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Gary Rubinstein’s Blog: The Three Stooges of School Turnaround

I’ve watched this event twice to spare you the pain of having to watch it once, but feel free to watch the 90 minute video if you’d like and let me know if you think I’ve left anything vital out of my analysis.

Turnaround Districts are the new fad.  Based on the supposed success of the two initial ones, the RSD and the ASD, proposals to create similar districts are either underway or already approved in places like Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia.

I actually don’t have a problem with the idea of taking the schools that have low test scores, whatever the reason for those might be, and for creating a district where those schools get extra resources to help overcome whatever obstacles have been holding them back.  I’d want to see the extra resources going toward wrap-around services and smaller class sizes and extra curricular activities and things like that.  These ‘Achievement School Districts’ as the name of the Tennessee one seems to have caught on, rely on the strategy of turning the schools into charters and firing a lot of veteran teachers.  In my research of these turnaround districts, I was not surprised to learn that they have not been successful, not even by their own narrow measure of test scores.

So I was eager to see this panel discussion since there has been so much attention to replicating these school districts and the public statements by the leaders of these three in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan have been so scripted and careful, it would be nice to see all these leaders together sharing their wisdom.  Keep in mind that these aren’t just three random people up there.  In recent times we have seen a mass exodus of ‘A-list’ reformers.  Gone are Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Cami Anderson, and Kevin Huffman.  They have gone into their underground bunkers safe from any fallout as the ed ‘reform’ edifice crumbles.  So these three on the panel actually represent the new ‘A-list’ reformers.  Which is why the incredible lack of wisdom and insights by these three was very revealing.  I am certain that in his private moments, Michael Petrilli wishes that he hadn’t done this panel.  Sometimes, as the proverb goes, it is better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

In his introduction, Petrilli reminds us that since teacher’s unions capture school boards it is not often possible to quickly make big changes to how schools are run so state run Achievement Districts offer a way around that.  Kind of like a huge charter school, it is a district that is given the flexibility to innovate in return for, supposedly, more accountability.

Before the panel started, there was an introduction by Nelson Smith who wrote four different reports, one for each of these districts and one summary report.

Of the three districts, the one I know the most about is the Tennessee ASD.  His report on the ASD came out before the first year of the district was even complete.  About the ASD goal of taking schools in the bottom 5% in terms of test scores and, within 5 years, getting them into the top 25% in terms of test scores, Smith writes:

Is this last target realistic? That bottom-to-top jump becomes just a bit less daunting when translated into actual numbers. Each school must attain, at minimum, a proficient/advanced rate of 55 percent in both reading and math in order to perform in the top 25 percent statewide. Barbic thinks it’s doable and is betting on gains of 8 percent a year to get there.

I don’t know Smith’s background, but anyone who knows anything about schools knows how silly this is.  Most of the ASD schools are 5-8 middle schools.  So for any testing year, 25% of the students in the school are ones they only had for less than a year, 25% they had for two years, 25% for three, and 25% for four.  So on average each year they have had the average student for 2.5 years.  Then of course they lose their 8th graders and get a new crop of 5th grades.  So how is it they can expect to increase 8% a year continually when they keep on getting new students who are in the bottom 5% of test scores, supposedly.  Even if they are amazing at what they do, they just don’t have the students long enough to get continual improvement that way which is why it has never been done.

In his summary report of all three districts, just recently released, Smith fails to mention that the ASD got the lowest possible score on their value-added growth metric for the 2013-2014 school year.  Not that I am a big believer in the validity of those metrics, but ‘reformers’ certainly believe in them so that statistic is conspicuously absent from his report.

Then the panel gets underway and three times I hear a new catch-phrase three times.  In terms of accountability, schools that are not measuring up and teachers who are not getting the test scores they should will “lose the privilege of educating kids.”  Such a nice way to say ‘get shut down’ or ‘get fired.’

RSD’s Patrick Dobard tells us that proficiency in the RSD has gone from 23% in 2007 to 57% today.  The swamp of Louisiana data is a dangerous one to explore, I’ve learned.  They make up so many different statistics and measuring things until they find one that makes them look good.  I checked with the master of Louisiana data, Mercedes Schneider, and she pointed out to me that their 4th to 8th grade test scores gains are not consistent with their flat high school scores.  In the Smith report he points out that the RSD ACT scores (despite having specific ACT classes in their high schools, I know) are way below the already very low Louisiana average.  I’ve also studied the AP results from the RSD and they have virtually no students passing AP tests so it is hard for me to get enthusiastic about the miraculous results they are getting in Louisiana.  According to The College Board, Louisiana is second to last in the country, just ahead of Mississippi, in terms of AP test results.

Even the Smith report concedes:

So while the RSD turned around the downward trajectory of many New Orleans schools and pointed them toward success, those schools are still far from producing the “college and career readiness” that students need today. Just 12 percent of RSD pupils were at the Mastery level on the 2014 state exams, compared to 42 percent in the OPSB schools

As far as scaling up these Achievement School Districts to other states, Barbic worries that there are only a limited number of charter schools who are capable of pulling off this kind of turnaround so there will be a major supply vs. demand problem with different states fighting for this limited resource.  What’s ironic about this is that Barbic was one of the founders of YES prep in Houston.  Next year YES was supposed to take over a school in the ASD but they pulled out at the last minute causing Barbic to say that some schools aren’t cut out for this kind of work — saying this about the charter school that he founded!  I also learned here that not all the ASD schools are run by charters.  The ASD, themselves, run five schools.  One of those schools, however, had the worst performance of any of the ASD schools.

