools, and most of these are elementary schools in affluent areas. Three fourths of high school students do not attend neighborhood schools. There are 265 no zone elementary schools of which 130 are charter schools. A Chicago Tribune article described the impact on neighborhoods. Choice made public schools less bureaucratic but now it is overkill; we are just competing with one another. To improve enrollment, some district schools are becoming community schools like one that includes the IB program. It now stays open on Saturdays and evenings and holds classes of interest to parents.

Some schools develop new STEM or other specialized programs to attract parents, but the effect is that other schools have a high percentage of students who struggle academically and have disabilities. An administrator asks: What is the cost for the neighborhood and for the kids who stay behind? There is a loss of social networks because children in the same area go to so many different schools. The schools they attend may not be much different from the one they left, but parents do not know. They don’t connect with one another. What they do know is that those zoned schools in affluent areas have no room for them.

The expected explanations e.g. declining population and high student retention (14%) do not account for the achievement gains, at least on the surface. Improvement happens in all socio-economic groups. The Stanford researchers call for a deeper dive into the migration of students into and out of the city. The percentage of minority groups remains the same, but are they somehow different? Do the children who struggle the most leave Chicago, thus the children who stay have, on average, higher scores? Do school choice policies have an impact? The study calls for more studies.

A lot is happening in Chicago, but we cannot explain it. Let’s hope that there will be a deeper dive into the schools. Are the children who were pulling down the scores leaving at a higher rate than others? Does leaving behind the students who struggle the most actually improve the school climate? It does not seem like this is the explanation simply because schools in affluent areas have not been impacted by poverty, and their scores are also improving.

Popping the Balloon: D.C. Reform Fiasco

There is a lot of hot air about the impact of school choice on student achievement. Washington D.C. is often the example touted by unwitting journalists. John Merrow, retired PBS education reports on the ten year reign of Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. The achievement gap has widened under their ‘test and punish’ administration. Merrow states: “The education establishment wants everyone to believe that D.C. is a success story. It is not. To the contrary, it is a story of wide spread failure and untold damage to human potential.”

NAEP eighth grade reading scores improved by one point, 232 to 233. Non low-income student scores climbed 31 points from 250 to 281. Similar small gains were observed for fourth grade low income students. The achievement gap widened from 26 to 62 percentage points.

A National Research Council report in 2015 said that most of the achievement gain in D.C. was most likely due to the influx of white affluent families moving into D.C. and sending their children to public schools.

How do D.C.’s charter schools fare in this report? They include 40% of the city’s schools. D.C. schools are intensely segregated by race and class in both the district and charter run schools. In 2012, over two-thirds of charters were classified as ‘apartheid’ schools (less than 1% white). Voucher schools heightened the segregation.

So what are the recommended solutions? Orfield, one of the authors of the NRC report indicated that magnet schools learned something charters had not. You need recruitment across racial and ethnic lines, free transportation, strongly appealing and distinctive curriculum, admission to all groups of students, integrated faculties etc.

Federal housing policies have exacerbated residential segregation. Neighborhoods that are already diverse or all white support their local schools. Offering choice to everyone else has created a propaganda campaign but no significant improvement in schools. The challenge is to create a sense of opportunity for all students. To do this, housing patterns must become more diverse. Economic opportunity must be real for all racial/ethnic and income groups. Schools must symbolize this opportunity.

NPR: Grading Charter Schools…Did NPR make the grade?

I love NPR, most days. When it comes to charter schools, however, I wonder where their objectivity is. On Innovation Hub this morning, Kara Miller’s guests were David Osborne and Chester Finn. Both have written books advocating for school reform. Miller did ask questions that reflected criticisms about charters, but accepted their responses with no follow up. Where were the knowledgeable experts on the negative impact of charters on communities? Where was the discussion about the profiteering? Where was the admission that few charters are innovative and most duplicate what already exists?

The end result of the interview was the usual propaganda that if only there were more and better charters, education would improve. At least there was a reluctant admission that school choice had no substantive impact on school achievement. I took a few notes on the other questions asked.

Political support for charters was one of the most interesting and perhaps revealing questions asked. Conservative Republicans support charters for other people, not themselves. Their suburban district schools are good, and charters help their children the least of all. Liberal Democrats, many of whom are from urban districts are no longer so supportive of charters, even though charters are supposedly helping those children the most.

The switch in allegiance by Democrats was attributed to the fact that the teacher unions realized that charter teachers were not joining the union, so the charter movement lost union support. The fact that charter teachers sign ‘at will’ contracts and can be fired for no reason was not mentioned as a reason those charter teachers did not join unions.

