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The Main Scoop

Draft report calls for shake-ups in low-performing schools

By By Dale Mezzacappa on Feb 4, 2009 12:31 PM

The School District is strongly considering yet another “turnaround” strategy for chronically underperforming schools, one based on Chicago’s controversial Renaissance 2010 project that closes existing schools and opens new ones under a different management structure.

The plan is outlined in a draft report of the working group on “interventions and rewards for failing and successful schools” that is part of the District’s strategic planning process. District staff are now compiling a strategic plan based on reports from nine working groups.

For “failing” schools, the District’s working group recommends creating a “portfolio” approach to school governance and management that would make significant use of charter organizations and other outside managers.

At the proposed “contract schools,” outside managers would have more independence than the private managers currently operating schools under the District’s existing “diverse provider” model – they would be able to employ their own staff, for example.

In addition, some schools – to be called “innovation schools” – would be reconstituted from the ground up with new teachers and leadership, but managed by the District with union teachers.

“Performance schools” would not be reconstituted with new personnel, but like the others would be given more “autonomy” over school management in exchange for “greater accountability.”

District officials declined to discuss the working group’s draft, saying that it was “premature” and still subject to final approval. The proposed strategic plan, which is now being culled from the recommendations of nine working groups, will be unveiled at the School Reform Commission's Feb. 18 meeting. Three community meetings to get input will occur between then and mid-March.

But leaders of grassroots organizations that have been consulted during the process expressed concern that pressure for quick action at low-performing schools will short-circuit meaningful community engagement. They also raised flags about the wisdom of following the Chicago model.

“The key is what happens from here on out,” said Jonathan Cetel of Good Schools Pennsylvania, who was a member of the working group. “This is just the beginning of a longer conversation.”

The working group drew heavily upon a report from Mass Insight, an education research institute. The report, called “The Turnaround Challenge” argued that school “turnaround” is fundamentally different and far more difficult than school improvement, requiring specially trained personnel.

The Philadelphia Student Union sent a letter to the working group in January expressing concerns that the discussion of “turnaround” has been limited to the models recommended in the Mass Insight report and has ignored other potential interventions, including small schools and community-centered charters.

“School partnerships, school closures and whole school interventions have had mixed results where they have been implemented (i.e. Chicago),” the letter said. “They are not a ‘magic bullet.’ We need information for consideration that comes from constituencies that are directly impacted by these policies.”

Erika Almiron, assistant director of PSU, noted that the organization’s community-driven plan for transforming West Philadelphia High School, years in the making, has yet to be acted on by District officials.

Instead, she said, there seems to be a determination that bringing in outside managers is the best way to overhaul low-performing schools, regardless of community buy-in.

“There should be educator and parent participation if there’s going to be an [outside] entity brought in,” said Eva Gold of Research for Action, an independent evaluator that has done extensive research on Philadelphia’s “diverse provider” model. “Parents and educators have to be part of creating a good match between the needs of the school and whoever is going to govern it.”

In 2002, after the state takeover, the new School Reform Commission assigned schools to outside providers, including for-profit companies such as Edison Schools, with no opportunity for neighborhoods or teachers to weigh in on what model might work for them. As a result, in some schools and communities there was open revolt.

The providers accepted and in some cases wanted only limited authority to make wholesale changes, and research has since shown that they have made little difference in improving schools.

Members of the working group said that it had tried to respond to these lessons. Its co-chair, Leroy Nunery, offered a “scathing” critique of the “diverse provider” model and all its flaws, including the lack of community involvement and limited autonomy for the new school managers, according to Cetel and Ryan Bowers of the Mayor’s Office of Education, another working group member.

Nunery, a former official at Edison Schools, declined to discuss the plans but said in a brief interview that it would be a “leap” to conclude that more “privatization is where the District is going. That would not be the right angle,” he said.
 
Bowers agreed. “People in the room were under no illusions. People are not recommending that by any means,” he said. 
 
The proposed plan contemplates heavier use of charter management organizations, specifically Mastery Charter, to take over existing schools. The draft report specifically cites Mastery’s takeover of three underperforming middle schools under former CEO Paul Vallas – Shoemaker, Pickett and Thomas.

