appeal to a higher power

Struggling district may appeal accreditation rating

A tiny suburban school district is considering challenging the state over its accountability system, arguing its rating does not accurately reflect the district’s progress.

Sheridan Schools, one of 11 districts nearing the end of the so-called state “accountability clock,” will decide by the end of the month whether it will ask the State Board of Education to have its annual accreditation rating upped to create some breathing room after four years of intense turnaround efforts southwest of Denver.

Those efforts, district officials believe, have been enough to ward off the possibility of drastic state intervention and should be seen as a model school district that serves mostly poor students of color

“We believe we ought to be heading down [to the state department of education] to receive an award,” said Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough.

Additionally, Sheridan officials contend that the state’s data-driven assessments are warped to favor larger school districts and add undue disadvantages to already struggling school districts.

Since 2010, the Colorado Department of Education has evaluated districts and their schools. The annual rankings, or performance frameworks, are linked to district accreditations. Districts that fall in the bottom two categories, “priority improvement” or “turnaround,” have five years to meet the department’s expectations or lose their accreditation.

No district has lost its accreditation — yet. But within a year, the state board of education may be faced with striping two rural districts of their accreditation. And within two years, Sheridan and another eight districts could face similar consequences if they don’t improve.

What the loss of accreditation means and how a district may re-establish good standing is mostly a mystery in Colorado, and certainly untested. Last fall the state’s board heard potential scenarios from CDE staff that included converting performing schools into charters, or closing them out right, to a complete reorganization of the district.

Diplomas in a safe    

No one at Sheridan Schools doubts they can — and must — do better.

“Our kids need to catch up,” Clough, the superintendent said.

And they have been. While Sheridan students’ proficiency levels still drastically drag behind state averages, the district’s academic growth — the state’s most coveted measure of student learning — in most subjects and grade levels has either met or is approaching the levels the state believes students need to close the achievement gap and be proficient.

“It has not been without some pain and a lot of hard work,” Clough said.

That growth is also, importantly, seen in historically marginalized groups of students like those who qualify for free or reduced lunch, those who speak a language other than English at home and those who live with disabilities.

In fact, neither the district’s elementary or middle school rank among the lowest-performing nor are they on the state’s school accountability clock.

CDE’s Executive Director for Accountability and Data Analysis Alyssa Pearson said such a scenario is rare.

And in spite of the positive indicators on half of the four measures that make up a district’s accreditation rating — student growth and how quickly the district is closing its achievement gap — the district is still on the clock because of one measure: post-secondary preparedness.

Under the 2008 state statute that created the rankings and accountability clock, growth and post-secondary readiness are the most important factors in evaluating Colorado schools. Because of that, the state weighs those two measures more heavily, and make up 70 percent of a district’s rating.

To gauge student’s post-secondary preparedness, the state evaluates ACT scores, graduation and dropout rate. Sheridan’s composite ACT score is four points shy of the state’s expectation. And its 2012 graduation rate is eight percentage points behind the 80 percent requirement.

But Clough believes his district’s graduation rate is much higher, north of 90 percent. 

That’s because Sheridan Schools offers three different diplomas: standard, advance and 21st Century. To qualify for a 21st Century diploma, students much complete all of their high school requirements and at least one year of college, usually at Arapahoe Community College.

The district has about 60 students enrolled at ACC, Clough said. And he argues those students, who are usually 19- or 20-years-old, should count toward the district’s graduation rate because they’ve already been through the pomp and circumstance of a traditional graduation, but have relinquished a standard diploma back to the district while they complete their college classes that the district is paying for.

The diplomas, Clough said, “are sitting in a safe.”

Because of the possibility Sheridan may appeal its rating to the state board, CDE staff declined to comment on Clough’s claim, but said the issuing of diplomas is left to the discretion of the local school board and district.

In an earlier appeal to CDE staff before the accreditation levels were made public, Sheridan requested CDE use the 2013 graduation rate and add those students who have been issued diplomas but have chosen to stay enrolled. At the time the annual report was issued, graduation rates for the immediate spring aren’t finalized.

And, CDE staff said, “the students that Sheridan would like to include will be included when they do formally graduate.”

“We don’t relish the game”

Both Sheridan officials and CDE staff have complimented each other back-and-forth on the willingness to improve the outcome for students.

Every district on the accountability clock has a dedicated CDE employee assigned to them to work through data, instruction and alignment. Sheridan’s caseworker, Cindy Ward, “lives with us,” Clough jokes. 

The goal is to move the districts off the clock. But Sheridan officials feel they could be trapped in a perpetual state of turnaround because of how the state awards points on their annual reviews.    

Each year the state assigns an average growth percentile, or AGP, to districts based on how much students need to grow in order to be proficient.

In some instances, Sheridan was asked to post growth scores in the 99 percentile, or catch students up by at least two grade levels — an impossible feat, Sheridan and CDE staff agree. 

Districts that do not meet their AGP are assessed by a different scale than those districts that do. And that scale is harsher, Clough said. If Sheridan were to be awarded points based on the latter scale, the framework report would have a higher outcome, maybe even enough to be taken off the accountability clock.

But Pearson defended the state’s practice of defining growth goals. It’s important, she said, for school districts to know how much it will take to bring students to proficient levels. 

“We don’t believe the measure is adequate,” Clough said.

Defending the framework, Pearson said CDE developed the measurements with stakeholders throughout the education community and up and down the state. And, she said, the current framework is a far fairer instrument than its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress report that only gauged whether students were proficient. The framework, in its current iteration, creates statewide context and a consistent understanding.

“The accountability system is to measure how we’re doing on getting all of those kids to the goal,” Pearson said.

Clough is fine with measuring progress toward a finish line. But believes the state should find a better way to hold districts accountable to a realistic pace.

“We don’t relish the game.”

Sheridan Schools will make its decision on an appeal by the end of the month.

Update: This post has been updated to more accurately contextualize CDE’s Executive Director for Accountability and Data Analysis comment regarding the rarity of Sheridan Schools’ accreditation rating; the inclusion of dropout rates as a measure for post-secondary preparedness and comments from CDE about how school districts are solely responsible to determine which of its students graduate. 

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.