Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

No wonder (DC) school systems are underperforming

-- it takes way too long to implement change (according to the work of Everett Rogers, a minimum of 18 years for innovations to diffuse across school districts)
-- there isn't a focus on reorganizing programs and systems around what works
-- for reasons having nothing to do with education, changes are opposed
-- for reasons having to do with other than education (neoliberalism agenda--anti-government, pro privatization, anti-union) changes are proposed

I struggle with how to write about innovations being implemented 5 to 20 years after I've first suggested them.  Should I be laudatory because they are finally implemented, or should I be focused on the waste of time and delay and the opportunity cost from the failure to act much earlier?

Anyway, DC Public Schools has announced that starting next year, for 11 of the city's elementary and junior high schools in the most impoverished areas, that they will be extending the school year by 20 days with a special summer program, with the aim of helping under-resourced students achieve ("School year is about to get longer for thousands of D.C. schoolchildren," Washington Post).  From the article:
An extended year means that students will have 20 more school days per year than their peers at other D.C. public schools. But those days will also be organized differently: Instead of a long summer break, students will have shorter and more frequent breaks over a school year that runs 200 days through all 12 months.

The idea is to eliminate “summer learning loss” among the city’s most underserved communities, officials said. “We will offer students the equivalent of an extra year of learning by the time they reach the eighth grade,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Wednesday.

The schools are all elementary and middle schools. Most feed into one another and are east of the Anacostia River in some of the District’s poorest neighborhoods, where the achievement gap is often the widest compared with more-affluent neighborhoods and where fewer parents can pay for summer camps and seminars. “These are schools where not all the kids are reaching their potential,” said Jennifer C. Niles, deputy mayor for education.

The extended school year will allow for more academic instruction time as well as for electives — or “specials,” as they’re called in elementary schools — including performing arts, languages and physical education, Niles said. ... Seasonal breaks will include additional “intersession” programming, when students will be able to “dive deeper” into special projects or reading development, she said.

The schools affected by the schedule change are H.D. Cooke Elementary in Adams Morgan and, in Wards 7 and 8, Garfield, Hendley, King, Randle Highlands, Thomas and Turner elementary schools and Hart, Johnson and Kelly-Miller middle schools.
That's something I've been suggesting on and off for 20+ years, starting on an old community computing "bulletin board" sponsored by PBS and GWU.

Most recently, I pointed out how the State of Virginia is implementing such a program by providing funds to school districts targeting schools with particular needs ("Powerful story of how Bristol Virginia elementary school deals with extremely impoverished students").

It's incredible to me that it is taking the DC Public School system more than 8 years after it began a so-called "reform" program to get around to two of the most basic elements, adding instruction time and implementing coaching systems to improve instruction ("D.C. Public Schools, closely watched for its reform efforts, to overhaul teacher evaluation and training," Post; "Back to school as a reason to consider school issues comprehensively").

Sadly, the Washington Teachers Union has announced their opposition to the longer school year for the targeted schools ("Longer academic year at 11 DC Schools draws complaint from Teachers Union," WAMU-radio).

Is school reform as simple as bad teaching so getting rid of bad teachers is the solution? The problem with the "reform effort" in DC is that the school system under Michelle Rhee failed to develop a robust theory of change ("The Power of Theories of Change," Stanford Social Innovation Review) that was grounded in research, evidence, success, and practice.

In my opinion, a two pronged theory of change is necessary--one deals with the content and the other with the process.  As far as process was concerned, it was all top-down, when research on wide scale change efforts in urban education find that an engaged citizenry is essential to success.

Rhee had a narrative--that the unions are obstructive and teachers terrible and that students need to be tested, tested, tested, and charter schools were better anyway, because they are less encumbered by bureaucracy--and her efforts mostly focused on firing teachers and removing job protections.

I argued that because the system "produced" the teachers we have, we had a responsibility to first try to work with the teachers deemed ineffective, providing a second chance, before throwing them out on their ear.

Note that for the most part, relying on tests and firing teachers, and shifting to underexperienced teachers with short term commitment (e.g., "Teach for America" fellows) the school system hasn't seen much improvement with the test scores of students from low income backgrounds.

That hasn't hurt Michelle Rhee, who has moved on up to bigger and better things, leaving the school reform movement for high paying board director positions for major corporations.

