spring breakthrough

Spring break at school? New research says it helps middle schoolers catch up

PHOTO: Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Students transition to gym class from Zoe Pierce's sixth grade science class at the Impact School in Springfield, Massachusetts in January 2017. Working with state officials, Springfield education leaders have crafted a first-of-its-kind plan for a Massachusetts school system, spinning off the middle schools into what effectively is their own miniature school system.

It has spread across Massachusetts as a school turnaround strategy: bring students into school over spring break for hours and hours of extra instruction.

That could be a recipe for unhappy kids. But recent research in Lawrence and now Springfield, two Massachusetts towns under pressure to improve their schools, suggests that students don’t mind spending those weeks in school — and they really benefit from it.

In Springfield, students who participated were much more likely to score proficient on state exams later that year. They were less likely to be suspended afterwards, too.

“This is a minimally disruptive strategy for helping struggling students catch up,” said Beth Schueler of the University of Virginia, who studied the program. “You don’t have to fire or find a large pool of new teachers.”

It’s the latest research pointing to the benefits of intensive small group tutoring. But the Springfield program wasn’t open to all: Students were invited based on whether they were seen as likely to benefit and to behave, raising questions about whether the model helps the kids who need it most.

What are these vacation academies?

Schueler’s study focuses on nine low-achieving middle schools in Springfield, all part of a partnership between the state, local teachers union, and district formed to head off a state takeover. The spring break program (known as “empowerment academies”) started in 2016, during the partnership’s first year, in a bid to boost test scores.

Springfield’s April vacation academy focused on math — particularly on the academic standards that frequently come up on state exams, the researchers noted. Classes were small, with about one teacher for every 10 students. It amounted to an additional 25 hours of math instruction, or approximately an extra month worth of exponents and equations.

The idea was extra math help, yes, but also designed to be appealing for students. Schools feature award assemblies and special theme days, like crazy hair days or superhero and villain dress-up days.

“It’s not just boot camp,” said Chris Gabrieli, the head of a nonprofit that helped implement the city’s turnaround approach. “If this was miserable for kids, it would never work the second year.”

The model was pioneered by Jeff Riley, now the Massachusetts commissioner of education, as principal of a Boston middle school. He took the idea to Lawrence as the head of that district’s state takeover.

Who got to attend?

Students were chosen for the program based on who was seen as likely to benefit and behave. That meant leaders avoided students with attendance or behavior issues, an approach used at the school where Riley piloted the model, too.

In Springfield, once the school decided which students were eligible, leaders allowed Schueler to randomly assign some the opportunity to attend or not in order to study the program. (Some students who didn’t win a spot attended anyway, and some students who won a spot didn’t attend, something the study accounted for.)

Ultimately, the students who went to vacation academy were different than the student population as a whole — only 10 percent had a disability, compared to 22 percent of all sixth- and seventh-graders in the district. Attendees were also somewhat more likely to be girls, but were equally likely to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Teachers applied to work over the break, and got bonuses — $2,500 in Springfield — for doing so.

How does the program affect students?

In terms of test scores, students on the cusp of clearing the state’s proficiency bar saw the biggest gains.

Students at school over spring break were much more likely to score proficient on the state math test: about 35 percent did compared to 25 percent of similar students who didn’t attend, according to Schueler’s study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy.

Their average test scores were higher than those of students who didn’t attend the academy, though that boost wasn’t statistically significant.

Students were also less likely to be suspended after the vacation academy. While about 10 percent of control students were suspended once or more, less than 7 percent of students who went to the academy were.

The academy also may have helped students’ grades, with averages in both math in reading improving slightly, though that was not statistically significant.

How a student benefited may be connected to which version of the program he or she attended. In some academy programs, students had one teacher all day; in others they rotated among teachers who worked on different standards. Students in the first group saw bigger declines in suspensions; students in the second group saw larger test-score gains.

“It could be that the additional time … provided by the stability of a single teacher allowed for the development of more deep and positive teacher-student relationships,” Schueler wrote. “It is also possible that the program changed educator perceptions of participating students in a way that decreased their likelihood to turn to exclusionary discipline for those children.”

Should other districts adopt this model?

This kind of intensive academic help has been shown to work over and over again. A previous study found test score improvements from the same vacation academy model in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and programs that provide individualized tutoring throughout the year have produced even bigger gains in Boston, Chicago and Houston.

But these programs have faced difficulty growing because they come with a hefty price tag — sometimes upwards of a few thousand dollars per student. The Springfield program costs about $600 per student, which is lower because its student-teacher ratio is higher.

Tutoring, Schueler said, “has a high upfront cost that I think deters many districts from pursuing this as a key strategy. These vacation academies are potentially a more scalable approach.”

It still might be a worthwhile investment for districts. But they will have to contend with the fact that the model doesn’t include certain students — particularly those with behavior and attendance problems, who could be in the most academic trouble.

“This is not an intervention aimed at helping every single kid of every type,” said Gabrieli.

Of students who didn’t participate in the program, Schueler said, “We don’t know, if they actually ended up coming, if we would see the same effects.”

