Community Schools: Steady Improvement for Students and Support for Families

A test-score-yardstick and a short time line—those are the tools we use these days to evaluate school improvement. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top gave us four approved plans for school “turnaround,” and if the school wasn’t turned around quick enough, the most stringent of the four was imposed—closure.

Policy makers have assumed that school turnaround could be neat, quick, and cheap only to discover that the solution too often made things worse for the students and their communities. Rachel Cohen, writing for The American Prospect, describes the impact of school closures on neighborhoods—specifically in Chicago where 50 schools were closed at the end of the 2012-2013 school year: “While black students were 40 percent of Chicago’s school district population in 2013, they made up 88 percent of those affected by the closures.”  “(T)hree years later, Chicago residents are still reeling from the devastating closures—a policy decision that has not only failed to bring about notable academic gains, but has also destabilized communities, crippled small businesses, and weakened local property values. With the city struggling to sell or repurpose most of the closed schools, dozens of large buildings remain vacant, becoming targets of crime and vandalism throughout poor neighborhoods.” “In Chicago… 87.5 percent of students affected by closures did not move to significantly higher-performing schools.”

A mass of social science research demonstrates the correlation between students’ standardized test scores and their families’ economic circumstances. Recognizing the futility of the school turnaround plans that pretend it is easy to raise test scores, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio has instead been turning schools in the poorest neighborhoods into full-service, wraparound Community Schools with health and dental clinics and services for parents located right in the school building. Here is how the Children’s Aid Society, the huge social service agency in NYC that has been supporting the development of Community Schools, describes these education-social service hybrids: “A Community School is a strategy for organizing the resources of the school and the community around student success. It is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, services, supports and opportunities leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities. Schools become centers of the community and are open to everyone —all day, evenings and Saturdays, year round.”

Supporters of Mayor de Blasio’s plan worry, however, that in New York, politicians will hold Community Schools accountable for impossibly quick test score turnarounds. Earlier this week a reporter for Chalkbeat New York interviewed Mark House, principal of a Community School in Manhattan’s Washington Heights that serves students in grades 6-12. The school, Community Health Academy of the Heights, part of the Community School network sponsored by New York City United Federation of Teachers, “is 92 percent Hispanic and roughly 90 percent poor.”  Test scores have slowly crept upward, and the state has only recently removed this school from its list of struggling schools.

House, the school’s principal, describes the school’s resource coordinator who recently helped a desperate mother: “finding money to get the power back on, connecting the family to a food pantry, and helping to find… affordable housing.”  “To House, these are the moments that demonstrate the power of community schools—and their pitfalls. Though the Washington Heights principal firmly believes in the idea that students can only learn if their basic needs outside the building are met—a key element of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to struggling schools—he is also wary of the argument that infusing schools with social services will immediately lead to academic payoffs.”

House explains: “Turning a kid’s lights back on doesn’t make their test scores go up. It’s the precondition for learning.”  He continues: “We do a lot of adult education, a lot of ESL programming for adults, we do two different exercise classes. And the building is open until 9:30 with a lot of people in it and again on Saturdays…. The students and their families have major medical needs, they’ve neglected things.  We’re discovering kids in eleventh grade that need glasses, we’re discovering kids in tenth grade who haven’t seen a dentist in four years… So opening a school-based clinic has been fairly remarkable because normally the state indicates you have to have over a thousand students to open one. We found a workaround to do it with only 640 students that works for all the critics, but it’s taken a while.”

The complexity of meshing social service and health programs with educational programming is complicated and expensive. The school has connected with four different agencies to provide glasses for students in need, but the expense has shut down three of these partnerships. “That’s what we’re struggling with, and doing it again and again. So while it makes sense that everybody should see the board and have glasses on their face, the actually accomplishment of that takes endless numbers of hours and is a really frustrating process.”

House worries about the state’s reliance on rising test scores for evaluation: “The thing I’m nervous about is the speed at which they’re going to expect to see results. We’ve been doing this work for a decade, and are now starting to see the fruits of our labor… We’ve held fast to this idea for long enough to actually watch it grow and bloom. And it looks like it’s finally paying off… People would come and visit our school… they came from the state, they came from the city. We had quality reviews, folks coming in and really picking it apart… People from the Department of Education would come in concerned about our results and they would say, ‘We don’t think that what we see here matches your results.’ And each time I’ve had to argue, it will come. It will come and it’s going to take time.”