Certainly all that turmoil in the traditional school system and the getting rid of junior high schools couldn't have anything to do with the explosive growth of charter school enrollment, although DCPS still has about 55% of the total student enrollment--but those numbers are stoked by the growth in pre-K.

Many of the seemingly high quality test results during Rhee's tenure were the result of fraud (but it took an outside newspaper, USA Today, "When standardized test scores soared in D.C., were the gains real?" not the Washington Post, to uncover it), without the expansion of pre-K school for children aged 3 to 5, the school system's enrollment would have been outshined by the rapid growth of charter schools, and one of Rhee's most lauded "innovations," creating K-8 schools out of separate elementary and junior high schools has mostly been a failure.

Rhee also worked to derail successful programs that existed before she arrived, such as Montessori programs ("Positive Deviance and DC Public Schools" and "Positive deviance in New York City schools goes unrecognized").

Unfortunately, Rhee's opponents, be they the Washington Teachers Union, involved parents, advocacy groups, etc., have not been successful in laying out an articulate alternative narrative that would outline a different and better course for "reform."

For example, with regard to school closures, one line of argument would have been my point that strong neighborhoods are anchored by high quality neighborhood elementary schools ("Rethinking community planning around maintaining neighborhood civic assets and anchors").

Rhee was very good at shutting down opponents by accusing them--when they raised the issue of poverty as interfering with performance--of saying poor children can't learn, of being satisfied with failure.

Unfortunately, opponents weren't prepared well enough to have a counter--that the solution to poverty was more and targeted resources.

Are students from low-income backgrounds beyond help or is the issue more and the right kind of resources?  The terrible thing about Rhee's accusations was that she used them to derail any serious consideration of the real issue, which is simple, but not necessarily cheap:

to succeed low income children need more instruction time and additional resources supporting students, families, teachers, principals, and schools.

The solution to poverty is not firing teachers, it's more resources.

Diagram of the change model for the Harlem's Children Zone.  Note how the foundation of the program is two pronged, "family, social service and health programs" and "community building programs."

Virtually every case of charter schools lauded for superior performance by Michelle Rhee and others in the reform movement involves the provision of more resources to students, their families, and the classroom than what most urban school systems are doing, including until more recently, DCPS.

Rather than having to come up with more resources, firing teachers was an easy alternative and cost-effective, because new teachers earned less than the teachers they replaced.

Ironically and sadly, the DC area has two great examples of larger school systems directing special and successful augmented programs for Title I schools--Montgomery County ("When 'Unequal' Is Fair Treatment," Education Week) and Arlington County ("For second year in a row, test scores soar at low-income elementary school" and "Daring Arlington County public school requires AP or IB," Washington Post).  The Manassas School District, although much smaller, is also exemplary ("Manassas Park Superintendent Tom DeBolt retiring after 15 years," Post).

-- Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Public Schools, MCPS webpage
-- book
-- Beyond "Heroes and Sheroes": The Success of Montgomery County Schools, Learning First
-- "The Last Lessons of Jerry Weast," Bethesda Magazine

Roland Fryer and how to address poverty gaps with schooling.  The Financial Times has an interview with Harvard economist Ronald Fryer, who has done a great deal of research on what works and what doesn't in improving schools.  From the article:
His first working paper — co-authored with Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame, and published in 2002 before he completed a PhD at Penn State University — sought to explain the “black-white test score gap”, or why black pupils on average do worse at school than whites.

To make a somewhat crude distinction, at the time there were broadly two interpretations for the test-score gap. The first, commonly found on the left, was that it was all down to poverty: African-Americans were more likely to be poor and therefore were less likely to do well in school. The second account, more popular among conservatives, pointed to rates of “family breakdown” among African-Americans.

Fryer’s first and subsequent papers transcended those interpretations by showing the importance of schooling to inequality — in effect, that black kids did worse because they went to bad schools. Conversely, Fryer hypothesised, perhaps great schools could close the gap.

