Posts Tagged persistently low-performing schools

A Punitive Mindset Ruins Good Testing Data

Published by — Standardized tests are fantastically useful.  But schools can’t be harangued, threatened or sanctioned into improvement.


The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our standardized achievement testing, but in what we do with said testing.  Achievement data are fantastically useful.  These days virtually every industry collects and analyses the best information available to make smart decisions.  So the recent groundswell aimed at ending the flow of testing information is akin to insisting we all stick our fingers in our ears and holler:  We don’t want to hear it!

Easy now.  Let the data speak.  Just quit jumping to ill-considered actions.

But the situation has gotten so bad, parents are refusing to allow their children to take standardized achievement tests.  Congress, seemingly stuck in brute partisanship, is arming for war over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known since 2001 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  One huge battle will be testing versus no testing.  Likely it will focus on money, although the $34 per kid for state and federal testing seems a small price to pay to find out if the taxpayers’ $600 trillion dollar annual investment in public education is getting results.  That’s trillion with a “t.”  We can spare $1.7 billion, with a “b,” to do a check-up.

How testing became a monster.

The one great thing NCLB did for the nation was goad states into building robust data systems.  Though far from perfect, even state-designed testing programs surfaced glaring racial and socio-economic disparities.  Tests revealed that special-needs children and non-native English speakers often languished in segregated programs, “protected” from higher expectations.  It wasn’t pretty.  Still isn’t.  But sunlight on the plight of the underserved inspired a lot of creative thinking about how to narrow the gaps.  As a nation, we’re grown uncomfortable with these disparities.  And that’s a good thing.

A very bad thing, though, was that punishment was baked into NCLB from the get-go.  In the name of “accountability,” the 2001 law disciplined failing schools with an a menu of escalating sanctions including humiliation and threats of state takeover — as if states had the capacity to take over schools.  Annually, all schools had to meet rising achievement benchmarks with goal of having all students “proficient” by 2014.  Each year that a school bombed its benchmarks, the feds and states had license to trumpet failures in the media, impose insulting oversight, and force the schools to write the parents about their failures.  NCLB was a big, bad Dad that believed he’d get results by yelling louder and getting meaner.

Everyone knew that achieving nationwide proficiency in 2014 was statistically impossible.  But oh well.  States issued new naming-and-shaming reports anyway.  Adding insult to injury, those most affected were low-income kids, segregated in forgotten, ill-supported schools where staff already felt punished enough.  Partly to protect their vulnerable kids, school staff began gaming the numbers, or even outright cheating, to avoid further demoralization.

Eventually, increasing amounts of school time were devoted to test prep, effectively passing the pain on to the kids.  Neither the feds, states, nor researchers recommended becoming test-prep factories.  Sure enough, test-prep barely budged academic performance.  But many schools argued that they had no choice but to focus on the test results because of perceived threats to their jobs.  Then situation made the parents crazy.  All parties blame the tests themselves.  And here we are.

Exactly who is responsible for kids’ learning?

Currently Finland’s high-performing schools are Education’s darling.  Interestingly, their students are tested constantly, but to good effect.  As Anu Partanen writes in a recent Atlantic piece about Finnish schools, “teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.”  At the end of high school, students must pass nationally-mandated high-school exit exams, so there is a goal and objective measure of success at the end.

How schools get there is their business.  The Finnish feds regularly check up on schools across the country with tests, but their purpose is to make sure the schools and kids are doing well.  It’s not in their culture to think that the way to produce improvement is to get all nasty at schools that struggle.

On the contrary, the Finns have the attitude that testing provides superb data to help teachers collaborate with one another, along with the child and family, to ensure each kid’s success.  Teachers have enormous responsibility for student learning, but they’re not alone; they lead a circle of adults who own that child’s success, as defined by observation as well as objective data.

By all means test, and even publish the results.

But for the foreseeable future, the feds and states need to rethink their get-tough relationship to school improvement.  NCLB made it painfully clear schools can’t be harangued, threatened or sanctioned into improvement.  (People can’t either.)  So for now, collect data on the kids’ achievement.  And publish it.  But then study it carefully, discuss it, take responsibility for it.  Make sure the data becomes useful wisdom, and quit using test scores as billy clubs.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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The First School District to Put Itself Out of Business

Published by — Nowhere in America has a school system leaped forward so fast.  Apparently, it takes a hurricane to inspire that much responsiveness to kids.

