It's Not That America Doesn't Know How to Fix Failing Schools, We Just Choose Not To

It's Not That America Doesn't Know How to Fix Failing Schools, We Just Choose Not To
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Students wait in line at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, charter schools are the new reality of public education in New Orleans. The vast majority of public school students will be attending a charter school established by a state-run school district created in the wake of the storm. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

RCEd Commentary

Here’s the sad thing: We know what to do about the nation’s struggling urban schools. But for the most part, we’re choosing not to do it.

The latest evidence came this week as Tennessee reported student achievement results, including for its bold experiment called the Achievement School District, which gathers the lowest performing schools into a separately-run district for turnaround remedies. Some schools got fresh starts, others got absorbed by charters, schools that are publicly funded but independently run. It’s working: Math and science scores for the 10,000 students in those schools rose faster than the state average, while reading matched state levels.

The goal for the special districts, which this school year will include 27 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville: Take schools in the bottom 5 percent and push them quickly into the top quarter. Is that possible? That goal may be a stretch, but who starts out with low goals?

Wednesday’s score results should be enough to encourage other state efforts. Michigan already formed a special district, and multiple states – Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arkansas – are moving that way.

The Tennessee experiment isn’t the only option. The nation’s most dramatic schools turnaround example is found in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina offered educators a rare start-over opportunity. Today, nearly all New Orleans students attend charter schools, and each fresh study of the results show students moving in the right direction.

While the results there are promising, most school reformers doubt other states can pull off such dramatic change: Who can rely on a Katrina to blow away stagnant education politics? That makes the Tennessee school reform experiment especially important.

There are yet more models that cities could adopt. Denver is making progress by tapping into successful local charters to become part of the district. Washington D.C.’s strong gains come from aggressive pushes to establish high performing charters while sticking with strong reforms in the traditional schools. Together, they create some positive synergy.

One strategy shared in all these cities is drawing on top performing charter schools. That’s the case in Memphis, as well, where for example California-based Aspire Public Schools launched their first schools outside that state. Aspire took on the most difficult challenge possible:  completely taking over a failing school, Hanley Elementary.

I visited Hanley in the fall of 2013 while reporting a book on charter schools, getting a school tour from Aspire’s Allison Leslie, the executive director for Aspire’s Memphis schools who moved from California to Memphis to oversee the launch. Hanley is located in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis, once the home to the black middle class – the nation’s largest neighborhood of homes owned by African Americans. The crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, however, changed all that and the neighborhood fell onto hard times.

In November, 2012, residents learned that Hanley, a school they all assumed to be doing well (that’s what the principal told the parents) in fact fell into the state’s bottom 5 percent of performers. In the ASD’s partner-selection process, Hanley ended up in the care of Aspire, which took in all the students from the year before, and even more. Aspire turned Hanley into two schools, Hanley 1 and 2.

The first-year results for the Hanley schools were not promising, mostly because Aspire assumed the state would stick by its plans to shift to the Common Core curriculum.  Aspire made the shift; the state didn’t. This year, however, looks different: big increases in math proficiency and respectable increases in literacy skills.

“Everyone is realizing that it takes at least three years to effectively turn around a school. In the first year, you really need to focus on changing the culture and leading indicators such as attendance, suspension and student attrition,” Leslie said. “In the second year, there should be increases in proficiency and exceptional growth. By year three you should see great gains in proficiency and continue to see high growth scores.”

To date, most of the most successful charter groups have steered away from attempting school transformations. That‘s understandable – it’s far easier to build a unique school culture by starting a separate school, especially if you expand just one grade at a time. With that method, you can get great results in the first year.

But as Aspire is demonstrating in Memphis, the best charter groups can take over struggling traditional schools and produce far better results. It might take longer, but for the families that rely on those schools the wait is worth it.

What Tennessee – and Denver, New Orleans and D.C. – is doing is promising but, unfortunately, rare. Which raises the question: If we know what to do, why aren’t we doing it?

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