“Although the new converted schools are serving largely the same student population, the school environment, staff, and academic program are radically different,” the draft says. “Mastery has demonstrated very strong results in raising student test scores.” The District has hired Ben Rayer, formerly the president and chief operating officer of Mastery, as its new associate superintendent for charter schools.

While the SRC seems eager to have well-regarded charter management organizations like Mastery take over existing poor-performing District schools, it has slowed the opening of new charter schools, especially in the wake of several scandals involving some charter school operators.

Rayer declined to be interviewed, and Almiron of PSU questioned whether his hiring represents a conflict of interest for Mastery.

She and other community leaders said that it would be crucial for any outside operators, including Mastery, to produce information about student enrollment, retention, suspension and transfers, as well as budget data. “We need to know that their success rate is not based on pushing students out,” Almiron said.

The Mass Insight report that forms the basis of the working group’s recommendations also emphasized that true turnaround is expensive, involving heavy investment in teachers and school leaders likely to cost between $250,000 and $1 million per school per year.

“Turnaround is essentially a people-focused enterprise,” the report said.

Bowers said that this report captured the imagination of the working group because it emphasized that change at persistently low-performing schools had to be drastic and transformative, not merely incremental, and presented Renaissance 2010 as a model.

“It’s a whole different paradigm,” he said, adding that the working group was careful to recommend that not all schools low-performing schools be turned over to outside managers. The Mass Insight report cited “district-managed system change,” like the proposed “innovation” and “performance” school models, as the “missing option” under No Child Left Behind.

Under Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, dozens of schools have closed and 75 new ones opened, about two-thirds of them charters or under private, outside management with teachers who are not union members. Renaissance 2010, ironically, was derived in large part from Philadelphia’s experiment with “diverse providers,” which assumed the management of more than 40 schools after the 2002 state takeover.

According to the Renaissance 2010 website, the new schools have higher attendance and graduation rates than the rest of the district and fewer transfers out. The latest data cited is from 2005-06.

Many community groups in Chicago have been vociferous opponents of Renaissance 2010, with some saying it is more about “business and real estate interests” and less about education. Some of the new turnaround school models operated by outside managers are doing no better or even worse than some of the schools slated for turnaround, according to Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents United for Responsible Education.

“What’s so shocking, the schools being used as models are lower performing than many of the schools that are being closed,” Woestehoff said.

After Mayor Richard Daley announced last month that Ron Huberman, head of the Chicago Transportation Authority, would succeed new U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as Chicago’s new schools CEO, Huberman was greeted by boos and protest from opponents of Renaissance 2010.

A recent report by the education journal Catalyst Chicago said that the program hasn’t necessarily resulted in higher quality options for African American students. “A Catalyst Chicago analysis shows the system of choice doesn’t serve all children equally,” according to the article. “A surprisingly high percentage of Black students end up at another lackluster school rather than a better one.”

Plus, the schools that have shown some positive change are primarily at the elementary level, rather than high schools. Many of the lowest-performing Philadelphia schools in line for turnaround are large neighborhood high schools.

Philadelphia’s working group report acknowledges that “indeed, the national literature on this topic suggests that there are more failures than successes with efforts to turn around schools.”

To make transformative change work at the school level, the District will have to transform its own infrastructure as well, Cetel said. Specifically, it needs an accountability system that can support and evaluate true innovation.

“All the poor-performing schools need a transformation of the learning environment,” he said. But the District’s current structure for judging school performance still depends on them following the core curriculum and traditional courses and course progression. It limits outside-the-box innovation, such as multidisciplinary instruction and project-based learning.

“Without the right kind of accountability, this will just be ‘diverse provider model reunion,’” Cetel said.

The bigger issue with this turnaround plan, argued Gold of Research for Action, is that in some ways it has the wrong starting point. “We know what makes good schools: strong leadership, strong teachers, time for collaboration and building coherence in instructional approach, a sense of community within the school in which kids are well known, and a safe environment for children and adults,” she said.