Could it be that parents and educators in areas where charters have proliferated are best equipped to recognize their shortcomings? Parents want the best for their children, but resegregation and the destruction of whole communities may be tempering enthusiasm. Parents may be recognizing that pulling out a few children for special treatment may turn out not to be so special. Their political representatives are listening.

Charters have made no significant academic improvement based on test scores was acknowledged. Some cities are purported to have been successful e.g. Boston. Their success was attributed to the small number of charters that met stringent authorization qualifications. In too many other places, such as Dayton, Ohio, anyone can open a charter and the quality can be abysmal.

Improvements in district-run public schools is the rational for providing competition from the charter sector. Osborne did slip in a comment about more district operated charters are likely in the future. This option is worth exploring. This could result in better authorization standards and oversight.

Charters pull money away from district schools was denied. I loved this response. If districts are under enrolled, the district should get creative and lease out the building to charters. If that is the best example of creativity, charters have a long way to go to make their case.

The ‘creaming of students’ charge was given short shrift. Beware of slipping into worst case scenarios arguments was the response. To be fair, they did state that a good school is not enough. The example of the trauma that children experienced from the aftermath of Katrina was cited as a need for more support.

The conclusion was that achievement is not getting better fast enough. David Osborne admitted that test scores are not the sole indicator of good schools. What should be used? Graduation rates, parental opinion, and qualitative assessments by independent evaluators…..sounds expensive. This argument, I believe, may be the weakest of all. The premise that evaluation will drive instruction is wrong headed. It is not working….school grades don’t improve schools; they destroy them.

Listen to the broadcast here.

Send comments here: wgbh.org Innovation Hub

Schools Without Rules: Winners and Losers

Do children learn in unregulated private schools? If so, why have rules for any schools? These are billion dollar questions. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program now garners about a billion dollars in redirected corporate tax rebates and other beverage license fees to educate children in private schools. Bottom line response to the ‘Who learns?’ question is that eleven percent of the FTC students gain twenty percentage points on a nationally standardized test, and eleven percent lose twenty percentage points. Most FTC children do about the same as others.

Who are the winners and losers?

Stories like ‘Schools without Rules’ that focus on children who are being short changed are heart breaking. Supporters for the FTC program, however, push back with counter charges and citizens are faced with yet another obfuscated argument to unravel. The important questions are about the best way to help children learn. These are the questions that remain unanswered in the school choice debate.

What do we really know about the FTC program?

WHO ARE FTC SCHOLARSHIP CHILDREN? Most FTC children are Hispanic (38%) and (83%) attend religious schools. While the FTC scholarships were originally designed to offer low-income families a better alternative, the reality is quite different. They tend to come from high performing public schools. Only twenty-five percent were previously enrolled in a public school with ‘D’ or ‘F’ grade. The income level requirement continues to be raised thus redirecting the FTC scholarships to less needy families.

FTC participation drops off after third grade.

HOW ARE FTC SCHOOLS EVALUATED? The FTC children are not required to take state tests or follow state curriculum. They take a nationally normed test that cannot be compared to the Florida Standards Assessments.

HOW DO REQUIREMENTS DIFFER? Teachers and principals are not required to be certified. Required background checks are not adequately supervised. Facilities are not required to meet public school standards.

HOW DO STUDENTS FARE ACADEMICALLY? Eleven percent of students gain more than 20 percentage points and eleven percent lost more than twenty percentage points compared to the results on the national tests. Those who leave tend to be students who struggle the most. They tend to be further behind academically than before they left their public schools.

Students who stay in the FTC school four or more years are slightly more likely to enroll in community college, but not graduate, than students who were eligible for FTC scholarships but did not attend. Successful students tend to be enrolled in Catholic schools and/or are foreign born. The more successful schools are those that were in existence prior to 2002. Private schools with a high percentage of FTC students tend not to be successful.

It is important not to overgeneralize results of studies. Based on the reports from the private school sector, however, it would appear that FTC students, in general, have little to gain and much to loose by attending these small, religious schools. The public, however, may have the most to lose. When funds are siphoned off in unproductive ways, everyone loses.

Incessant Testing Does More Harm Than Good

An Eastside High School teacher in Gainesville speaks her mind. Who benefits from all this testing? Certainly not the students How about the teachers? Some do and some equally proficient do not. For example, if you teach an AP course, you get a bonus. If you teach in a school that receives an ‘A’ grade two years in a row, you get a bonus. If the school gets an ‘A’ one year and a ‘B’ the next, you do not.

