Keeping ninth-graders ‘on track’ raises graduation rate: University of Chicago study

BY LAUREN FITZPATRICK, Education Reporter
April 23, 2014 10:02PM

Less than half of students at Benito Juarez Community Academy High School graduated in 2008 when Juan Carlos Ocon took over as principal, but by 2013, he said, the rate rose to about 69 percent.

The secret of Juarez’s success — and the success of 19 other neighborhood high schools in Chicago in getting more students to graduation day — started with the school’s ninth-graders and keeping them “on track,” according to new research to be released Thursday by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School research.

Shepherding ninth-graders through their first year of high school — focusing on helping them to show up to class and complete their work so they pass their courses — leads to jumps in graduation rates, even at high schools once thought of as “dropout factories,” according to the study.

“Attention to those very small things has a big payoff,” said Elaine Allensworth, who directs the Consortium, adding that schools need to intervene as soon as freshmen show a dip in attendance or decline in effort.

The interventions that have worked so far are less expensive and dramatic than a schoolwide turnaround or conversion to a charter school, she said. The gains spanned gender and race but were highest for African-American males.

And outside factors beyond a school’s control — gangs, family, academic weakness of incoming freshmen — affect graduation in a common way by preventing students from showing up and doing their work, she said.

“Schools don’t have to change everything in kids lives — what they have to do is make sure all those other factors don’t interfere with kids coming to class and getting their work done,” Allensworth said.

The authors tracked efforts across 20 Chicago Public Schools that boosted “on-track” rates for ninth-graders over three years by poring over real-time data on a regular basis and then looked at who graduated. According to their findings, those “on track” increases — to 82 percent in 2013 from 57 percent in 2007 — translated into big jumps in graduation rates, up to 20 percentage points.

“On track” means a student has enough credits at the end of the year to go on to the next grade and has earned no more than one semester F in a core class.

The 20 schools adopted a variety of practices, including block scheduling to minimize the effects of tardiness; hiring an “on-track coordinator” to reach out with solutions when students started to fall off; and running a summer program for incoming freshmen.

How the schools specifically chose to keep tabs on their ninth-graders mattered less than how well they kept them on track, said Thomas Kelley-Kemple, a Consortium author.

Juarez, with 96 percent low-income students, leaned on its lead teachers and changed its curriculum to one that focuses on standards instead of specific content.

“It automatically made what was being taught in the classroom more relevant to the students,” Ocon said. That pushed attendance up, too, he said.

“What’s in the classroom now is much more relevant and that’s bringing them back every day,” he said. “Because the curriculum has shifted, it’s not what teachers are interested in, it’s what students need.”

Juarez also opened a “benchmark achievement center” in the library, where students can bolster skills after school, Ocon said.

Juarez still has work to do, with ACT scores barely above a 16 average — below the CPS average of 17.6 and far below 21, considered to be “college ready.” The school also is in its last year of a $6 million state improvement grant that Ocon said bolstered its efforts.

Secretary Duncan: Keep Charters Out of the Muck, Please

July 09, 2009

by Gordon MacInnes

Secretary Arne Duncan used his speech before the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to spotlight the “bottom 5%” of America’s public schools. Numbering about 5,000, Duncan urged the charter school community to consider taking on some of these schools and turn them around. He was clear that not every charter school operator is up to this challenge, naming a few multiple-site groups like KIPP and Green Dot as possible candidates.

Wrong audience. Bad idea.

If my analysis of New Jersey’s worst-performing schools is any guide, then Secretary Duncan’s plea should be ignored. Expecting charter schools to suddenly operate as turn-around specialists in the nation’s toughest schools is akin to asking the school nurse to perform a liver transplant.

To define the “bottom 5%,” I used the mean scale scores from the 2008 state assessment of 3rd grade language arts. The mean scale score provides a precise number for each of 781 NJ schools in which the 3rd grade test was given. I selected the 39 schools with lowest scale scores for review. Not surprisingly, most of them were near the bottom on the same test in 2004. The 3rd grade literacy test is the threshold test, since kids who do not read at grade level by then have only a 14% chance of ever reading at level. An elementary school that does not teach its students to read and write well is not meeting its primary responsibility.

