First Person

Opinion: Board members, middle schools and truth

Alexander Ooms is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, West Denver Preparatory Charter Schools and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children.

Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida, two sitting members of Denver’s board of education, published this Op-Ed last Friday.  Its genesis, they tell us, is in their conversations with Denver parents.  “We are listening,” they write, “and are calling for the truth about how neighborhood schools perform.” 

The specific call follows a few paragraphs later:

But the data are clear that neighborhood middle schools are exceeding the growth expectations of the Denver Plan. These schools are actually performing better than the district average, including all the newer schools.”

Skinner Middle School

Well, no.  Pretty to think so. But not true. Traditional middle schools in Denver are lagging the district average for academic growth, not leading it.  And more often than not, their students graduate 8th grade lacking the basic skills necessary to be successful in high school and beyond.

We are now over five years into the Denver Plan and a serious civic conversation about public education. So perhaps we might raise the bar just a little: It should not be okay for elected school board members to selectively choose and distort performance data, and then use it as a basis to recommend where parents should send their children to school. And that is exactly what these board members are doing.

A deceptive bouquet

Let’s look, for a moment, at the edifice of reason on which the authors build the claim that traditional middle schools “are actually performing better than the district average.” The evidence, we are told, rests on some impressive data on the academic growth of students in traditional middle schools:

  •  Hill Middle School in central Denver posted a whopping 38-point gain in eighth-grade reading.
  •  Grant Middle School in southeast Denver experienced a 10-point jump in sixth-grade reading.
  •  Henry World School in southwest Denver posted a 9-point gain in seventh-grade reading.
  •  Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver posted a staggering 23- point increase in sixth-grade writing.

These are terrific results.  But there are several problems, of which we need chose only the most obvious: They cite exactly four examples. Four data points — each from a single grade, in a single subject, in a single unspecified year and from a different school.  Four data points, each plucked delicately as a flower, bundled exquisitely together, and presented as a shimmering bouquet of truth.

But the Denver Plan was adopted back in 2005.  In the past three years alone, these four schools each have three subject scores per year in each of three grades.  That makes a total of 108 individual scores  — 108 flowers growing in a field, from which the authors selected a total of, um, four (or 3.7  percent).

Now, choosing four out of over 100 of anything means one is either highly sophisticated, or really selective.  So when the authors say that traditional middle schools “are actually performing better than the district average,” might it be that their delicate arrangement of four data points is not a representative sample of the truth for which they are calling?

Shocking suggestion — but there is a simple way to check academic growth through CDE’s Colorado Growth Model, available at Schoolview.  And at the end of this piece is a chart with the median growth percentile score, for each grade, for the past three years, at the four middle schools the authors cite. This chart comprises all 108 data points from the past three years, which are then each compared to their respective district average.  108 flowers in a field – but instead of choosing which selective few to carefully pluck from obscurity and arrange into a centerpiece under the spotlight, let’s go ahead and cultivate the entire bunch.

Cultivating the entire field

How did these schools compare when one looks at their whole crop of 108 growth scores (which include the four chosen so carefully)?

-> Over the past three years, these four schools performed better than the district average for growth just 42% of the time (45 scores out of the 108);

-> These four schools failed to surpass the DPS average for growth in any single year (47% of the time in 2011, 36% in 2010, and 42% in 2009);

-> These four schools failed to surpass the DPS average for growth in eight of the nine measured subject areas over three years.

These are growth scores: the proficiency scores are even worse.  Across Denver’s traditional middle schools in 2011, only one in every three children left 8th grade with basic proficiency in at least a single subject.

Now, don’t misunderstand, there are some good things happening at several of these schools: Skinner is coming off a terrific year where they had growth percentiles above 50 in all subjects – an achievement for which they have not received nearly the credit they deserve.  Hill is remarkably solid and, by itself, outperformed the District. There are groups of students with whom these schools are doing fairly well, and some remarkably well.

But these are exceptions, not rules.  The authors also chose one of the only two possible (out of 27) data points where Henry outperformed the district in growth. Selective florists, these board members.

