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A Formula for School Turnaround? (Matt Johnston)

On Monday, the Washington Post ran this story about the dramatic turnaround among DC’s Catholic schools, which were in dismal shape 10 years ago.

The story leads with this:

Many Catholic schools in the District seemed moribund in 1995. Paint was peeling, and enrollment and test scores were dropping. Advisers urged the archbishop of Washington to shut or consolidate several schools serving low-income neighborhoods.

Cardinal James A. Hickey refused. “I won’t abandon this city,” he said. Instead, Washington’s Catholic schools began a series of drastic changes in 1997. New administrators armed with research on what worked in urban education put many schools under the same office. They told teachers that they would be judged on how much their students improved, required them to use common math and reading curricula and adopted learning standards that had worked well in Indiana, 500 miles away.

It was one of the most radical realignments of Catholic education ever attempted in a U.S. city. Ten years later, principals and teachers at the 14 schools in the archdiocese’s Center City Consortium are celebrating a sharp turnaround in student achievement and faculty support. The consortium serves about 2,400 students through eighth grade, nearly a third of whom receive federally funded tuition vouchers.(emphasis added)

With the fifth anniversary of NCLB upon us, it might be a good time to take a good long look at the successes of school systems, whether private, parochial or public, and use those lessons to see how NCLB can be improved. Joanne Jacobs has a good roundup of commentary about NCLB+5, but I thought that looking at places like the DC Catholic School consortium can offer some real life lessons.

Lesson 1–Data Matters. Even some of NCLB’s harshest critics have to grudgingly concede that NCLB now provides a wealth of data to examine. The fact that the data is not being used to the fullest extent is not a failure of the law so much as a failure of the states, localities and even the schools themselves to use the massive amount of information about student learning, successes and failures to correct their path to education. But as the DC Catholic Schools have learned, the data is there and it can be used to help students rather than to punish the school or the teacher. As this quote from the article says, breaking down the data leads to better student learning.

Consortium leaders credit a new group of relatively young teachers that has sought to become immersed in student achievement data.

Jodi Bossio, 26, a fourth-grade teacher at Sacred Heart School in Northwest Washington, said she used the TerraNova data to improve her teaching and to help the students she promoted to fifth grade. “We just took apart the data, and I saw that Leslie, for instance, got questions wrong that I thought she had mastered already,” she said. “So I used it for my end-of-the-year planning and made it part of the portfolio I sent her new teacher.”

Perhaps part of the teacher instruction should be how to break down these sorts of test data so that teachers can develop some individual lesson plans. But to be sure, this kind of data, while it may have existed prior to NCLB, is being used in the most successful districts to help students.

Lesson 2–Teachers Can Successfully Be Held Accountable. All the teachers reading this will probably groan about this, saying they are being held accountable for conditions beyond their control. But to counter that, I recommend Brett Pawlowski’s post over at the DeHaviland Blog.Here is Brett’s money quote:

In reality, we need to compare apples to apples. We’re not comparing classroom teachers to Ken Lay; we’re comparing them to Bob from sales, or Carl from production. The typical worker in the business world is completely accountable, and despite the fact that they rarely help in determining the goals they’ll be measured against, and the fact that they’re unprotected from forces outside of their control, they are held accountable as a condition of their employment.

But here is the biggest difference between Bob in sales and teachers–a teacher won’t get fired for their student failures.

But the DC Catholic schools made it clear that teachers will be held accountable for the progress, or lack thereof, of their students. The DC Catholic schools made that clear to their teachers and the success is undeniable. But it is not just the top-down accountability but also the personal, bottom-up accountability of the individual teachers that has lead to success for students. Instead of pointing fingers and assigning blame, teachers, like Ms. Bossio, buckled down and did their duty. This is not to say that most teachers don’t or won’t undertake similar efforts, but there is a vocal minority who do and that minority is what is painting the picture for most Americans of teachers who don’t care.

Accountability was poorly framed in NCLB, I will readily admit, since success is defined in pass/fail terms. While the Dept. of Ed has accepted the concept of growth models of evaluation, the application has been haphazard at best and not fully developed as the main mechanism of measuring success for schools and teachers. Accountability can be measured against student achievement and if a teacher is not adding significantly to the bottom line learning of their students, they should be held accountable–just like Bob in sales.

Lesson 3–Standards Are Vitally Important. The Washington Post article implies that different schools were using different curricula and standards–leading, one would suppose, to an inability for the schools to determine what students were learning and how. By imposing a common curriculum and a common standard, it is easy for the DC Catholic schools to measure success not only across classes within a school but across schools.

The lesson for NCLB is that a fixed standard matters. I have advocated in the past for a national curriculum and standards. This would be the gold standard, that states could adopt and parents and teachers would be able to measure progress across schools and across states. In a society as mobile as ours, this is perhaps the most important change that can be made to NCLB.

A fair amount of the law could be scrapped, but if the federal government tied Title I money to this standard and the meeting of the standard on some acceptable level of success on a stringent national test and actually enforced it, I think much success can happen in a short period of time.

The future of NCLB is in doubt. I personally don’t think we can go back and don’t think we should. Politically, even this Democrat-controlled Congress is itself too invested in NCLB and politically can’t take the beating that will come from a wholesale repeal. But if the federal government would stick to the business of a gold standard and money and put the power of accountability upon the states, changes may bring real school turnarounds in the near future.

Matt Johnston lives in Frederick, Maryland.  This originally appeared on his blog, Going to the Mat.

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