Barbic’s comments about the difficulty of scaling up is one that should be considered seriously.  You would think that if there are some charter schools that have the ability to perform these kinds of turnarounds, that the school districts would be privy to what their secrets are.  If they are using a certain set of textbooks or teaching methods or some kind of technology, it would make sense for the ASD to be permitted to observe what is going on in one of their schools and to replicate what that school is doing.  It should be part of the deal that these amazing charters do not keep their methods so secret so that everyone can benefit from their wisdom.

And the same goes for these superstar superintendents.  These three were recruited because they were the gurus of school turnaround.  Surely they have some secrets that they could share with us, maybe toss us a crumb or something?  After all they probably got flown out to DC for this thing, come on give us something.  But throughout the 90 minutes there are no secret morsels of wisdom they share leading me to believe that they truly have nothing, these rock stars of ed reform.

An interesting part is where Petrilli asks them what sorts of targets do they have to define their success.  In the RSD, we learn, charters have 5 years to get from an ‘F’ to a ‘D’ and then five more years to get from a ‘D’ to an ‘C’.  Even though I don’t know about the scientific validity of these letter grades, that does sound like a reasonable rate of expected progress.  But look at the other two districts.  The ASD says they can get from the bottom 5% (they don’t have letter grades, but this would be ‘F’ by most measures) to top 25% (I’d think a ‘B’ if not an ‘A’) in five years (though Barbic recently said it might take six or seven after all.)  In a recent interview, Barbic claimed that three of the ASD schools are actually on track to meet the goal.  I”ve investigated these claims in other posts and they are nonsense.

In a very revealing moment, Barbic explains that he’s the one who came up with the bottom 5% to top 25% in five years.  He could have just said bottom 5% to bottom 10% and he wouldn’t be taking such heat now, but having such an ambitious goal had a positive side effect since “It created a momentum and an urgency that we needed to create to get this off the ground” and allowed them to recruit ‘partners’ and leaders and teachers. In other words, it was a lie, but it was a worthwhile one since it tricked people into giving us their money.

Barbic makes some bizarre claims about the success so far of the ASD like that the bottom 5% ‘priority schools’ are growing ‘four times faster than the rest of the state.’  To put this in context, the rest of the state of Tennessee has had flat math scores and declining reading scores.  So if the state went up, on average, of .25%, then ‘four times’ that is just 1%. [Update: Chris Barbic, whom I have known for over 20 years, has gotten back to me with clarification on this. Separate from the typical math and reading scores, Tennessee has a metric called SSR (School Success Rate) which is a composite score for all the different test scores. Even though math and reading scores have been flat, in this metric K-8 priority schools have gone up from 15.5 to 23.2 or 7.7 ‘points’ over a two year period while non-priority schools have gone from 52.7 to 54.0 for a change of 1.3. For high schools, priority schools increased by 15.6 points from 17.1 to 32.7 while non-priority only increased 3.2 points from 58.8 to 62.0. There are some metrics that make it tough to compare two things that have such different starting points. Like it might be tougher for someone who is already in good shape to lose 10 pounds than it is for someone who weighs 500 pounds to lose 40 pounds. I don’t know a lot about this metric, but at least there is some justification for this claim.]

Petrilli is skeptical of the ASD goal, just commenting “That’s a tough goal.”  When Veronica Conforme speaks about Detroit’s EAA and their goal of having schools move from the bottom to the 50% mark in three years, Petrilli just says that it “would be a remarkable accomplishment.”  If ‘reformers’ are so big on accountability, I would have like to see Petrilli really ‘push back’ on them and find out what the purpose is of setting impossible targets and if this, in the long run, will be bad for the ‘reform’ movement as they need to admit defeat and probably resign (don’t worry about them, though, they will surely make quadruple in retirement).

About community resistance to schools being replaced with charter schools, Barbic notes that the community resistance is deceptive since at the school takeover meetings, 95% of the people in the room are teachers.  About those teachers and their views he says “Teacher voice and community voice are not the same thing” and that “Teacher voice should be a voice, not the voice.”  This implies the ‘selfish teacher’ narrative.  They don’t care about the students, just about themselves and their jobs.  As I know some of the people who attended those meetings, I can say with confidence that the teachers I know who stood against giving away a school to a charter school, they were speaking on behalf of the community not for themselves.

Since improving schools is costly, Petrilli asks about how these districts decide where the money should go.  Here, Dobard is quite ambiguous, saying that they have had to be strategic “we have to put more money into x and not y.”

There is a ‘reformer’ theory that the threat of competition with charters and with Achievement School Type districts will foster health competition which will raise the game of nearby schools. In one of the more amusing parts of this discussion we see Dobard at RSD actually take some credit for the fact that the nearby Orleans Parish School District has seen rising test scores much more than RSD. But Orleans Parish has not been doing the reckless types of reform of the RSD, so how can this be? Also Barbic at the ASD takes some credit for the fact that another intervention district in Tennessee, called the iZone, has been cleaning the clock of ASD when it comes to test score improvement.

During the question and answer period, a KIPP teacher got up and said that he’s seen kids make amazing progress but felt that “poverty might be a limit eventually” and wanted to know what these leaders thought about applying resources to anti-poverty measures.

A few years ago, at least one of these leaders would be quick to quote Michelle Rhee with a “poverty is not an excuse.”  This time, that did not happen.  The RSD and the EAA people both said that they invest in wrap-around services.  Conforme said that they provide three meals a day.  Barbic was quiet on this one.  I don’t think wraparound services are at all part of the ASD mission, even though he recently said in an interview that the students in the ASD have been tougher to help than his students back at YES Houston since the YES Houston had ‘immigrant poverty’ while the ASD students had ‘generational poverty.’

Watching these three turnaround gurus quote misleading statistics, give vague abstract answers, and really offer nothing in terms of concrete ideas from what they’ve learned in trying (unsuccessfully) to turnaround their respective districts, made me think that rather than call these ASDs, it would be more accurate to call them BSDs.

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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. ...