Data, upside down

There is a small but consistent rising tide of academic improvement in Denver, and traditional middle schools are getting better.  But the schools these authors selected are lagging this tide, not leading it.  And true to form, the choice of these specific four schools was selective as well — for there is a separate unmentioned group of four other traditional middle schools. When all eight are ranked by their 2011 average growth score, the authors selected schools finishing 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 7th (out of 8) .  The schools they ignored ranked 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 8th (out of 8).*  Very selective florists.

Selectivity such as this is okay when arranging bouquets – but it is specifically not okay when making decisions on educational options for children.  These two members of the board of education are telling parents that if they choose any of Denver’s traditional middle schools, their kids will get a quality education.  But that is just not true – there is tremendous variation in traditional middle schools (as in all schools), and more often than not, these schools are doing less well than their peers. But no matter:

“Tell us to start making well-supported neighborhood schools the key to real school reform.”

If traditional neighborhood schools are key to our future, surely the students graduating from them are equipped to face the demands of a college preparatory high school, and eventually the modern workforce?

Again, no.  Let’s examine 8th grade average proficiency for 2011 at the four schools the authors selected.  At Hill, it is 52% – there is only a one in two chance that a student leaves the school with basic skills in just one of reading, writing, or math. And that is the high water mark.  At Grant, it’s 44%.  At Skinner, 36%. At Henry, 35%.

And guess what?  Those are the four traditional middle schools doing the best.

At the other four traditional middle schools, average proficiency in 8th grade is 33%, 25%, 25%, and 23%.  In 2011, 8th grade average proficiency across all eight traditional middle schools is just 34% — or about one in every three students. Does that sort of academic record really make traditional schools “the key to real school reform“?

The bar for responsible behavior from the governors of our school system needs to be higher, for this is not okay.  It is not okay for board members to tell parents that their traditional neighborhood middle schools are the “key to reform” when their students have less academic growth than the DPS average and only one of every three graduating 8th graders has basic skills. It is not okay to selectively choose four statistics and claim some providence of truth.

And it is expressly not okay to tell parents that these schools are the best we can do for their kids. Read the claim again:

“But the data are clear that neighborhood middle schools are exceeding the growth expectations of the Denver Plan. These schools are actually performing better than the district average, including all the newer schools.” [my emphasis]

The first part of this claim deserved analysis to see if it was true or not (it wasn’t).  The second part, that traditional neighborhood schools are “performing better than […] all the newer schools” is so preposterously wrong that no amount of selective manure can make it flower.

In 2011, two new middle schools that began in the past three years ranked first and ninth respectively for academic growth — not just in DPS, not solely among middle schools, but out of the sum total of the roughly 1,780 K-12 public schools in Colorado. Somehow in their call for truth, the two best middle schools for academic growth in Denver slipped past their listening ears (as did others).  There is no hearing aid that can cure that sort of intentional deafness.  And there is also no reason parents in traditional middle schools should not be told of these options and the differences in academic growth so they can decide for themselves which schools their kids should attend.

Why make such demonstrably false claims?

What should puzzle everyone reading this is: Why? Why make such absurd claims for traditional neighborhood schools — claims that can be debunked in less time than it took the Rockies to lose another game? Why segregate one group — traditional neighborhood middle schools — and make patently false claims of superiority?

Well, it’s election season, and the Op-Ed provided both mimicry and political cover for any candidates with whom these existing Board members share ideology. Election season means everyone digs in and guards their ideological turf.  Election season is ultimately about the votes of adults, not the academic success of kids.

And that’s the unfortunate point – this sort of perverse logic is what one gets when ideology eclipses truth: selective bouquets of carefully arranged data points, talking points, and pointless rhetoric. Four data points picked from a field of 108 and presented as definitive evidence.  Board members who wrongly accuse the administration of lying; who leak information to the press to damage their colleagues; who resort to legal shenanigans; who fail to understand, disclose, or manage finances.  All of this may be part and parcel of the viciousness of local educational politics, but at the point where board members are telling parents that schools are doing better than average when data shows the exact opposite, and are simultaneously silent about new options that are among the best in the state, well, it’s time to stop.

