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What are successful ‘outlier’ schools doing to close achievement gap?

In the decade since its passage, a river of ink has been spilled decrying the failings of No Child Left Behind.

In the decade since its passage, a river of ink has been spilled decrying the failings of No Child Left Behind. Partisan leanings aside, virtually all of us agree: It’s punitive, based on faulty assumptions, and gives us little to help any given teacher reach any given student.

It’s responsible for epidemic levels of finger-pointing, administrative cheating and, most tragically, teaching to the test. And it has put a lot of money into the pockets of publicly traded education concerns.

It’s easy, then, to lose sight of the fact that until 2003, when the first NCLB-mandated tests were administered, we had no universal measurement of student achievement. The SATs told us something about how the college-bound were faring, and a small cross-section took a national test popularly dubbed “the nation’s report card.”

But overall, we, the public, really didn’t know, in concrete terms, how schools were faring. We had very little idea just how many kids lacked basic skills.

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Last week, eight years into this mostly failed experiment, we learned that even the schools that do the best with concentrations of kids in poverty — the so-called beat-the-odds schools — fail a third to a half of their students.

A sense of urgency
The numbers still incite a surfeit of partisan finger-pointing, but there’s also a sense of urgency. And, parsed carefully, they tell us that closing the achievement gap is in fact possible and not just a pipe dream.  

All of which is a very long preface to the point of today’s post: As it did last year, when the results of the 2011 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments were released, the Star Tribune engaged in the very real public service of identifying statistical outliers.

The most interesting of these top-10 lists identify the schools with high concentrations of poverty that post high test scores — “high” being a relative term. This year’s lists are populated with many of the same names that were on them last year.

Two St. Paul Public schools made the math list; one of those two, Dayton’s Bluff Elementary, was the lone public school to appear on the reading list. Last year it was No. 1 in reading and No. 2 in math. This year it placed at Nos. 9 and 10, respectively. Its scores plummeted — something we will return to in a moment.

One school that showed up both years is guaranteed not to next year: Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy, better known as TIZA, lost its charter over the summer for reasons unrelated to both its academic performance and the controversy about its Muslim identity.

Many charter schools on lists
Eight of the top-10 math achievers are charter schools, as are nine of the 10 schools that beat the odds in reading. Many of them made appearances last year, too.

Many offer “wrap-around” services that connect kids and parents with health care, mental health care, vision and dental care, language skills, housing assistance and so on.

Five of the top math scorers and four of the reading odds-beaters are members of a network called Charter School Partners that seeks to identify and replicate gap-closing strategies. The exact mix varies from school to school, but all have longer days and years, rigorous expectations for continuous improvement by teachers, strong leaders and a relentless reliance on data.

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Let’s pause for a moment to expand on this last point: We’re not talking about MCA data, but about Friday afternoon math quizzes, spelling exams delivered on the fly and other “formative assessments” that tell teachers precisely which skills individual kids need.

Typically, a teacher reaches about 70 percent of students with their first lesson. Some of the remainder require reinforcement and some require a different approach altogether, or they may never get a potentially progress-halting concept like, say, counting by tens.

Teachers in many of these schools work in teams; all team members consider student data together and discuss the best interventions.

‘The genius of charter schools … it’s flexibility’
The magic of the charter isn’t the nature of the school’s legal formation per se, CSP’s Brian Sweeney pointed out: “The genius of charter schools isn’t that they’re going to find a new way to teach kids to read. It’s flexibility.”

Indeed, the mainline public schools that appear on the lists are site-governed.

Mary Donaldson is principal of Concordia Creative Learning Academy, a CSP charter located on St. Paul’s east side, which appeared at No. 4 on the math list and topped this year’s reading list.

Eighty-eight percent of the 400 students are impoverished. There are 96 new kids this year, all of them four or more years behind in proficiency.

Nonetheless, 80 percent read proficiently and almost 63 percent are proficient in math. (Math scores dipped overall statewide this year, the first in which a new, more rigorous test was used. Educators aren’t sure what this means in terms of performance, but among themselves are crediting — or blaming — the new exam for 10 points.)

Donaldson is quite clear about what enables Concordia’s success: “The ability to have the freedom to make decisions to meet students’ needs at any time, immediately and without having to go through a group of people somewhere else.”

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12 to 14 extra weeks of school
Concordia’s longer days and school on Saturday translate to 12-14 extra weeks of school per year. They eat breakfast in class and get 45 minutes of physical education every day.

Kids are never away from school for more than two weeks. If a kid doesn’t show up for school, Donaldson sends a van to their home to get them.

And, she added, “I can hire and fire whomever, whenever.”

Leaders of the other top-10 schools can tell similar stories.

It’s a fragile mix, however, as demonstrated by Dayton’s Bluff, which beat the odds this year, but by dramatically less than in the past. Reading scores dropped 10 points, from 69 percent to 59 percent.

Last year, 75 percent of students were proficient in math, compared to 48 percent this year. Even given the 10 percent new test guesstimate of points lost, that’s a 27 percentage-point drop.

Principal Steven Flucas has yet to see individual classroom results, but has a general idea what happened. Partly because of the school’s shiny new reputation and partly because busing rules were changed, enrollment is up — good news, but a challenge.

In 2009-2010, the school had 315 students, according to state records. Last year, there were 360, and this year there are 425. It’s fair to assume most of these kids show up behind, just as they do at Concordia.

Quite a bit of churn
The higher numbers also mask a fair amount of churn, which is particularly problematic because student mobility is highly correlated to low proficiency. Depending on the grade level, 20 percent to 35 percent of each class turns over mid-year.

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Partly, this goes hand-in-glove with the school’s 91 percent poverty rate. But the housing crisis also seems to play a factor, in Flucas’ view. There are an awful lot of homes for sale in the neighborhood, which means kids moving both in and out.

Finally, because enrollment is up there are 28 kids in each class, as opposed to 16 last year.

“There’s disappointment, of course,” said Flucas’ predecessor, Andrew Collins, who is now SPPS’s director of turnaround schools. “But there’s also a sense of optimism about what this building can do and what’s possible.”

Which is, in the end, more than any of us knew a decade ago when the tests became the law of the land.

Is it enough? Check back next year.