“That’s the criteria we ought to be fronting more than, ‘we want an array of management models.’”

About the Author

Contact Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa at dalemezz@comcast.net.

Comments (13)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 6, 2009 5:03 pm

This is a Venn Diagram with so many circles in it that who can figure out who is in charge and where does the money go? An extra million dollars a year per school for Mastery? Who will pay for this?

Submitted by Paul Socolar on February 7, 2009 1:00 pm

With Chicago's Renaissance 2010 school reform plan now being cited by our District officials as a promising model, I encourage people to check out the Notebook's sister publication in Chicago, www.catalyst-chicago.org, to learn more about that reform initiative, which appears to be an increasingly turbulent one. Besides the November Catalyst story linked to above, it's worth checking out their blogs and their recent stories assessing the legacy of Arne Duncan, former Chicago schools chief who is now Obama's education secretary. One revealing stat in their analysis is that early on, only 2 percent of students displaced by Renaissance 2010 school closings enrolled in new Ren 2010 schools, while half were in schools on academic probation. The Notebook's site now has an "urban school news" section on the 2nd column of each Web page linking to stories from Catalyst's Chicago and Ohio publications.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 11, 2009 1:23 am

if the district is really going ahead with this plan, i think we need to hear from students and parents in chicago about what renaissance 2010 has really been like. what efforts have been made by ackerman or the src to hear on-the-ground reports from chicago residents?

Submitted by Burgers'N'Lies (not verified) on February 15, 2009 3:41 pm

The latest story on the REN10 takeover is how corporations like McDonalds are contributing to this movement which replaces public schools with charters. Funny how McDonalds is not contributing as a corporation to the public schools as well. What better way to ensure a healty supply of burgerflippers than to finance unionbusting activities like REN10?

Submitted by Burgers'N'Lies (not verified) on February 15, 2009 3:42 pm

McDonalds is helping to fund REN10 which replaces public schools with charters. This allows the district to replace unionized teachers with fresh meat via Teach For America, etc. Once this is done the public schools teachers must reapply for their positions, but the retention rate is 2-5%.

Of course, McDonalds doesn't seem to see the need to fund public schools. What better way to ensure more burgerflippers that will be forced to work for low wages than to control the schools that are teaching them?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 17, 2009 9:02 pm

Teach For America teachers are placed in district and charter schools. If placed in district schools, they can choice to be new union members exactly the same as any other new teacher. It partners with low-resources to place our nation's most outstanding recent college grads to confront this huge injustice head on. I don't think they care if they are in a charter or district school as long as they are given the chance to show kids first hand that working hard leads to being successful.

Submitted by Paulbearers (not verified) on February 17, 2009 10:56 pm

For starters, the vast majority of Teach For America teachers won't join unions because they aren't staying that long. The program pays off their college tuition in exchange for a two year commitment to teaching. That is why there is such a high turnover.

It was two years ago that Vallas went to New Orleans and forced out the public school teachers there. His quick fix was to replace them all with fresh meat from Teach For America. Do you think it's just coincidence that Vallas, two years later, recently announced that he is heading back to Chicago (thankfully he will no longer haunt any school districts, but back into politics)? Vallas knows that his house of cards in the Big Easy is about to collapse. This is just like the Literacy Intern program he bandied about as a silver bullet to Philly's woes. Unfortunately, for Paul, once the Lits. got a taste of how it really is in Philly classrooms they left in droves. What was suppose to last three years was shut down by the second year when Paul learned that only 32% of the Interns wanted to stick around any longer than they had to. You can fool some of the people all of the time and all the people some of the time, but. . . .

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 16, 2009 9:59 pm

There is no research concluding Chicago's Renaissance 2010 is a model which creates improved outcomes for students. prelimiary research on this program is not positive. If anything the Duncan model benefited mostly from a change as to what constitutes a passing score on Illinois standardized tests.
We all realize now that NO Child Left behind was built on a lie, the so called Houston Miracle. Are we going to make that same mistake again?