For this slavish devotion to ideology – the insistence that school type is what matters — goes against an argument that has been made over and over again on these and other pages, and which is critical to making any lasting improvements to public education: no one type of school guarantees success.  Most parents understand this intuitively — there are some excellent traditional schools, charter schools, and innovation schools.  There are some pretty lousy traditional schools, charter schools, and innovation schools.  Parents are different, and kids are different, and no single type of school has a priority claim over all others.

Denver’s board members should focus first on school quality, regardless of type, and they should not be selectively distorting data to make any group of schools look better than they really are.  For the truth the data tells us is that, particularly in middle school, we need the best of all types of schools so that we may no longer have the worst of any.


*Note: The eight traditional middle schools that compose this data are Grant, Henry, Hill, Kepner, Merrill, Noel, Skinner and Smiley.

First Person

A Chalkbeat roundtable: The promise and perils of charter networks like Success Academy

When we published an essay about the promise and perils of charter schools by our CEO and editor in chief Elizabeth Green last month, we heard from a lot of readers.

Elizabeth’s piece outlined her conclusions after more than a decade of reporting about charter school networks, and more specifically the Success Academy network in New York City. She wrote that charter school networks offer both great advantages — in their ability to provide rare coherence in what is taught across classrooms — and significant danger. Charter networks, she wrote, have changed public education by “extracting it from democracy as we know it.”

Some of our readers saw their own thinking reflected in her conclusions. Others had a very different take.

What was clear was that Elizabeth had kicked off a conversation that many Chalkbeat readers are ready to have, and that, as always, robust and respectful debate is good for everyone’s thinking.

So we reached out to people who engage with big questions about how schools are structured every single day, in their work or personal lives. Today, we’re sharing what they had to say. But we think this is far from the end of the conversation. If you want to add your voice, let us know.



Charter networks’ needs and goals may not be the community’s

By Tim Ware, former executive director of the Achievement Schools managed by the Tennessee Department of Education and founder of Ware Consulting Group

As the founder and former executive director of a high performing public charter middle school in Memphis, Tennessee, I am a firm believer in the promise of well-run charter schools. I also understand the limits of these schools.

A key aspect of public charter legislation is autonomy. This means that public charters decide how to staff their schools, which curriculum to use, how to allocate resources for student support, and how their daily and summer schedules work. However, this legislated autonomy creates issues that thoughtful policymakers need to address.

For instance, in Memphis, a high-performing public charter network began operating a chronically underperforming middle school as a part of a turnaround intervention effort. Despite significant improvements in learning and school culture, as well as the support of the community, the school grappled with dwindling enrollment and suffocating building maintenance costs. Fewer dollars were available to invest in high quality teaching and learning, social-emotional supports, and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, the charter operator made the difficult decision to cease operating the school.

This example illustrates the limits of public charter schools. The same autonomy that allowed them to create an approach that drove improvement for children also allowed them to decide that they could no longer operate the school. This means that, as long as autonomy exists for public charter schools (and it should), we cannot eliminate traditional districts.

The solution for historically underserved communities will be found by creating strong ecosystems of education. These ecosystems should consist of a healthy mix of traditional schools, optional schools (schools with competitive entry requirements), magnet schools, public charter schools, and private schools. By ensuring that multiple types of schools flourish and are accessible to all, parents will be able to make informed choices and select a school which best meets the needs of their most precious belonging — their child.

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Focusing on charter networks is a mistake. Districts have the same potential

By Josh Thomases, dean of innovation, policy, and research at Bank Street College of Education

Elizabeth Green’s article on Eva Moskowitz misses one important detail – districts have successfully scaled change for students. In this era of attacks on government, it is worth looking closer.

The hundreds of new small high schools opened in New York City between 2000 and 2012 transformed thousands of lives. The research firm MDRC documented that impact, showing a 9.4 percent increased graduation rate and an 8 percent increase in college attendance. Notably, this increase was driven by success with groups that school systems often fail: poorer students, black students, and students with disabilities.

This extraordinary effort happened with district educators and unions, public resources and processes.

