Time will tell

Is one year enough time to make a bad school better? Experts are divided.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Phalen Leadership Academies is running School 103.

As Indianapolis Public Schools pursues a radical new approach to saving its most troubled schools, district leaders face an increasingly pressing question: Are their reforms working?

In the first year at the first failing school to be restarted as an “innovation” school, the number of students who passed state tests actually dropped. But whether or not one year of test scores says much about a school depends on who you ask.

It is “absolutely” concerning that student passing rates dropped at School 103 in its first year in the district’s innovation program, said Gary Henry, a professor at Vanderbilt who has evaluated turnaround efforts in Tennessee and North Carolina.

“Most of the recent literature on turnover … showed positive results in the first year,” he said.

When the district converts struggling schools to “innovation” status, new principals are given full control over their budgets, staffing and curriculum. Teachers must reapply for jobs and they are not part of the IPS union. But the restarted schools are still part of the district and they still accept all neighborhood kids.

Since the innovation program began, IPS board has restarted three failing schools as innovation schools. The district’s first test case was School 103, where the charter network Phalen Leadership Academies took over management in 2015.

School supporters were likely hoping to see scores creep up a bit since Phalen took over but when ISTEP scores were released this month, the school saw its passing rate on ISTEP fall from 9.6 to 4.6 percent.

Henry says that’s a bad sign. In a recent review of research, he found that every turnaround that was successful had improvements in test scores and proficiency rates in the first year.

But other experts argue that it can take time for new or restarted schools to ramp up.

Brian Gill, a fellow with Mathematica Policy Research, lead a study of takeover schools that found that scores fell in the first year but rebounded in later years.

“I would not expect turnaround efforts that involve major changes to show improvements in student achievement in the first year,” Gill wrote in an email.

The leader of the charter network that runs School 103, Earl Phalen, takes ISTEP passing rates seriously, and he said that in the longterm, the school aims to exceed the state average. But for the first year, test scores weren’t their top priority. Instead, school officials were focused on creating a warm culture where students feel supported and encouraged to be leaders.

“You’ve got to get culture right first before you can really focus on the academics,” Phalen said. “Next year, we expect the state results to go up significantly.”

Some experts agree that the district shouldn’t expect immediate improvement in test scores. In part that’s because it could take a few years for their work to translate into test scores, said Steven Glazerman, who is also at Mathematica. For example, if a school is doing a good job in the early grades, it would be years before those students take the state standardized test.

But other researchers are more concerned by declining passing rates. Henry said that most of the research that shows it takes a few years for a turnaround school to improve was focused on less intense interventions when the teachers were retrained, rather than replaced.

At schools like the IPS innovation schools, where the existing teachers must reapply for their jobs, he said the district should expect to see immediate improvements in student test scores.

Despite his misgivings, Henry said that turnaround schools should be given at least a few years to make improvements before the district decides whether to renew their contracts.

Both Glazerman and Henry agree that there are other indicators the district can look to when it is evaluating restarted schools in the early years.

The turnaround schools Henry has studied where leaders recruit high-quality, experienced teachers and principals have improved significantly, he said. But turnaround schools with novice teachers and principals have actually had drops in performance.

“The disruption (to teaching staff) is probably needed, but the results will depend on what happens after the disruption,” Henry said. “Who is recruited? Are they experienced, high-quality, dedicated teachers and do they get compensation for the extra work that is required in these turnaround schools?”

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.