Many visits to high-performing charter schools — those relatively free of local government control — and terabytes of data later, he arrived at five common features of a good school: an extended school day and year; the use of data by teachers; a culture of high expectations; small-group tutoring; and a “devotion to high-quality human capital” (well-qualified teachers).
The problem with the reform movement is that it is mostly driven by ideology packaged in the justification that they are helping children succeed. But the agenda hasn't focused on what really matters:

-- an extended school day and year;
-- the use of data by teachers;
-- a culture of high expectations;
-- small-group tutoring;
-- a “devotion to high-quality human capital” (well-qualified teachers).

From the article:
“I am so tired of hearing the argument that it is just poverty,” Fryer says. “Schools really are enough if they are good schools.” I ask him whether this is too simplistic, whether he neglects systemic reasons for inequality. "Not so," he says. ...

He is “enormously optimistic” about the future. The test-score gap has halved over the past decade, he says, in part because of the rise of what he calls “great schools” such as those in the Harlem Children’s Zone, an influential education project launched in 1970 in New York City. “There has been a set of schools that has done remarkable things for children. Really wonderful things. The question is how can we bottle that and produce it at a larger scale?”
Just like Michelle Rhee, to some extent Roland Fryer falls into the poverty excuse trap.

People raising poverty as an issue aren't saying there is no hope for improvement.

They are saying more must be done, more resources must be expended to address persistent inequality.

The issue isn't poverty as much as it is how the resources are organized and delivered, and providing more resources to address gaps.

In school districts like Montgomery County, they are scaling these types of improvements to a network of schools.  Even New York City had a counter narrative of success different from the top-down agenda of Joel Klein and Michael Bloomberg, in the work of now retired area superintendent Kathleen Cashin ("Bucking School Reform, a Leader Gets Results," New York Times).

Positive deviance is an approach based on the fact that most dysfunctional organizations have pockets of excellence, and the trick is to identify the factors that support excellence there and replicate them.

From the article:
Kathleen M. Cashin is responsible for some of the roughest territory in the New York City school system — vast stretches of poverty and desolation from Ocean Hill-Brownsville and East New York in Brooklyn to Far Rockaway in Queens, all part of Region 5, where she is superintendent. Already this school year, two of her students have been shot dead, including a 16-year-old killed last week. The area has more homeless shelters than any other part of the city. For generations, the local school districts she now runs were marred by racial strife and corruption.

Yet in the last three years, Dr. Cashin has produced one of the school system’s most unlikely success stories. Since 2003, her elementary and middle schools have consistently posted the best total gains on annual reading and math tests, outpacing other regions with similar legacies of low achievement.

... Dr. Cashin’s results should be an easy reason for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein to gloat, a triumph in their takeover of the nation’s largest school system. But in many ways, her success raises questions about the thrust of their recent efforts to reshape the school bureaucracy.

While Mr. Klein has derided the “status quo crowd” and sought to bring outsiders into the administration, Dr. Cashin is a lifelong city educator. While Mr. Klein wants to free principals from the control of superintendents like her, Dr. Cashin believes even the best principals need an experienced supervisor.

Where Mr. Klein insists that school administration must be reinvented to reverse generations of failure by generations of educators, Dr. Cashin, a product of the old system, insists she can get results with a clear instructional mission, careful organization and a simple strategy of every educator’s being supported by an educator with more experience. (emphasis added).
The difference between Fryer and Rhee is that he argues for better use of existing resources and more resources (like more instruction time), she didn't.  (But she got a salary significantly higher than other superintendents in the area, even those directing much larger systems like Fairfax and Montgomery County.)

For the most part the reform agenda has used the issue of poverty as a club to justify firing teachers. Not as justification for more resources and for significant "re-engineering" of how schooling and support is delivered.

This is why it has been very difficult to see significant improvements in urban education despite the focus on change.

Where there are improvements, usually at the scale of an individual school, it comes down to significant changes in how the school is organized, and the supports provided to teachers, students, and families.

The challenge is to move beyond an individual school to the scale of an entire school district.

While it is tragic that it has taken 8 years to get to this point, that the DCPS system is implementing a coaching and training system for teachers that appears to have both breadth and depth and is moving to a "year-round" calendar and adding 20 additional days of instruction is a significant step forward.

What's being missed is that it is a step counter to the traditional reform agenda that has shaped urban education reform over the past 15 years.  Whether or not people begin to question the traditional urban education reform agenda is another question.

Being prescient, maybe that's why Michelle Rhee jumped out of the reform movement to the world of corporate boards.

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