I saw this reform inside and out. I helped create a small school in the 1990s and was part of community protests against some of the initial school closures under Chancellor Joel Klein. And, in 2004, I became responsible for the development and support of new schools within the education department.

The new schools work was an example of democracy in action – with all its imperfections. There were legendary protests against the Department of Education and arguments over race, equity and power. And through all of that, the process transformed schools.

Why the success?

  1. The point was to improve teaching and learning. Everything was looked at through this lens.
  2. Educators were the agents of change. The new schools process challenged principals, teachers, community members and parents to reimagine school.
  3. External partners multiplied the power of the changes. These included school development organizations (such as New Visions and CUNY) and local partners ranging from the Brooklyn Cyclones and South Bronx Churches. For the first six years of the reform, the unions were a partner, too.
  4. The district shifted authority towards the principal and school based staff in key areas: hiring, scheduling, budgets, and curriculum.

This is not a story of perfect success; as a district, we made mistakes and they were debated publicly. But the results show that districts can take bold action to change what is happening in schools.

Charters in New York have also demonstrated they can make an important contribution to a district. The task ahead is not to forego government, but to activate its strengths.

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Charter networks are a laboratory for consistent and high-quality instruction

By Seneca Rosenberg, chief academic officer at Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee

My first year in the classroom, I desperately wanted to be the teacher my fourth graders deserved. A diligent student, I carefully examined California’s standards, the curriculum my district had adopted, new research, and popular trade books. I quickly saw that the approaches they outlined — for how to teach reading, for example — were often in direct conflict.

Veteran teachers advised: have your students fill out the mandated worksheets to avoid scrutiny, then close your door and teach as you want. This would have been good advice if only I had known what to do behind that door to help my students to learn.

Now, as chief academic officer of Valor Collegiate Academies, a small charter school network in Nashville, I reflect daily on how our autonomy and network structure provide crucial, and often unremarked upon, resources for developing coherent systems of teaching and learning.

Like other charter networks, Valor has the flexibility to set our educational vision and then organize our own curriculum, assessments, hiring policies, student and teacher schedules, and culture to realize it. Many of our teachers and school leaders report that our shared systems, while demanding, buffer them from some of the stress that comes with making sense of dissonant policies and practices they more regularly encountered in traditional public schools.

Even more importantly, our infrastructure provides our teachers and leaders with a common framework around which expertise can be developed, shared, and improved.

For example, at Valor, our teaching teams meet frequently to study and plan from our students’ work. We have shared protocols for data analysis and teacher coaching. Each piece has been intentionally developed as part of a system. As a result, teachers have opportunities to learn that far exceed anything I had access to as a teacher — and our students benefit.

I share some of Elizabeth Green’s ambivalence about the potential impact of the rise of charters nationally, though she inflates the extent to which charters “extract” public education from democratic control — at least in states in which authorizing laws are well crafted. I am also skeptical of Moskowitz’s suggestion that perhaps “a public school system consisting principally of charter schools would be an improvement.”

But charter networks’ unique conditions do provide a useful laboratory. Critics who dismiss our high-performing charter networks’ many successes risk missing what we are learning from this critical innovation — coherent instructional systems — and how that might contribute to new possibilities for American education.

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In my city, no schools have it figured out

By Bernita Bradley, parent advocate and blogger at Detroit School Talk (and a Chalkbeat Reader Advisory Board Member)

Take all kids out of charter schools, they say. Close them down and require those students to attend their closest public school, no matter how far, how full the classrooms, and how low-performing. Hop on a bus more than 25 minutes to attend the closest high school near you and sit at the back of the class on the floor. After all, public schools were perfect before charter schools came along, and in order for them to be perfect again, we need everyone on board.

Don’t talk bad about public schools, they say. Don’t draw attention to the fact that we are still figuring out how to improve public schools and need your help. The city of Detroit must unite, be of one mind, and let all charter school leaders know that we are only supporting traditional public schools.

These arguments won’t work. I fight for quality public schools and fought for us to not lose more of them. However, if you strip parents of choice, you prove that you are not committed to providing children with what they need.