Here are the findings that prompt my conclusion that little in the experience of charter school innovators prepares them for operating a public school, even if in the same neighborhood.

1.  The 5% schools are expected to educate kids who are different from those enrolled in charter schools. By definition, charter students have parents that sought a better education for their children. There is no way to quantify this trait, but it is a powerful advantage for charters.

2.  The 5% schools must accept every child, even if they speak no English or have been classified “disabled.” Charter schools in NJ’s five big cities (Elizabeth, the fourth largest, has no charter schools) have a 8.1% special education rate compared to a state average of 16% and a city average of 17.0%. Just as importantly, charter schools are likely to have only mildly disabled students as evidenced by the fact that only five of 34 urban charter schools provide separate special education classes. Just about every 5% school does. The charter schools like KIPP, North Star, and Robert Treat Academy that have the financial, organizational, leadership, and educational talent to be considered for turn-around roles, have classification rates of 8.9%, 7.0%, and 3.2% respectively.

3.  NJ charter schools have been largely immune from the wave of Latinization that has swept over their district colleagues. Latinos are now the largest minority, but not in charter schools where 71% of their students are African-American. Only eight of thirty four urban charters report any English Learners (and none more than 7.8%), while the 5% schools show English Learners making up as much as 37% of school enrollment. The average for the district schools is 6.6% versus a charter average of .5 of 1%.

4.  The high-performing charter schools—the ones that Secretary Duncan would favor to take over struggling district schools—enjoy a stable student population. The 5% schools do not. When student mobility rates are averaged over three years, the charter schools with the highest test results and the longest waiting lists, have practically no student turnover. The mobility rates for Robert Treat (2.5%), North Star (9.3%), TEAM (3.6%), Gray (9.3%), and the Learning Community (3.3%) are noticeably below the state average of 11.5. However, the mobility rate in Newark’s eight 5% schools averages 25.8%, in Paterson’s four 26.5%, and 20.8% in Trenton’s five.

5.  There is no clean slate. Secretary Duncan acknowledged that charter schools are start-ups, not turn-arounds. The difference is profound. There are no tenured teachers and, usually, no union in a charter school. There is no downtown headquarters to issue endless memos and demand reports. Even with these advantages, most charter schools do not perform better than district schools serving like populations.
The one shared characteristic of district and charter school students is their poverty. In fact, charter school students in the five largest NJ cities are slightly more likely to be eligible for free or reduced lunch (73.8% to 66.8%) than district students.

Secretary Duncan’s appeal ignores the central role that is frequently played by the district central office in the performance of individual schools. Of the 39 5% NJ schools, 31 are in Camden (10), Newark (8), Trenton (5), Paterson and Jersey City (4 each). Four are charter schools. Equally poverty-stricken districts like Elizabeth and Union City, not only have no charter schools, but their students regularly perform close to the state average on literacy assessments. These successful districts rely, not on searching out the hero principals Secretary Duncan invokes, but by working closely with teachers and principals to improve classroom pedagogy. And, they emphasize the connection between high-quality preschool and the primary grades with an intensive focus on early literacy.

The persistence and spirit of enterprise required to open and operate a high-performing charter school are to be admired and replicated as often as possible. Secretary Duncan is right to hail the achievements of effective charter schools. However, the experience of attracting students from families seeking better educational opportunities, whose children are free of serious impairments, and who command the English language is entirely different from turning around a failing school in the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. Secretary Duncan did not under-estimate the difficulty of the objective, only the experience and capacity of charter schools to meet the test.

Gordon MacInnes served as Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education from 2002 to 2007, directing efforts to improve performance in hign needs urban districts utilizing the remedies ordered in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case. He now lectures at Princeton University and does research and writing for the Century Foundation in New York.

The charter school battle moves to Alabama

The St. Clair Times: Charter schools proposal raises concerns

Charter schools may be in Alabama’s future, and the state’s teachers’ union is not happy to hear the news. Through its Alabama School Journal publication, the AEA is calling the move a “new assault against public education” in a drive to open the door for privatization. The Journal also claims that lobbyists have been hired by school management companies to help get a bill written and passed in the state.

