It’s a buzz phrase that all sides of the education reform debate have now, that any changes must be “research-based.”
Of course, too many then cite the research that supports the opinions they already hold and ignore the data that challenges those beliefs. Still, you can’t have research-based reforms without research and you can’t research new ideas without trying them out first.
That’s why a study released last week, “Tinkering Toward Transformation” by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, is important. It took an early look at the nine Washington state school districts – including Tacoma’s – and 18 schools that accepted $50 million in federal stimulus money under the School Improvement Grant program.
Nationwide, $3 billion is devoted to the effort. The increased funding means a lack of adequate money cannot be blamed for poor results, making it easier to measure the effects of other factors.
“SIG is a petri dish of turnaround for a researcher,” said Sarah Yatsko, who led the study team.
The results were discouraging but not surprising.
“It is clear that most SIG schools in Washington are making only marginal changes, similar to ones made in the past,” the study concludes.
None of the state’s SIG schools surpassed statewide test scores in math and reading in all grades tested. More than half were outpaced by average growth in their own districts.
Study authors blame – in addition to a tight timeline for proposing and implementing changes – the timidity of district administrators.
SIG requires schools to use one of four school turnaround models – transformation, turnaround, restart or closure. Since “restart” means charter school, something not allowed by state law, that was not an option here.
Turnaround is more disruptive since it involves replacing the principal and rehiring no more than half of the school’s existing staff of teachers. Transformation only requires a new principal (unless that person has been at the school for less than two years), making it what study authors term the least aggressive model.
It isn’t a surprise then that most districts, faced with trying to bring teachers unions along, defaulted to the transformation option. And most of them adopted what the study dubs a “kitchen sink” approach to interventions rather than a “laser focus” on where the school was failing and what could turn it around.
The only positive change in student performance came in the schools that aimed high and selected principals with the skills to turn failing schools around. Those principals instituted a “no-excuses” culture for both students and staff and had what Yatsko termed “an obsession with data.”
The CRPE study is controversial but necessary. It would have more value, however, if it named names. Researchers gave confidentiality to the people they interviewed but that shouldn’t mean they must be vague as to which schools and which models worked best.
If they had been more forthcoming, my guess is they would have highlighted Tacoma.
Only Tacoma tried all three options at its struggling middle schools: it closed Hunt, it employed transformation at Jason Lee (though nearly half of the staff is new) and used turnaround at Giaudrone and Stewart. Rather than conclude that more sweeping changes weren’t possible, then-Superintendent Art Jarvis and Tacoma Education Association President Darrick Hartman bravely negotiated a means to try something bold.
The district effort, led by former Stewart principal Krestin Bahr, used national research on turnaround programs and was assertive in choosing principals who in turn took staff selection seriously.
The district is tracking the former Hunt students and claims they are showing improved scores at new schools. And while personality and style problems led to the removal of Stewart’s principal Jon Ketler last month, Jon Kellett at Jason Lee and Zeek Edmond at Giaudrone are getting good reviews.
It is early, but all three schools are showing some improvement in scores.
Overall, Yatsko said the study should be encouraging, despite the apparent gloomy conclusions.
“Even in relative terms, there really were some schools that hit it out of the park,” Yatsko said. While principals are the difference maker, “teachers carried this.”
If the schools and districts with marginal improvement so far want a better model, it is not too late to change their approach. And Yatsko can’t say it for research confidentiality reasons, but I can: A visit to Jason Lee or Giaudrone would be a good place for them to start.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657
This story has been revised to correct the name of the Tacoma teachers union president who was in charge at the time the union and district negotiated the School Improvement Grant conditions.