across the pond

Does England’s rapid expansion of charter-like ‘academies’ hold a lesson for the U.S.?

PHOTO: Anjelika Deo / Creative Commons

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wants more schools to be free from what she characterizes as ineffective, bureaucratic rules.

“In too many places there isn’t the kind of autonomy at a building level to really kind of break out of that mold and do things differently to meet students’ needs,” DeVos said in a recent interview.

But is that autonomy itself likely to improve schools?

A new study offers a sobering answer: England’s mass conversion of primary schools to “academies,” which function in some ways like charter schools in the United States, did not produce any academic gains for students. (Incidentally, DeVos met this week with Jo Johnson, a United Kingdom education minister; a spokesperson for DeVos said the meeting focused on higher education.)

And although exporting lessons from other countries is an inherently fraught exercise, the English experience provides a cautionary tale — and aligns with research from the U.S. In short, there’s little evidence that providing schools with additional freedom will, on its own, boost student achievement.

Great Britain’s far-reaching effort to inject autonomy into its schools

England has a system of schools known as “academies” that are overseen by a board of directors and organized as nonprofits. The academies are not bound by national rules for staffing and curriculum, though they are authorized by England’s national Department for Education.

Unlike most American charter schools, many academies were existing schools that moved outside the control of a school district, either by choice or by government mandate. England also has allowed for the creation of “free schools,” which function like academies but start from scratch.

Academies first hatched in the early 2000s, and for about a decade they grew slowly and were used mostly in an attempt to improve low-performing secondary (upper-grade) schools. That initial effort did lead to significant gains in student achievement.

In 2010, a new Conservative government supported the dramatic expansion of academies, including among primary (lower-grade) schools. By the 2016-17 school year, nearly one in four primary schools and most of England’s secondary schools were academies.

Using language similar to DeVos’s, Michael Gove, then the British education secretary, highlighted the appeal of academies to skeptics of state regulation. “Schools are taking up our offer to become academies because they recognise the huge benefits – more autonomy, more power to teachers, and an opportunity to thrive, free from interference from government,” Gove said in 2011.

But this policy doesn’t seemed to have improved student achievement in lower-grade schools, as purveyors like Gove, hoped, according to a new peer-reviewed study. The analysis, conducted by researchers at the London School of Economics, finds that primary schools that became academies between 2010–11 and 2014–15 did not see gains in on the national test given at the end of primary school at age 11.

“The English government has radically restructured its school system under an assumption that academisation delivers benefits to schools and students,” the authors write. “There is neither any sign of a positive effect nor any suggestion that benefits might be increasing with years of exposure. If anything, the opposite is the case.”

Academies that were not part of what is a called a multi-academy trust — roughly equivalent to a charter management organization — seemed to have negative effects on student achievement.

To isolate the impact of “academisation,” the researchers compare schools that became academies between 2010-11 and 2014-15 to other schools before they became academies in later school years. The study does not look at measures beyond test scores or the effects of the policy beyond the first few years.

An important question is whether and how academies used their newfound autonomy. According to an analysis by the British government, about half of primary schools changed their curriculum, how they evaluated teachers, and who was in school leadership. Relatively few lengthened the school day or hired uncertified teachers.

The latest study finds that academies also received more money than schools that didn’t convert to academies. Most of those additional resources went toward administrative costs. That’s consistent with evidence from the U.S. showing that charter schools spend more on administration, perhaps because they lack the economies of scale of larger districts. The extra money may have been one reason so many schools became academies.

The research does not examine how local school districts were affected by the swift expansion of academies, but other work suggests they suffered as they lost money.

“Reduced funding forced many of the local authorities to reduce their staffs and made it more difficult for them to maintain high quality school support personnel,” wrote Helen Ladd and Ted Fiske, American researchers who looked the British academies experiment.

Does this matter for the U.S.?

The England-based research is fairly consistent with the limited research in the United States on the academic benefits of injecting autonomy into existing schools. A 2014 study found that an initiative in Chicago Public Schools to provide more freedom to principals of high-performing schools did not lead to gains in overall student achievement. Research in Boston and Denver showed that “pilot” and “innovation” school initiatives — where schools elect to take on certain flexibilities — have not improved student test scores.

The charter school research is somewhat complicated. In both Boston and Denver, those same studies show charter schools producing big gains.

In general, though, charters perform comparably to traditional public schools on standardized tests. This suggests that specific practices — rather than autonomy itself — are responsible for the success of some charters.

Ladd, a Duke professor who has also studied charter schools in North Carolina, argues that the English experience points to the limits of autonomy.

“Flexibility may be one step, but, by itself, I’ve seen very little evidence that it can address in any serious way the problems of struggling schools,” she said.

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson, and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly 10-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators.

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters: dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

“I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, smaller schools with fewer than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation blamed huge, impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, the General Motors Foundation awarded a five-year grant for $27 million to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school.

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.

Future of Schools

Homeless students found stability at School 14. Now the school faces a big shake-up.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Anna Chaney is a parent at School 14, which will be restarted as an innovation school.

Anna Chaney didn’t expect to love School 14. She only sent her daughter because her family became homeless and it was the neighborhood school for their shelter.

