First Person

The good, the bad, the ugly: Turnarounds and profiteers

Van Schoales is executive director of A-Plus Denver, an education advocacy organization. He also is a member of the Democrats for Education Reform advisory board. This post also appeared on the DFER blog.

We recently did some research on the state of school turnarounds in Colorado. I was reminded of that great “spaghetti” western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. For those of you that don’t remember the movie, it was a tale of intrigue, deceit and murder among three men (not so good, bad, and ugly) in a quest for buried gold in the context of the chaos of the Civil War. It’s one of my favorite movies for the remarkable cinematography, directing, and character acting, not to mention one of the best scores ever. Oh yes, there’s also the interesting sub-texts on war and the West.

So, what’s the connection with the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG)/ turnaround schools program? The SIG program is hardly as interesting as the movie, but turnarounds are filled with struggle, conflict, and failure; often the only ones benefiting are the outside consultants making upwards of $5,000 a day. It’s like the end of the movie where after all the death and destruction, the “not so good” walks into the sunset with the gold. In this case it’s the consultants walking off with a check on their way to the next district. And who says education doesn’t pay?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for identifying the worst schools and doing everything possible to turn them around or, when necessary, replacing them with new high performing schools. My fear, however, is that while the SIG program will have done some good helping to support the development of a few new schools (like several here in Denver), most of the funds will go to ill-conceived and clumsily implemented interventions with little change in student outcomes.

I just don’t believe that many states and districts have the appropriate levels of oversight nor the capacity to manage turnarounds. The current program shovels out $4.5 billion over four years to states with the expectation that state departments of education can effectively oversee the distribution of these funds to improve schools.

Let’s take my home state of Colorado as a detailed example. In Colorado we have a reform-focused and relatively well-run state department of education, but even here, I fear the SIG program will do little to improve our schools. I can only imagine how terrible it is in those states where the departments are in the business of shelling out cash and developing simplistic, check-off the box compliance procedures.

Colorado is positioned to receive a total of $51.4 million in federal SIG dollars, the majority of which will be allocated to support approximately 30 school turnaround schools. So far, 19 schools were awarded grants receiving an average of $2.3 million over three years – not chump change. The state, as all states, encourages its schools to have an outside turnaround partner. The problem is there are very few turnaround partners that have been proven successful.

So the result is that you have numerous outside turnaround partners obtaining big money contracts, without having proven their ability to successfully turnaround a school. While it is fairly difficult to tell at this point who has these contracts, what they are expected to do and for how much, it’s clear there is a great deal of money being made by these contractors who have yet to prove their effectiveness. The only good news is that the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has just undergone reorganization and the new assistant commissioner has pledged to look into these questions and hold districts along with providers accountable.

Well, what about the results so far? I know it’s only the first year for test results, but you’d expect some schools to have shown improvement, right? As far as I can tell this has only occurred in a few schools like West Denver Prep in Denver, which is a school that was just opened as one of three schools (and the only new charter) housed in the Lake Middle School turnaround complex. Overall, SIG grant funded schools in CO have not really improved as a group and some have even gotten worse.

Pueblo, Colorado’s five schools, for example, have shown no substantive improvement. Student growth in reading and math ranged from 22% to a high of 47% compared to student growth at a high performing Denver SIG school (West Denver Prep) with reading and math growth at 63% and 88%. In short, in these already low-performing Pueblo schools, students are actually losing ground, their achievement scores will be worse as a result of attending these schools. There are, however, several Denver SIG schools showing some growth like Lake middle school, even if they have not yet made much progress on the percent of students reaching proficiency, which is the end goal.

And what about the money being spent on outside turnaround partners? While perusing the CO Department of Education’s website, I was surprised to discover that of those firms working as turnaround partners some disclosed cost structures which ranged from $800 per day (only one) to a high of about $7,000 a day; that must be one hell of a five-day workshop with an army of coaches.

Even more surprising was the fact that not one of the firms listed on the website responded “YES” to whether they provided a “performance guarantee contract,” regardless of cost. There was also a section on the website where the consulting firms gave references and examples of their work. The Leadership and Learning Center provided Carlile Elementary in Pueblo as a reference, a school that is far below the state median growth in all subjects (not a school I’d pitch as a success).

So where do we go from here? Do we wait till the feds have burned through $4.5 billion in the next couple of years, watch hundreds of new school turnaround businesses prosper while there is little change in student achievement for the nations’ worst schools?

I hope not. Let’s take a timeout and figure out how best to invest these precious public dollars so that our most disadvantaged kids have a quality education. While we may not know much about how to turn around low-performing schools, we do know how to create new high performing schools for the most disadvantaged students. Maybe more funding from SIG should go to new school development, not weaker transformations.

In addition, the SIG program should undergo its own “turnaround” so districts and providers are held accountable for results from each year of the grant. State departments of education should be easily able to retract or extend funding if the schools are not meeting performance targets. State departments of education should also have strict performance contracts for managing their portfolio of turnaround schools. The kids trapped in failing schools deserve better leadership from our district, state and federal officials.

Somewhat ironically as one of the consultants, a former New York City education commissioner, Dr. Rudy Crew, said in a New York Times article published shortly after the grants were being given out, “This is like the aftermath of the Civil War, with all the carpetbaggers and charlatans.”

Crew’s firm, Global Partnership Schools, has a multi-year agreement for more than $6 million dollars from the Pueblo 60 School District. Global Partnership received half of the funding from SIG for Pueblo. Not a bad return on investment for Global Partnership; I wish I could say the same for taxpayers given the results of those Pueblo schools. I’ve heard a rumor that CDE may intervene in some way given the progress in Pueblo.

It’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in education reform.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.