Submitted by Keith Newman (not verified) on February 21, 2009 9:40 am

The kids are right. The School District has a habit of not listening and we do know what works: small classes and real discipline. That's why Mastery has less than 300 students per school. Why are we paying Ackerman that huge salary so she can hire others to do what she should do? Instead of closing schools and increasing class size in the remaining public schools, decrease the class size and institute real discipline just like the Charters do. The School District is putting emphasis on eradicating a union before the needs of children. As a result, all are suffering, including the taxpayers who could obtain the same results for hundreds of millions less.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 1, 2009 11:40 am

Imagine2014 is a housekeeping document, rather than an academic accomplishment document. It is a barely-minimum list of what a family should expect for its child's education in a public school setting.
School library programs are totally absent, despite research proving that maximized school library programs increase student academic achievement, especially for low-income students.
Enhanced, maximized school library programs (certified school librarian; student access to the school library and librarian throughout the school day; flexible scheduling so classes can vistit the library with their teachers as needed; current and adequate resources in a welcoming environment; clerical help) are cheaper to institute than Imagine 2014 and reach EVERY child in the SDP.
Any dollar put toward a maximized school library program continues to serve children into the future, either through equity of access and services resulting in lifelong learning, or resources which remain in the school, to be shared by all students.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 3, 2009 8:41 pm

As I read the new plan of Imagine 2014, I noticed that the most important resource of the school is missing, the School Libraries. As a mother and a grandmother, I am appalled at the way the Philadelphia school district sets up our students for failure. For years now, I have been observing how they have eliminated school libraries first in elementary school. Then the middle schools followed and now I hear from my friends that principals are eliminating high school libraries. I bet those same principals have their children in school that have exceptional libraries. I guess being a minority and not being able to send our kids to the private schools means we do not deserve the advantages those schools have.
It is inconceivable to me that a school in any city of America should be without a library. A library will provide children with the means to learn about every subject under the sun. I believe in computers and we have one at home but nothing beats going to the library and discovering the many wonders of the world whether it be paintings, science, biographies, history or old myths and fairytales.
As a parent and an educator, I know how important it is to give children the opportunities to discover the truth for themselves on any given subject. As wonderful as a teacher may be they can only impart the knowledge they themselves have acquired but it is from their own point of view, children need to know that there are other points of views to discover and that they must ultimately decide for themselves what the truth is.
How can then, our administrators who say they want the best for our children and they want all children to succeed and exceed in reading, justify closing the one room that will in fact provide the best education money can buy, the school libraries. How did they get their education? If they were like me, they spent a lot of time in the library doing research on many educational topics in order to be a professional, if they did not… then, is it possible this explains why their schools have no libraries.
The sad part is that authors and writers should be getting on the cause to save school libraries. Whom do they think they are writing for anyway?
Philadelphia now has a few generations of non-readers who have never entered a library. The only reading they do is from a textbook. How interesting can a textbook be? Let us not forget that a textbook introduces different things to students depending on the subject with the intention of creating curiosity in the child so that they will go explore for themselves the truth.
How can the child explore anything if a library is not an option in his school or in their community? Curiosity then dies at birth and we wonder why Johnny can’t read?

Submitted by Margaret Plotkin (not verified) on March 4, 2009 7:21 pm

I find it very revealing that, although the working group can "imagine" such supposed impossiblilities as kindergarten class sizes of 20 (I wonder where they "imagine" they'll find enough classrooms and kindergarten teachers to make that one happen?) they can't even imagine putting a library program in every school -- even though nearly every school already has a "space" designated as a library, even if it has no books newer than George H.W. Bush's presidency, and no staff at all, other than a lunchroom aide or parent volunteer. What does it say about the educational priorities of an entire working group given the responsibility to imagine the best possible school system that never once mentions the word "library" in its report? Who wants to bet that these folks never crack a book for pleasure? And they wonder why our students don't excel at reading...

Submitted by rob (not verified) on March 25, 2009 1:08 am

hello. we went through all this before in San Francisco. Arlene's predecessor, Bill Rojas, used reconstitution of failing schoolls as his big change. it didn't work. then, Arlene Ackerman came along with her Dream Scools. they failed, too. good luck, philly. she gets big bucks, right?

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