But the school soon became an important part of their lives. It has a close-knit community, she said, and there is an abundance of help for families, such as a food pantry, after-school programs, and Christmas gifts.

“Once I was on my feet and able to leave the shelter, we made sure to find a house that was in the boundary,” she said.

But last year, Chaney and other parents at the school got a painful shock: After years of low test scores, Indianapolis Public Schools was considering taking drastic action at School 14 by restarting it as an innovation school. Under the plan, which was approved by the school board last week, the school will be managed by a charter operator, with a new principal, and the teachers will likely be replaced — a seismic shift for a school that has long been a place of stability for students living with instability at home.

School 14, which is also known as Washington Irving, has gotten several failing grades, with a brief period of D grades, over the last six years. But many of its parents were nonetheless surprised that the school had struggled on state tests for years.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t think their school was broken,” said James Taylor, CEO of the John Boner Neighborhood Centers, a nearby community center that works with many families at the school. “From a parents’ perspective, it felt like it was a stable environment that people wanted to have their children in.”

By restarting School 14, Indianapolis Public Schools is betting that the potential for improved test scores outweighs the risk of compromising the supportive role the school has played for families.

“We value consistency but at the same time, we are obligated and responsible for academic excellence,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. “We are not getting the results from the school in terms of performance. It’s one of those situations where we clearly need to go in a different direction.”

For parents at the school, the situation is more complicated. Chaney, for one, said that she was probably blinded to low test scores by everything else the school offered her family, and she now favors the restart.

“We love that school so much that we were kind of scared to step up and say, ‘yeah, we need to change some stuff,’ ” said Chaney, a member of the parent organizing group Stand for Children, which has supported many innovation school conversations.

School 14, a striking brick facade that stands out from the residences surrounding it on the near eastside, sits at a crossroads of Indianapolis’ wealth and poverty. With a boundary that stretches across vast swaths of downtown, its neighborhood includes the picturesque houses of Chatham-Arch and Woodruff Place — and some of the city’s homeless shelters, including the Julian Center and the Salvation Army Shelter for Women and Children.

While affluent families in the city’s downtown often choose magnet and private schools, School 14 has long served many homeless students, at least one time having the largest proportion in the city.

Last year, the school enrolled 456 elementary school students, and it served more children living in shelters — 14 students — than any other school in the district. (The school is expanding to 8th grade.) Federal law requires public schools to continue busing students to their old school if they become homeless, and nearly every school in the district educates some homeless children. There were several campuses with higher overall rates of homelessness, which includes students who were forced to move in with friends or relatives or live in hotels.

But while the challenges at School 14 are not unique, advocates and families say it has been shaped by its unusually transient population, and it has become a hub to connect local nonprofits with families.

When Ebony Turner, who has a 4th grader at the school, was laid off, she would often stop by School 14 to use the computers to look for work, and it was a staffer at the school who helped her find a job as a teaching assistant. “They have helped me tremendously,” said Turner, adding that staff at the school always advocate for what’s best for students.

With the district’s new plan for the school, it could be a radically different place next fall. The board voted last week for the campus to be converted to an innovation school managed by URBAN ACT Academy, a new charter school founded by Nigena Livingston.

As an innovation school, School 14 will still be considered part of the district. But the school will be operated by Livingston without daily oversight from the district. In the four years since the state created innovation schools, Indianapolis Public Schools has restarted four struggling schools with innovation partners. Most of those schools have seen improvements in test scores.

Livingston, who has been an educator for over 15 years, moved to Indianapolis in 2016 after she won a fellowship from The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that has supported many of the innovation schools in the district. She plans to use “place-based learning” at School 14, a philosophy that incorporates the surrounding community into the projects students pursue at school.

When students are struggling, parents, educators, and community groups need to come together to support them, said Livingston.

“These are all of our students and we are all responsible for student outcomes,” said Livingston. “We are all working together.”

Since Livingston was chosen as a potential operator for School 14, she has won support from many of the community partners and parents at the school. Taylor of the Boner Centers said that he believed her vision for the school and her focus on place-based learning could help stitch the school into the community.

But the plan to restart the school has also inspired resistance.

School board member Elizabeth Gore, who voted against the proposal last week, said the district could have improved the school by giving it more support.

“Using outside partners is one way, but not the only answer when we have a good core of principals and staff to work on our own to restore the academic quality,” she said.

Several parents at School 14 — some supporting the restart and some opposing it — seemed to share many of the same concerns about the plan. They said the school would benefit from newer technology, and they would be happy to see a new curriculum. But they also said they would like some current teachers to remain.

When the school restarts, however, many of the teachers will likely leave. Teachers at innovation are employed by the operator rather than the district. In order for current teachers from School 14 to remain at the school, they will need to apply for positions with URBAN ACT Academy. If Livingston hires them, they will be giving up their contracts with the district, and the protections of their union membership.

Because the staff and parents learned in the fall that School 14 would likely be restarted, educators there have already been in limbo for months.

“There has to be a better way,” said Judith Fleurimond, a parent of two children at the school and a member of Stand. “Teachers are important. A teacher who has worked at a school for that many years shouldn’t have to just get up and pack and leave.”