What has this school accomplished? Here is House’s estimate: “If you said: Plunk a school down in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States, take anybody who walks in the door after all of the top performing students in the neighborhood have been siphoned off by specialized schools or selective schools, so you’re working with the most at-risk population in one of the most at-risk neighborhoods—and achieve close to an 80 percent graduation rate, that’s statistically not possible.  And yet we’re doing it.”

Federally Mandated Test-and-Punish Didn’t Go Away with NCLB

As you very likely remember, No Child Left Behind, the much hated 2002 version of the federal education law—the one Jonathan Kozol once called “the federal testing law”— was reauthorized last December. Now instead we have the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There is widespread agreement that nearly fifteen years’ of test-based accountability has failed to raise overall student achievement; flat and declining scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress confirm that failure. Neither has the annual testing and disaggregation of scores resulted in the diminishing of achievement gaps. But the federal government doesn’t shift direction so easily.  Here is a quick update on what is happening as the rules that will implement the new law are being developed.

There is one bright spot: In the new law, Congress eliminated any federal mandate to tie teacher evaluation to students’ standardized test scores.  The U.S. Department of Education had made it a requirement that states applying for federal waivers from the worst punishments of NCLB could qualify for waivers only if they agreed to pass state laws to tie teacher evaluation to what have been called Value Added Measures—VAM algorithims that try to calculate the amount of learning each teacher “adds” to the overall education of each student.  The American Statistical Association, the American Educational Research Association and a number of academic researchers have demonstrated that VAM scores not only fail to measure many qualities of excellent teachers, but also are inaccurate and unstable from year to year.  It is possible that Congress listened to the experts—more likely that it listened on this one issue at least to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers and many others who pointed to obviously flawed low VAM ratings for many award-winning teachers and to the collapse of morale among teachers across the United States.

While Congress eliminated the federal push to evaluate teachers by students’ scores, it could not undo the teacher-evaluation laws passed in recent years across the states to qualify for federal waivers. Hawaii, at least, has now begun to undo the damage, according to a mid-May report from the Hawaii Tribune-Herald: “Educators in Hawaii just became a little more powerful.  The State Board of Education unanimously approved recommendations Tuesday effectively removing standardized test scores as a requirement in the measurement of teacher performance…. The recommendations… will offer more flexibility to incorporate and weigh different components of teacher performance evaluation, although the option to use test scores in performance evaluations remains.”

Apart from teacher evaluation, however, not much about test-and-punish has really changed. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released proposed rules for the implementation of ESSA and there has been considerable argument from Republican leaders in Congress who want to turn more authority over to states, while the Obama administration wants to keep the federal government strongly involved.

Here is the explanation of Emma Brown of the Washington Post: “The law requires states to continue administering standardized math and reading tests to students in Grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.  But it also gave states a new opportunity to include other non-test measures, such as access to advanced coursework and rates of chronic absenteeism, in judging schools.  Under the regulations released Thursday, states would be required to wrap all of those various indicators into one simple rating, such as a letter grade, to provide parents with clear, easy-to-understand information about school performance… The previous education law, No Child Left Behind, prescribed sanctions for schools that failed to meet test score targets.  The Every Student Succeeds Act takes a different approach, allowing states to decide how to intervene in struggling schools as long as those interventions are ‘evidence based.'”

One thing is clear from press reports: the conversation remains centered pretty much in the weeds of the details of outcomes-based accountability—measuring schools’ success in meeting demands for higher test scores.  Here is how Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post describes the proposed rules to implement ESSA: “The proposed regulations, among other things, would require states to ensure that school districts are implementing ‘accountability’ systems based on multiple measures.  The states have a lot of discretion on how those systems should be constructed but not total, with the federal government requiring that states ‘assign a comprehensive, summative rating for each school to provide a clear picture of its overall standing’….”

As the new law was debated in Congress last fall, the National Education Association lobbied hard for at least the inclusion of “input” measures as part of school evaluation to make it possible to consider each school’s real capacity to meet the demand for higher scores. This would have shifted the measure of accountability toward the consideration of a school’s resources.  The goal was to find a way to let districts expose inequity in things like class size, number of counselors and support staff, and financial resources available per-child from district to district.  States can still include such measures as part of their multiple-measure-accountability ratings, but it is unlikely to happen unless Congress pushes harder.  After all, that would shift the blame—and test-based accountability is a blame game—to the states that refuse to distribute funding equitably and persist in shorting the school districts that serve the poorest children.  And while states are now federally required to intervene in low-scoring schools, there is no evidence that the focus will shift from punitive interventions like closing or charterizing schools and firing educators, and no evidence that states will feel pressed to invest in the poorest schools.