In 2003, Louisiana’s state department of education created the Recovery School District (RSD).  New Orleans’s schools were among the worst in the country, so the state asked the RSD to start with 5 that were the worst of the worst.  While the RSD officials knew the state would likely add more schools, they never dreamed that in 2005, Hurricane Katrina would suddenly jack the total number up to 102.

The jury is in.  The RSD did a whole lot better by the kids than the old Orleans Parish School District.  The graduation rate is up by 23 percentage points since 2005.  In 2007 only 23 percent of the kids K-12 were on grade level in math and reading, but now 57 percent are.  Nowhere in America has a school system leaped forward so fast.  Apparently, it takes a hurricane to inspire that much responsiveness to kids.

The critical thing to know is that the RSD never wanted to be a traditional school district.  They weren’t sure what their district structure would or should look like.  But they knew the traditional Central Office model hadn’t worked in spectacular ways, so they seized the opportunity to avoid reproducing it.  Good choice.

I’ve always marveled that Central Offices have managed to hang on as the industry standard.  Except in tiny districts, Central Offices make life-altering decisions about kids’ education at a distance from the schools themselves.  They negotiate labor contracts and set policies that principals have to make work, somehow.  Central Offices often require certain professional-development training without consulting building-level staff.  Such decisions, labor contracts and districtwide policies effectively micro-manage the work of people who actually know the unique set of students attending their building.  Repeatedly, reformers tried to collapse the disconnect by implementing “site-based management,” whereby the school controls budgets, curriculum, hiring and so forth.  But such efforts rarely withstand Central Office’s overwhelming urges to reclaim and subjugate schools.

Furthermore, Central Office is a natural petri dish for culturing adult needs that infect the educational health of the kids.  Look no further than the 2003 Orleans Parish District which couldn’t account for $71 million in federal dollars.  Its School Board President was headed to jail for taking bribes — on top of managing terrible schools.  So the RSD accidently became the nation’s first radical experiment in Central Office redesign.

When Katrina hit, neither the Orleans nor the Recover districts had much capacity to speak of.  In the wake of the storm, they had to get schools up and running fast.  Orleans, with a Board that still fights publicly, held onto a handful of higher-performing schools in less-devastated areas.  The RSD had the rest and so turned to charter operators, both big charter management organizations and small independent groups who submitted proposals.  The state and feds both kicked in dollars to rehab some of the old school buildings.  And fortunately, some of the charter-world’s best young talent, who’d already started successful schools elsewhere, were excited by the prospect of creating new schools in the city then riveting the nation’s attention.

The RSD was still managing 34 traditional schools even as it handed out charters.  But what a pain.  Acting as Central Office by default, they still had to hire staff, develop policy and manage endless individual budgets.  Try as they might, their schools were of poorer quality than the charters, on average.

Charters are effectively contracts, usually for 5 years.  If their officials mismanage funds or produce failing students, the charter is revoked.  Closing any school is upsetting and unpleasant, but with charters everyone knows the rules of accountability up front.  So increasingly, the RSD transferred their own authority to independent operators who manage themselves, and have full responsibility to use educational strategies that actually succeed.  Or go out of business, as some have.

Eventually the RSD announced they would phase out their own Central Office duties entirely.  As of this coming fall, the RSD will have no district-run schools.  They will be a lean infrastructure that oversees a portfolio of charter schools.  Their responsibilities will include collecting data and holding all schools to accountability standards.  They built a single-application system so parents can apply to 8 schools at once, ranking their preferences, instead of dropping off applications all over town.  That system allows the RSD to monitor equity and access for all kids, especially those with special needs.  Likely they’ll help the schools where economies of scale apply, with health insurance and technology purchases, for example.  The first pure-charter experiment will surely stumble and make mistakes — and already has — but the new problems will never be as inhumane as letting kids languish in terrible schools indefinitely.  And the lessons learned could be invaluable for other cities struggling with their school systems.

In fact, the officials governing the schools in Washington D.C., Newark, Kansas City and Detroit are closely watching this experiment.  Would converting to an all-charter portfolio pull more of their students out of the academic mud?  Fortunately New Orleans has experimented so bravely that a cure for Central Office ineffectiveness might be on the horizon.  Stay tuned on this one.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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A Struggling Urban School District Turns to Charters for Help

Published By — In an unusual move, the Providence School District invites charters in to pitch their strategies.