To be clear, I am an advocate for both sides. Parents don’t care about this war — we just want good schools that will educate all children equally. Can we have that conversation?

Let’s tell the truth about how, here in Detroit, both sides cherry-pick students and “counsel out” parents. Public schools just suspend students indefinitely until parents leave to find a charter school. Let’s tell the truth about how teaching to the test has affected both charter and public school teachers’ ability to make sure student academic growth is more robust.

Both sides could do better. My children have attended both kinds of schools. I’ve bused my kids 15 miles away. I’ve sent my kids to the top charter and public schools in the city. And no one — including charter schools — has this figured out.

I can’t think of a person would say they are totally happy with their child’s educational experience here in Detroit. We have come to the point where, while we’ve made friends in both charters and public schools, this is a journey full of struggles and broken promises that we would not wish on any parent.

Believe me, if we had our way there would be no need to choose. The school on the corner would be full and alive with students, parents, and teachers who have one common goal, to educate all kids.

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The rise of networks hurts the charter movement

By Steve Zimmerman, Coalition of Community Charter Schools

In the ongoing saga of Eva Moskowitz and her war against the the educational status quo, two key issues are overlooked. The first is that the rise of Success Academy has come at significant cost to the charter school movement and the democratic values that were at its genesis.

The rigidly top-down managerial approach of the Success network is the antithesis of the original idea of chartering: to free schools from district-imposed conformity so they have autonomy to innovate. There is no autonomy or innovation in a franchise. Franchisees follow the script.

The second issue is that Success Academy schools, for all intents and purposes, turn teachers into technicians. They are trained in a rigid model of classroom management with a relentless focus on student outcomes. As Elizabeth Green and others point out, the effectiveness of this system, at least in terms of test scores, is well documented and ostensibly justifies the orthodoxy of “no excuses” education reform.

Relentlessness, however, comes at a cost. Just as legendary as its record-high test scores is Success Academy’s teacher attrition. Success Academy appears to welcome an increasing number of bright young people to learn and execute the scripts, and then watch as they move on to their real careers after they burn out in three years. The consequences of this trend are chilling to imagine.

If we believe the purpose of public education to be the development of exceptional test takers, then Eva Moskowitz has clearly pointed the way to the promised land. If, however, we believe the purpose is the betterment of society and the development of the whole child, there are better models to emulate.

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Coherence is important, but charter networks aren’t necessary to achieve it

Andy Snyder, social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City

Who should decide what students learn in school? Families or individual teachers? District and charter school leaders, elected officials, or panels of professors?

Elizabeth Green’s recent essay focuses our attention on this huge question. She points out that many other countries provide “a clear sense of what students need to learn, the basic materials necessary to help them learn it (such as a curriculum).” And she argues that some charter school networks, enabled by their anti-democratic powers, are developing coherent and meaningful ideas of what to prioritize and how to teach it well.

When I began student teaching, I was shown stacks of textbooks and boxes of transparencies, quizzes, tests, homework — corporate-branded, filled with facts, empty of meaning. I switched to another mentor and recreated the trial of John Brown. Later I left one innovative public school where administrators were attempting to bend my courses into more traditional shapes for another where the interview includes, “Describe a dream course that you would love to teach” and where we teach those courses every day.

But I’ve seen in Germany the effects of a thoughtful curriculum — classes connect between disciplines and spiral powerfully between grades, and teachers adapt rather than invent.  Improvised individual efforts often produce a worse result than a strong system. That’s why I commute in New York by subway, not bicycle.

The systemic approach can break down too. Today we curse the defunding of our transit agency, and we saw what happened to the Common Core. How can charter schools develop truly excellent curriculum when their priority seems to be preparing students to win against bad bubble tests?

Students, no matter what kind of school they attend, deserve lessons crafted by well-trained practitioners who draw from the best ideas of the profession.

In the best future I can imagine, each school or district adapts curriculum from one of several coherent curriculum packages developed over years with millions of dollars and genius and honest sweat. Teachers trained in that tradition lead students in cultivating the deep questions and necessary knowledge, and students graduate with a sense of how it all adds up and what they can bring with them into the world.

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First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.