One thing is clear.  In its proposed rules, the Obama Department of Education strongly discourages opt-outs by parents protesting the testing regime.  Strauss explains: “With a testing ‘opt out’ movement that has been growing in recent years, the department spells out a series of punitive options states should take in an attempt to get schools to ensure a 95 percent student participation rate on federally required state-selected standardized tests.” It remains unclear what the consequences would be for higher rates of opting out.  Strauss continues: “Under NCLB and now under ESSA, at least 95 percent of eligible students are required to take the state-chosen standardized test used to hold states and school districts ‘accountable.’  Last year, some states did drop below 95 percent, and in recent months the Education Department has been sending letters to states with ‘suggestions’ of how to handle schools that can’t drum up 95 percent support.  It also said federal funds could be withheld from states that did not deal effectively with opt outs.”  Although it is clear that the Department of Education discourages opting out, what the federal government will do about it remains unknown.

Public comment will be accepted on the draft rules until August 1, 2016.

Have You Thought Much Lately about the Definition of Really Good Teaching?

As we begin 2015, thirteen years since the federal testing law No Child Left Behind was signed by President George W. Bush, a generation of children has gone through the grades in a test-and-punish climate and many people have come to define good teachers as those who can raise test scores. These are the teachers who are said to add value—who know how to implement data-driven reform.  Some people imagine that if each year we were to shed a certain percentage of the teachers who seem less able to raise scores, over time we could upgrade the profession.  This is a technocratic, econometric, algorithm-based vision.

Valerie Strauss has used her Washington Post blog three times lately to share columns by Ellie Herman, a teacher who recently took a year to visit classrooms and do some writing.  Herman’s sense of what teachers do is very different.  She writes about what happens for teachers at school every day, and she defines good teaching.

Herman begins in the first column by helping us set a bottom line: what are the qualities of truly bad teachers?  “Do you dislike children?” she wonders.  “Do you find your subject matter dull?” “Do you know what you’re talking about?”  “Do you ignore a large subset of your students most of the time?”  “Are you totally disengaged?”  “Why does this matter?  It matters because as a country we seem to be convinced that our classrooms are infested with bad teachers who must be driven out, and this conviction seems to be the driving force behind most of our supposed  ‘accountability’ measures, which are designed like self-guided missiles dropped down to locate and destroy bad teachers first, before installing good teachers… I also think this preoccupation with bad teachers in the absence of the more urgent strategy for attracting and retaining good teachers is deeply unfair to students and, in fact, unequally distributed because it falls much harder on teachers in low-income communities who teach in far more challenging conditions… I think it demoralizes all of us who are in the classroom to feel that we are continually suspected of being ‘bad….'”

Here is how, in a second column, Herman defines good teachers: “All great teachers have faith—in their students, in the process of learning, and in themselves.”  “Great teachers listen to their students.” “Great teachers have an authentic vision for their students.”  “Great teachers have an unequivocal belief in all students’ potential.”  “Great teachers are calm, persistent pushers.”  “Great teachers practice non-attachment to short term results.”

Mike Rose, UCLA professor of education who visited classrooms for four years in the 1990s as the subject of his classic book on good teaching, Possible Lives, recently published an extraordinary article, School Reform Fails the Test, to reconsider, in these technocratic times, the definition of good teaching and good classrooms: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades.  Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity.  Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper.  For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities.  These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children.  The classrooms were safe.  They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space.  And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.  The huge, burning question is how to create more classrooms like these.”

Please do read all three articles touched on here.  Herman and Rose consider with eloquence and discernment the meaning of the qualities they define as essential to good teaching.  Every one of you reading this blog post has spent time at school.  Next time you read about technocratic evaluation of teachers, I urge you to reflect on your own experience and the wisdom from these thoughtful writers who have spent time watching good teachers work with children and adolescents.

I particularly like Herman’s first question to define a bad teacher: “Do you dislike children?”  My suspicion is that the statisticians and economists developing value-added-measure algorithms for evaluating teachers have thought hardly at all about what it would be like to spend week after week with seventh graders.  As a society we must develop our capacity to appreciate the gifted people who enjoy our children and agree to spend their lives helping our children realize their potential.