The windowless basement meeting room buzzed with excited, nervous chatter.  Rival schools were about to sit down to get to know one another, rather intimately.

Nine schools in the Providence School District have agreed to consider converting to charter status by partnering with one of Rhode Island’s excellent charter schools.  Together they’ll adapt the charter-school’s educational strategy, write up their co-created new design, and apply for charter status from the state.

The new joint-venture schools will remain district-run and unionized.  These sorts of district-school conversions are not terribly common, but they do exist — mainly because faculties get so frustrated with certain district policies, curriculum or labor-contract provisions that they want the flexibility that comes with charter status.  In Providence’s case, the district itself is encouraging the conversions.

Actually, this was whole point of the charter-school movement from its inception in the early 1990s — to encourage experiments and innovations that could spread back to the regular district schools.  But the way history played out, charters and district schools felt pitted against one another, bitterly competing for resources, students and praise.

True, tiny Central Falls, also in Rhode Island, has a nationally-recognized collaboration among district schools and the charters that serve that city’s children.  But it’s the only collaboration of its kind I’ve ever heard of, until now.

Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi introduced this highly-unusual meet-and-greet as the “collective brain child” of Providence’s leadership, including the School Board chair and the President of the teachers union.

Surely they’d noticed that almost all of the local charters soared in the recent “Report Card” state rankings.

By contrast, fully half of the Providence Public Schools are “chronically low-performing,” which is ed-speak for failing and coming under state scrutiny.

Even so, it’s bold for any district to welcome a range of ideas with proven track records from the oft-resented charters.

During the first hour of the meeting, each presenter was supposed to make an absurdly short, 2-minute presentation.  Schools sketched out a wide range of successful strategies.  Power-point slides, changing every 8 seconds in the background, presented stats faster than anyone could read.  It was a little nuts.

Also pitching their strategies as potential partners were a few more familiar and non-controversial providers – social services, volunteer organizations.

Then, for the second hour, the presenters occupied tables where district teachers and school staff could ask questions.

Several people called the event “educational speed dating.”

Superintendent Lusi was blunt about what she was hoping her schools would get from collaborating with the charters:  community, capacity and resources.  “First, charters are characterized as being cohesive communities of parents, students and staff.    Secondly, for over a year Providence has been building partnerships to bring more capacity and expertise to our schools.  We’re still looking for more value-added partnerships.”

Lastly, sighs Lusi, “We need the resources.  The RI Department of Education has 3 million dollars that can be used for charter start-ups.”  Regular district schools can get a piece of that pie, but only if they convert to charter status.

Nationally, the public is frustrated with the pace of school reform, creating intense pressure to satisfy the parents’ and public’s demand for better school options.  Either district schools can become the change we all want to see, or they’ll let competition put them out of business.

Ironically, most charter schools nationally are just as academically mediocre as the regular public schools kids are trying to escape.  But since charter schools live or die on their ability to attract and keep students and families, they’re famous for being warm, welcoming places that parents prefer to the often-hidebound, district schools.

So consider this little clash of cultures.  Many of the Providence district attendees expressed a strong desire to improve their relationship with parents.  One charter director conceded that involving urban parents is a super-tough job.  So his teachers all visit their students’ homes before school opens in the fall, to meet or re-connect with the family and talk about their mutual expectations for the year.

A Providence teacher asked, “Who does these visits?”  The Director enthused, “The classroom teachers.  And giving the parents a business card, saying call me any time; this is my cell phone number, that creates a relationship that’s crazy powerful.”

“The teachers give out their cell phone numbers?” asked one.  “Yeah,” said the Director.  And there was an uncomfortable pause.

Charter and district-school cultures are very different.  I asked Superintendent Lusi if she thought her schools would be willing to be flexible.

She shrugged and said, “We’ve got to do something.  We need so much help.  We’re not going to get anywhere without getting out of the box.  This seems promising.”

Even more enthused was Dr. Robert Pilkington, now applying to start his fourth charter school. “This is historic!  This is the crucible.  This is what it was supposed to be all about at the get-go.  There’s no anger here.  Just collegial involvement!”