One could hardly blame AEA members for feeling they are being targeted. The Republican-led state legislature in its first year with a majority attacked the payroll deduction for collection of union dues, weakened the teacher’s tenure law, and indirectly reduced educators’ wages by taking a higher percentage from their paychecks for their pensions.

The idea is to allow a limited number of charter schools in the state that would be publicly funded, but operate without all of the same restrictions as traditional public schools – such as teacher tenure. The intention would be to locate them in areas where they would compete with failing schools, to give parents in those areas a choice of schools.

Some see the charter school movement more as a GOP-led effort political payoff system than a real effort to improve education. State Senate Minority Leader Roger Bedford was quoted as saying, “It’s the way Republicans have traditionally rewarded their cronies in other states.”

About 40 states already have charter schools with about a million and a half students enrolled this year. Based on test scores, graduation rates and the number of students going on to college, it is not yet clear whether charter schools as a group perform better.

Depending on how a state’s charter law is written, teachers may not even be required to be certified to teach, and accreditation standards for the schools are very much up in the air.

Proponents of charter schools argue that they expand educational choices for students, increase innovation and promote healthy competition with traditional public schools.

Charter school supporters argue that reform in traditional schools is too slow and cumbersome, while traditional school supporters counter that charter schools on the whole have not been proven to be any better.

The Republican education package is supposed to give existing city and county school systems more flexibility to try innovative strategies now restricted by state law and policies, if the systems agree to greater accountability for student achievement. The governor also wants to make student achievement a part of teachers’ annual evaluations. That seems reasonable.

Along with other tax revenue, education funding has dropped for the past four years, and there are concerns about siphoning money from existing school systems to fund new charter schools. We share those concerns, and the concerns about the state’s educators. The AEA has been successful in delivering a good package of wages, benefits and job security for its members, and that has been crucial to developing a workforce of trained professionals for Alabama’s schools.

We see nothing wrong with competition and we certainly don’t think kids should be forced to attend failing schools, but we don’t want to see the state take a step backwards.

If our governor and legislators want to look at what works in education and approve innovative programs geared to student achievement, more power to them! If their goal is to weaken the teachers’ union by privatizing education, we’ve got a problem.

Jay Mathews: Depending too much on charters is perilous

Posted at 07:32 PM ET, 02/01/2012 on the Washington Post

A consultant’s report ordered by Mayor Vincent C. Gray says that the District should close or quickly improve 38 regular public schools and send many of their students to a new crop of charter schools.

Charter advocates such as me — my latest book was about the high-achieving KIPP charter network — are expected to cheer that recommendation. D.C. charters on average produce higher achievement for low-income students than do regular public schools. Charters are so popular with parents that 41 percent of all D.C. public school children attend them. They could be the majority in three or four years, my colleague Bill Turque reports.

This charter fan doesn’t think that’s good. It is not clear that the best charters are capable of such rapid expansion. More important, moving kids from bad regular schools to charters in the way Gray’s Chicago-based consultant, IFF, recommends would accelerate the downward spiral of traditional public schools in the city. Regular schools and the people who work in them, with a few exceptions, would become a permanent education underclass. If Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson don’t figure out how to significantly raise the level of our worst regular schools in the next few years, confidence in the system is never going to recover.

The IFF report maintains some hope for regular schools but emphasizes how much better charters are doing. Only three charters are listed among the 41 public schools it says must get better quickly or go away.

Why is that? Gray and Henderson know. Some of their best friends are charter people. The most successful charters insist on high expectations, telling each child that he or she is going to college. They have longer school days and avoid time wasters such as chatty home room periods and pointless assemblies. Their teachers coordinate learning and discipline. They recruit and train principals carefully and give them unusual power over their budgets and the hiring and firing of staff members.

Those charters succeed despite having less money per child than regular schools, as revealed by school funding experts Alice Rivlin and Mary Levy. Rivlin and Levy say charters don’t get their overspending covered by the D.C. Council, don’t get free maintenance and legal services, don’t get money for projected enrollment increases that don’t happen and don’t get free school buildings, as do regular public schools.