Teachers get frustrated. Many students cry or sleep through the test. What a waste of time and money. Read this teacher’s story.
http://www.gainesville.com/opinion/20171n004/amanda-lacy-shitama-incessant-testing-does-more-harm-than-good?rssfeed=true

There are those who say testing is a good thing. Surely, these same people understand that there can be too much of a good thing.

Who Gets Rewarded and Why?

The State of Florida DOE released the names of schools that received bonus money for schools with good test scores. To be eligible, the school grade must be high and/or school achievement gains must be large. These bonuses are supposed to be incentive awards to work hard and produce results. Is it effective? Some argue that the whole concept is totally unfair and counterproductive. The bonus money which amounts to about $50,000 for a school with 500 students goes to teachers, school equipment or temporary support staff.

I am including a link to the schools in each district that were rewarded. I looked at Alachua to see which schools got money. Here’s what I found:

  1. Schools receiving an ‘A’ school grade for two consecutive years received a $100 bonus per child.
  2. Schools receiving a ‘B’ school grade (9 schools) or below for two consecutive years received no bonus.
  3. Schools that dropped a letter grade, even from an ‘A’ to a ‘B’ received no bonus.

School grades are correlated with the socio-economic status of the children’s families. Thus, fluctuations in grades have as much or more to do with which students are enrolled than with the quality of the instruction.

For a small school, the most direct way to improve a school grade is to enroll fewer students from struggling families and more from more stable and affluent families. District schools are not able to control enrollment, and school grades can fluctuate as families enter and leave the school. Charter schools are able to screen and dismiss schools more freely. They are often motivated to do so since they can be closed if they receive consecutive failing grades. If charter schools attract more students from stable families, when these students leave a district school, the district school grade is likely to decline. They then have a harder time attracting experienced teachers. A downward spiral often begins.

School grades can be improved by extra instructional time and high quality staff. These factors are important and costly, but are not sufficient approaches to a quality education. Children learn from one another, and schools that can enroll students from diverse backgrounds can create a school climate in which all students feel they have a chance to succeed. The trade off may be that an ‘A’ school becomes a ‘B’ school because some children from low income families are enrolled. The quality of instruction may be even better as a result, because those children from disadvantaged backgrounds may have rich experiences but lower test scores.

School grades are meant to be incentives to improve schools. Parents are supposed to vote with their feet to seek better schools. Too often, this shifting students from one school to another has the opposite effect. Districts may not be able to estimate enrollments, plan appropriate instructional programs, and know which types of teachers they need.

Bottom line? Bonus incentives can simply add insult to injury.

FTC Scholarships: Who Benefits? Who knows!

Yes, there is yet another study about Florida Tax Credit Scholarships for private schools. This one is funded in part by the Walton and Bush foundations. Don’t bother to read it you say? Not so fast. I found some useful tidbits.

The study looks for evidence that students who stay in the FTC program benefit by enrolling in college (community college) at a higher rate than similar students from public schools. Depending upon how you count, about five percent of the FTC program students are more likely to attend, but not graduate from, a community college. We can all celebrate students who succeed. We can also predict who they are likely to be.

What the report admits is that this study is not about student achievement. Florida private schools do not administer state tests, so comparisons cannot be made with public schools. In fact, Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio studies demonstrated that participating in their FTC programs reduced student achievement on state tests. So, the researchers asked different questions.

Who enrolls in Florida FTC private schools? What happens to them?
1. The study supposedly matched public school and FTC private school students by income and race. The match had problems. The public school group included 4% more children from families below the poverty level. Data on FTC students in the reduced lunch category, which is about a $10,00 higher income level, was even more starkly different. Only 11% of the FTC students were in the reduced lunch group compared to 31% of public school students. This fact alone may explain the difference in the rate of college enrollment between the two groups.
2. The Florida DOE data show that 83% of FTC students attend a religious private school. FTC students who enrolled in a Catholic or a non Christian religious school were more likely to enroll in college, but few FTC students enroll in these schools.

Who benefited from the FTC program?
1. FTC students who are most likely to attend college are Hispanic students who were born outside the U.S.
2. FTC students enrolled in private schools that were in existence before the program began in 2003 are more likely to go to college.
3. As more FTC students enrolled in a school, the less likely the students enrolled in community college.

No matter how the numbers are manipulated, private schools are no answer to improving student achievement. The students who succeed attend selective, well established private schools that will only enroll a few scholarship students. No doubt these children were carefully screened for admission.

The State can no longer even say that the tax credit scholarships save money. The legislature increased the stipend for tuition. The legislature must turn its attention to improving the quality of schools. Simply moving children around from place to place harms kids. Even this study mentions this disruption.