I’m not sure there wasn’t a smidge of anger.  But hey, everyone there seemed fairly serious about collaborating.  I only wish Congress could also grow up and learn to collaborate in the best interests of all.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Persistently Low-Performing Schools Need More Options from the Feds

Published by — Obama and Duncan’s four turnaround models for failing schools are a step in the right direction, but they comfort the status quo.

In 2009, the Obama/Duncan administration announced that they would spend serious money and attention redeeming the 5,000 worst schools in the nation. To my mind, this has been their best idea.

But then they came up with four — and only four — models for how to deal with these schools. I remember reading them over and over again looking for the good one. In vain. By its very nature, education policy made a million miles from a classroom – by Congress, say – risks insensitivity to the everyday reality of flesh-and-blood teachers and kids.

But let’s back up and look at the feds’ big plan for struggling schools.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) strategy left over from the Bush administration had two good results. First, states were forced to upgrade their data systems, so the public could get a better idea of whether kids were learning. Second, that data revealed conclusively that certain populations, like kids in poverty, were being sadly under-served. The problem with NCLB was that its main strategy for helping children was to heap a lot of bad test scores, threats and humiliating name-calling onto schools.

Frankly, we didn’t learn much of positive value from all that naming and shaming.

The new administration decided to focus instead on supporting innovation. Good, much more positive approach.

In the case of what they call “the persistently low-performing” schools, they allocated significant money for districts to support big changes at these schools. If the education industry can learn how to fix these schools in specific, it will learn how to help the poor, minority and special-needs children who are disproportionately stuck in them.

So, at the dawn of 2010, the feds told each state to create criteria to identify their most troubled schools, including all high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.

The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that 15,277 schools, or 16 percent of all schools nationwide, were identified as “persistently low-performing” schools. Each became eligible for federal School Improvement Grant money. Some schools opted out of the grants because other reform efforts were already underway.

The others, however, had to fix their problems by choosing from among the four federal models. They are:

Closure – Close the school altogether and transfer its students to high-performing schools in the district.

Turnaround – Replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff.

Restart – Open the school under a third-party education management organization, one that is independent of the district, such as a charter operator.

Transformation – Reform the entire instructional environment, develop teacher and school leader effectiveness, reward teachers based on student performance, increase community engagement, and extend learning time.


The first three models mainly reveal the policy-makers’ doubt that these schools might have any strengths. But in my experience, even badly-troubled schools sometimes have a core of fabulous people working under impossible circumstances. These three models change the circumstances by evicting most or all of the adults, presuming they are the root of the problem. And to be sure, they might be. But if they’re not, what a waste of the best thinking and experience of the people most intimate with the kids.

The fourth, Transformation, does just the opposite. It leaves the people AND the circumstances absolutely in place. Even the vague “extended learning time” can mean 5 paltry minutes. So under Transformation, the school district officials and the new principal can design a plan, but if they want to be able to hire teachers from outside the district, the union can always say no. If the principal wants to be free of a deadly curriculum, the district can say no. Transformation provides no leverage.

Recently I heard the new principals of four problem schools give presentations of their transformation strategies. Utterly gutless. The thinking seemed same-old, same-old. Every job was preserved, with the same person in it, probably doing pretty much the same thing, despite some nice-sounding programs – a triumph of rhetoric over action.

Not surprisingly, 74 percent of the nation’s “persistently low-performing” schools chose Transformation.

If I were able to add a 5th option, I would describe it as:

Radical Site-Based Management with Teeth

This model would identify a talented, committed core of people already in the building – assuming there is one – and empower them to take control of their own destiny. The district and community could decide if such a core exists and who, precisely, they are. Then, give them charter-like powers to develop their own strategies and unshackle themselves from any provisions of labor contracts and district policies they consider detrimental to teaching and learning. Give them power over and responsibility for their budget, personnel, strategy, schedule, and so forth. Free them to make a plan they believe will make them successful – within their budget. Keep the core staff and give them real power to change the circumstances.

Like creating any school, site-based management is not for the lazy. But trusting a core of existing staff would build on existing strengths. Experienced, talented adults who know their kids and their needs are the perfect people for the job. They have strong feelings about what’s been holding them back. Capitalize on their knowledge. What’s to lose?

These models all have risks. But empowering the best of an existing staff would show some respect for what good there is even in some of our most troubled schools. And they’d be more likely to turn things around for the kids faster than some outside group starting yet another new charter school.

At least give them a shot.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at

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