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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Name That School

by folkbum

I am a bit slow to get around to this piece, from Alan Borsuk on Sunday, about the plight of an inner-city Milwaukee school:
It's been a difficult few years for the 56-year-old school. Enrollment declined from close to the building's capacity of 400 to about 300. Competition increased from [] private schools, charter schools and even suburban public schools.

The level of academic success at [this school] wasn't much different than [the average scores of the] Milwaukee Public Schools, which means it wasn't very good.

Some students who enrolled were far behind grade level and the school wasn't doing well in accelerating their achievement. The student body had become much less diverse--higher-income and white students had just about all departed, 90% of the students [met low-income requirements], and the student body was about evenly split between African-American and Hispanic.
Now, those of you who have already read the story or clicked through know the punchline, but be how many of you read that excerpt thinking, "What's so newsworthy about another failing MPS school?" The punchline, of course, is that the school is not, in fact, related to MPS. It's St. Joan Antida, and East Side all-girls Catholic school.

And yet every aspect of this school's story--with one or two notable exceptions--is familiar to MPS schools all across the city. MPS has seen its enrollment decline, and individual schools city-wide face empty seats and classrooms that put tremendous pressures on their site budgets. This is true because MPS faces fierce competition and loses more than 30,000 students a year to the burbs or vouchers or other competing entities. In fact, the notion of competition has poisoned MPS schools, pitting them against each other in ugly battles for students.

MPS schools have majority-minority enrollments which often creates conflicts in cultural expectations. MPS schools all have high poverty enrollments; 79% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and in many schools the concentration is much higher. (The part I elided above is about voucher enrollment, a slightly different measure of poverty.) And, of course, these factors and others combine to affect student performance.

The story even goes on to describe the school's struggle to add engineering courses and Advanced Placement courses, even against the odds of ninth-graders who enter well below grade level--more familiar challenges MPS schools face all the time.

One of the notable exceptions is special education. Borsuk's story doesn't mention St. Joan's special education population, but if it is like other voucher schools, there a few ex-ed students there affecting the school's atmosphere and scores.

The second notable exception is the actual subject of Borsuk's story:
How about this for strong medicine to improve a school: Ask every teacher and administrator to turn in resignations. Tell them they can reapply for their jobs, but there's going to be higher expectations from now on. Hire back less than half of the staff. [. . .]

[School president Cindy] Marino said all but one of 35 administrators and teachers applied to stay on after being told it was going to be a new day at the school. Some withdrew as the hiring process proceeded. A few positions were eliminated and some staff members were told they weren't going to be offered new contracts.

In the end, fewer than half will return next year. Marino said some just didn't want to change in the way the school was changing or didn't think they needed to go as far with the students in pursuing success as the leaders want.
This is what perhaps makes the St. Joan's story an interesting experiment for Milwaukee to watch. What's happening at that school is exactly what the punditerati wish would happen across MPS--fire all those lousy, lazy old teacher who because they have tenure don't give a crap about the students any more. (How many such teachers there are, or where one to four thousand replacement teachers might come from is never fully explained.) While I don't question the truth of the idea that the quality of the teacher is the single most important factor in the quality of the classroom experience; research bears this out.

And indeed the national trend is, as national trends often do, carrying this to the extreme. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, colloquially known as the stimulus, contained money for schools. But much of that money is contingent on punitive measures levied against the staff at the lowest performing schools, including removing half or more of the classroom teachers. What's happening at St. Joan's will undoubtedly start becoming the norm in even public schools all across the nation. However, this is not. supported by the data; in fact, as I have written here before data suggest that "reconstituting schools by replacing administrators, faculty or staff" in places where it's been tried has created "no substantial evidence [. . .] to indicate that such measures raise achievement."

In other words, despite the teachers' being so important to the functioning of a high-quality classroom, changing the teacher alone is not a guarantee that an unsuccessful classroom will suddenly turn around. There are many reasons for this--the study linked above talks about, for example, the negative effects of upheaval, for example, which often depresses scores further in the years after such reconstitution. Then there's significant amount of stuff that doesn't change within those students' lives, or within the wider school community.

So this St. Joan Antida experiment will be an interesting one to watch, as it may well be a good indicator of what kind of success this kind of reform will have. Because make no mistake: This is coming to MPS, and to public schools all across the nation if Arne Duncan keeps getting his way. For those who've done the research, the outlook for such a sweeping effort is not particularly optimistic.

For me, the situation Borsuk describes at St. Joan really lays bare what I have been saying all along: When, in Milwaukee as in other urban situations, schools face budget crises and high poverty and difficult-to-teach students, they struggle even with the best of intentions and best of teachers, the job is damned hard. Putting different people into a damned hard job isn't going to make the job any easier.

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