Gradebooks

Three Chicago principals and the war against Fs

If you’re a principal intent on disruption, here’s one place to start: Ban Fs.

“Fs and Ds are worthless,” Principal Juan Carlos Ocon told a group of rapt educators Thursday. The principal of Benito Juarez Community Academy in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Pilsen spoke as part of a panel on improving student performance at a conference hosted by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

The event took place during a daylong look at the consortium’s latest round of pivotal research, which draws a clear line from ninth grade performance to high school graduation.

Conferees discussed the latest data showing freshman GPAs in core classes — such as reading, math, and science — dropping a third of a point from their eighth-grade GPAs. One key finding: Failure in non-core classes, like PE, far exceeds similar eighth- grade numbers. But researchers didn’t uncover why as many Chicago freshmen fail PE as science. (Read more here.)

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat
Sarah Duncan, left, of the Network for College Success, moderates a panel on grades at a conference Oct. 11, on findings of the To & Through Project. Also appearing on the panel at the University of Chicago are Juan Carlos Ocon, Chad Adams, and Wayne Bevis.

Joined on the panel by fellow principals Chad Adams of Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park on the North Side and Wayne Bevis of Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a test-in school in West Englewood, Ocon said he took a hard position to “ban Fs from kids’ lives.”

“It actually increases rigor,” he said, explaining how the mindset of his school has shifted from punitive deadlines to encouraging learning at a student’s pace. Any high schooler who isn’t proficient in a subject by June must keep going to class until the light bulb glows, Ocon said. “Our classes do not end in June when classes end in traditional high schools — our classes extend through second week of August.”

Panelists Adams and Bevis are also “blowing up” the idea of Fs. At Adams’ school, located in an immigrant-rich neighborhood and inside which 40 some languages are spoken, Fs aren’t quite verboten — but, every five weeks, teachers have to come clean with how many Fs they give.

“Teachers didn’t like it as first, but then they started to hold each other accountable,” Adams said. I have the same kids (as you do) in your class, but, look, I gave 4 Fs versus your 54. What are you doing?”

Bevis has done away with As through Fs entirely and moved to a numeric grading system that runs 1 to 4. He’s also implemented a buildingwide revision policy, which can be controversial at some schools. After receiving a grade, students have at least two weeks to resubmit revised work and show they have improved their skills. “Some teachers go longer than two weeks, up to a semester,” he said.

Though located in very different areas of the city, each school has seen significant gains in student performance, with consistent, year-over-year rises in graduation rates and “freshman on track” percentages — that is, the percentage of freshmen who are on track to graduate as measured at the end of ninth grade, a metric developed by the University of Chicago and a key measure of success in Chicago.

The principals used the panel session to share other practices they see improving performance in their schools.

At Lindblom, for example, a revolving weekly “colloquium class” offers students extra help in a particular subject. Students must submit requests by Monday night, and with input from teachers a computer spits out their assigned special class, which can change week-to-week. “There’s a consistent understanding among teachers and students that we need to target which skills they struggle with,” Bevis said.

At Juarez, teachers spent the past year studying and recommending a set of core developmental competencies, a list that includes perseverance and relationship skills. Daily lessons are built in during an advisory period, and the staff is on board since they helped create them, Ocon said.

Adams echoed the idea of building a high-performance culture starting with his teacher corps. He’s likewise building a set of core values to express what a Sullivan High School graduate represents. When it comes to creating a learning culture, staff buy-in is essential, he said. When it comes to change, “if the teachers aren’t ready, the kids won’t be ready.”

 

held back

Holding middle-schoolers back causes dropout rates to spike, new research finds

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
A student opens his locker between classes at Overland Trail Middle School on August 17, 2017, in Brighton, Colorado. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

To hold back or not to hold back? For many policymakers in the early 2000s, the answer was clear: it was time to stop allowing struggling students to keep moving through school.

“It’s absolutely insidious to suggest that a functionally illiterate kid going from third grade, it’s OK to go to fourth. Really?” explained Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, where he curtailed the practice known as social promotion.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt the same way. He introduced a policy of holding back low-performing students and fired appointees to the city’s school board who pushed back in 2004.

The idea was that the stricter standards would help students and schools alike. More time in school would give students the chance to catch up, allowing them to avoid the academic failure that could result from being continually promoted with big gaps in their skills. Thousands of additional students in Florida, New York, and across the country were held back in line with that theory.

Now, enough time has passed to see what happened to some of those students years later — and two recent studies reach a decidedly dire conclusion.

Being held back a grade in middle school, researchers found, substantially increased the chance that students dropped out of high school. In Louisiana, being retained in either fourth or eighth grade increased dropout rates by nearly 5 points. In New York City, the spike was startling: dropout rates were 10 points higher than similar students who weren’t held back.

A policy meant to make sure students stay on track, then, appears to have caused more students to leave school altogether.

“The takeaway from this would be that, at a minimum, we should be retaining fewer middle school students,” said Paco Martorell, a professor at the University of California – Davis who studied the New York City policy.

“If we’re talking about a middle school policy, I would strongly suggest against that at this point,” said Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University who studied the effects in Florida.