Successful charter methods could be applied to the worst regular schools. The IFF report says many regular schools are half-empty, with fewer than 300 students and relatively few teachers, which would make a change to a new principal and new methods easier.

Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, also a charter enthusiast, had such changes in mind but failed miserably — as she conceded — in recruiting and training great principals, the key to turning a school around. She relied on a slapdash recruitment process and her instincts about which of the administrators she interviewed would be good and which wouldn’t.

The best charter school networks pick principals differently. They put applicants through a series of mind-bending interviews with successful inner-city school leaders and lean toward people with experience in their schools. They have long training periods, some up to a year. The novice principals learn school management from experts and spend months as interns working with charter principals who have great track records.

The D.C. school system has enough well-tested, successful principals to mentor well-chosen new school leaders for a few months. The D.C. system doesn’t have to lengthen the day and create principal autonomy in all the schools, just the ones IFF wants to replace with charters.

I know some activists who would like all city schools to be charters. Not me. The traditional neighborhood school is still woven into the American education system and our culture. Most people like it. It should be preserved. But there is not much time left to do that here.

By   |  07:32 PM ET, 02/01/2012

Diane Ravitch Has Questions for the Cuomo Commission

The New York Times
Jan. 6, 2012, 7:53 a.m.

By Diane Ravitch

Governor Cuomo’s commission on education has an opportunity to change the direction of school reform.

Right now, the state’s school system is in trouble. Federal tests show that achievement in reading and mathematics in fourth and eighth grades has been flat across the state for most of the past decade.

In the one tested area that looked promising — fourth-grade mathematics — New York was the only state in the nation in which scores declined in 2011.

The commission needs to ask some tough questions.

First, where is the money going? How much goes directly to the classroom and how much is spent on expensive outside consultants and unnecessary state and local bureaucracy? How much is squandered on costly technology contracts that are poorly supervised and of dubious value?

Second, how can New York raise standards for entry into teaching? The state should require every new teacher to have at least a bachelor’s degree and an additional year of study and practice-teaching under the supervision of a mentor teacher. No one should be allowed to teach without a thorough preparation.

Third, how can the state redirect funding to provide high-quality early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds and to reduce class size, especially in the early grades?

The research supporting these policies is very strong. Many children arrive in school ready to learn, but many others do not.

Only the state can devise a comprehensive plan to ensure that all children arrive in school with the vocabulary and social skills needed for school success. Students today have a broad range of developmental and social issues, and large classes make it impossible for them to get the individual attention they require to be academically successful.

Fourth, how can the state fairly evaluate teachers and principals? The New York State Education Department’s proposed educator evaluation program is deeply flawed. More than 1,100 principals have signed a statement protesting the state’s plan because it is untried and threatens to demoralize teachers and divide staffs.

Tests measure student performance, not teacher performance. As in any other profession, judgments about teacher quality should be rendered by experienced supervisors, not by dubious data like New York’s inconsistent test scores.

Fifth, how can the state recruit and promote the best possible school leaders? If the burden of teacher evaluation rests with the principal, as it should, then it stands to reason that principals should themselves be master teachers.

The commission should consider how to raise standards for principals, such as requiring that they have no less than seven years of teaching experience, plus at least three years of administrative experience as an assistant principal or department chair or in a similar position.

Sixth, how can New York strengthen its public education system? The proliferation of charter schools in poor neighborhoods — and increasingly, in middle-class neighborhoods — threatens to draw away the most capable students from the regular public schools.

If this trend continues, the public schools that enroll the overwhelming majority of students will inevitably be weakened.

Any new charter schools should be created specifically to enroll the state’s neediest students — students with disabilities, students who are English language learners, and dropouts — and to provide extra attention for them.

Seventh, how can state tests be used diagnostically, to help students and teachers, rather than to label, rank, punish and stigmatize them?

New York has devoted the past two decades to a regime of high-stakes testing. How many hundreds of millions or billions of dollars have been spent on testing during this era? The results are disappointing, to say the least. Why double down on a failed strategy?

It’s time to admit that the state’s heavy investment in testing and accountability has not succeeded. Students are not learning more, achievement gaps are not closing, and resources are squandered on assessment rather than instruction.

It’s time to acknowledge that New York State, like the nation, is leaving many children behind. It’s time for new thinking.

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of American education.

NAACP issues strong statement against charter schools

The NAACP has published an official rebuke of charter schools’ growing presence in (particularly urban) school districts nationwide. Among the reasons for the NAACP’s disapproval: charter schools “draw funding away from already underfunded traditional public schools” and “at best…serve only a small percentage of children of color and disadvantaged students.”

You can find the full report here.

Education Reform Now, Not Later

President and CEO of Newark Now
9/9/11 10:43 AM ET
Huffingont Post

In the midst of the vindictive, partisan rhetoric now filling out airwaves — from the economy and health care, to the upcoming presidential election — I wonder: what about education? As we speak, millions of children across the country return to schools that rank below average on the global stage.

In the simplest terms, our schools are failing at an alarming rate, particularly in our nation’s most impoverished and needy areas. The U.S. ranks 15th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, according to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, behind South Korea, Finland and Singapore.

While some are fortunate enough to be able to move to a good school district to ensure that their children receive the best education possible, most are not. Is it okay that a quality public education, is not a given right in this country, and is available only to those who can afford it?

It’s not just access to funding that makes some school districts better than others. In Newark, for example, the school system is considered an “Abbot district,” a term which comes from the 1981 lawsuit Abbot v. Burke in which the NJ Supreme Court ordered that poor school districts be funded on par with wealthier districts. For some time now, the 40,000-student district has had access to more money than many of its wealthier counterparts, spending around $22,000 per pupil.

Yet, despite the enormous sums of money being spent, the district continues to fail — only 54 percent of high school seniors graduated in 2010, about the same number that graduated before the state take over in 1996. And 98 percent of Newark students who go on to attend local community colleges require extra help in math, while 87 percent need it in English and reading.

So why are these heavily funded schools failing? 35 percent of Newark children live below the poverty line, compared with 12 percent for New Jersey as a whole. And the median income of families with children is$32,165 in Newark, compared with $86,612 in New Jersey. With such poverty comes single parent households, joblessness, high levels of incarceration, drug abuse and more — leading to a needier student body and less support within the family and community.

In order to be effective, Newark schools not only have to teach children, they must redress the effects of widespread, epidemic poverty as well — no easy task.

Newark mayor Cory Booker and President Barak Obama are both strong advocates of charter schools as a response to our nations education problem. Republican governor Chris Christie agrees, supporting Booker’s goal of increasing access to charter schools from 10 percent to 25 percent of Newark students over the next five years.

But charter schools have been and will continue to be the subject of much debate — while some laud them for their perceived innovativeness, others feel that funding such schools drains resources from public schools while only educating a select few. In Newark, which has some of the best charter schools in the country, 90 percent of students still attend public schools.

Still others insist that many charter schools are not all the award-winning, beacons of hope they’ve been sold as. And sadly, the research supports them.

But the lucky few that are chosen (often via lottery) to attend these schools may very well be offered an incredible education — for free. The Robert Treat Academy in Newark, for example, is an award winning charter school and the number one urban school in New Jersey. It is 96 percent black and Hispanic and sends graduates to some of the country’s most prestigious high schools, including the Lawrenceville School, Phillips Academy Exeter, and Deerfield.

Along with supporting charter schools such as this one, President Obama has proposed revisions to the outdated No Child Left Behind bill that raises expectations on students and schools, changes the measurement for success to one which focuses on college or career-readiness, and offers schools credit for improving individual students progress. It also encourages states to compete for federal education funding, based on his $4 billion Race to the Top competition. Unfortunately he lacks support and a shared sense of urgency.

Governor Chris Christie may be right about one thing; throwing money at failing schools alone won’t fix the problem. But neither will taking money away from them, as he recently attempted, and failed to do. Charter schools are certainly no panacea, but then again, no panacea exists. Regardless, education is equally as important as the other, sexier issues currently vying for our nation’s attention — it’s time that we treat it that way.