Whether retention ultimately helps or harms students remains a crucial question. Though some places have relaxed their policies, others are adopting stricter rules. Michigan’s new retention law, for one, threatens to ensnare the vast majority of Detroit’s third graders.

The research also offer some better news, including out of Florida. Holding back students when they are younger doesn’t have such clear negative effects. And summer school, which often goes along with retention, can help students, potentially outweighing the downsides of retention policies.

Here’s what else the new research tells us.

Retention seems to increase drop-out rates.

The latest studies focus on Louisiana, New York City, and Florida. Each compares similar students, some who just barely earned a passing score on a test and others who just missed the cut-off, allowing researchers to zero in on the effects of being held back.

In New York City, the grade retention policy initially seemed promising. A 2013 analysis showed that retained students scored higher on state tests when they eventually reached the next grade.

The latest study, released earlier this year by RAND, looks at the long-run effects for those students held back between 2004 and 2012 and paints a starkly different picture. Students who were held back in middle school were much more likely to drop out of high school than the students who also went to summer school but who moved to the next grade on schedule.

There were no clear effects for students held back in elementary school, according to that recent RAND study. (An older Chicago paper found something similar: retaining eighth-graders increased future dropout rates, but retaining sixth-graders had no clear effects.)

In Louisiana, the recent research found that retention increased high school dropout rates for fourth or eighth graders who were held back between 1999 and 2005.

The rules around retention vary widely. In most cases, students are held back after they fail to pass a test, sometimes after summer help. In Florida, policymakers focused their policy on third grade, but other places, like New York City, introduced strict holdover policies in a number of grades.

There’s also lots of variation in just how often students are held back. Nationally, about 2 percent of students are retained each year, a number that has held steady or modestly declined since the mid-1990s.

In New York City, only 1 percent of students were retained across a number of grades. But in Louisiana, about 7 percent of fourth-graders and 8 percent of eighth-graders were held back. When the policy was first introduced in Florida, around 13 percent of third-graders were kept back, a number that eventually fell to around 5 percent.

Helping students catch up over the summer is beneficial.

Another recent study offers better news: In Florida, retention of third-graders in the early 2000s had no effect on their high school graduation rates, and it actually improved students’ grades in high school. The study also found that retained students saw an immediate test-score bump, though that faded over time.

What explains the more positive results? It’s hard to know, because the Florida study looks at not just retention but a package of policies that went along with it, including summer school and assigning students in the repeated grade extra reading help.

The Louisiana paper may shed some light on this question. It was able to separate the consequences of being held back — which appear to be negative — from the consequences of going to summer school. Sending eighth graders to summer school decreased their chances of dropping out of school down the line and their likelihood of being convicted of a crime before their 18th birthday.

In other words, the different results suggest that being held back hurts students, but the summer support that goes along with it helps them.

Retention is costly, though perhaps less so than some think.

There’s another downside to holding students back: it’s expensive to pay to keep students in school for more time. It costs both the school system and the student, who potentially misses out on an extra year of earning as an adult.

“Being retained may not confer benefits that justify spending an additional year in the same grade,” the New York City researchers concluded. “This is especially true given our finding that retention entails significant financial costs.”

The New York City study finds that each retained student costs the system roughly an extra $2,600 — a large amount, though far less than annual per-student spending.

White students are more likely to avoid being held back.

The consequences of retention, good or bad, are disproportionately felt by some groups of kids.

For instance, in Louisiana 85 percent of retained students were black, even though black students represented less than half of students in the state’s public schools at the time. In New York City, black students were more than twice as likely to be retained as white students with similar test scores.

Nationally, black and Hispanic students are substantially more likely to be held back. Some of that can be tied to test scores, but other research shows that white, affluent families are particularly likely to circumvent policies around holding students back.

In Florida, children whose mothers did not hold a high school degree were 7 percentage points more likely to be retained compared to their peers with equal academic performance whose mothers were college educated, another study found. The students who moved ahead anyway often took advantage of exemptions, like portfolios created by teachers to demonstrate that students should move on to the next grade.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of retention.

Where does this new long-term research leave us?

Although retention itself may be harmful to students, the combination of retention and summer school in Florida and Louisiana was neutral or positive. One potential takeaway is that districts should maintain extra help for struggling students while scrapping retention.

But those policies are intimately connected in many places, so it’s not clear that you can pull out one part of the policy like a Jenga piece and have the rest of the apparatus remain intact. Indeed, new research by Winters, the Florida researcher, suggests that the threat of retention can cause students do better in school.

It might also spur changes across a school or community. That’s what is happening in Detroit, where the retention law has focused attention on young students’ reading. “We have to get involved now and do anything we can to get the proficiency level up for the second-graders,” as one Detroit principal told Chalkbeat in August.

Martorell, the Davis professor, says we still need more evidence to know whether there are hidden benefits to holding students back. But he warned that existing research indicates that some students are paying a price.

“Policymakers should think long and hard about whether these other effects that are not captured by these studies … are significant enough to incur monetary costs and potential negative effects on students,” he said.