Letter to Norwalk Board of Education

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This was my letter sent to the Norwalk Board of Education on June 16, 2015 as an individual. My views are my own.

Dear members of the Norwalk Board of Education,

Several newspapers recently reported that the Norwalk Board of Education would be hiring a former Superintendent of the Hartford Public Schools (HPS). As a Hartford Board of Education member since 2010 and an educational researcher, I write to raise concerns about claims made about the Hartford Public Schools between 2006 and 2011.

A press release from the Norwalk Board of Education suggests that HPS improved test results and graduation rates because of a change in policies and a new superintendent in 2006. It is true that HPS embarked on a policy of expanded school choice and hyper-accountability. This included closing schools and reopening them as themed academies.

However, there is little evidence that these policies alone resulted in improved achievement and graduation rates. As I wrote in The Hartford Courant in 2011, there was a mixed result from these policies – at best. Most importantly, the apparent “increases” only began when testing and graduation policies changed to artificially inflate this data.

Hartford’s “historic” test result increases only began when low-income, Black, and Latino students with disabilities were removed from regular tests and allowed to participate in a separate modified assessment in 2009. By 2011, 10% or more of all Hartford students, all with disabilities, were selected for a separate test. While this was happening, the HPS superintendent and administrators took credit. They also took bonus money for the subsequent increases, caused in large part by removing these kids.

I have written extensively on this issue. You can read my Op-Ed in the Hartford Courant, my report for CT Voices for Children, and my TEDx Talk at Central CT State University on the issue. This is not speculation, but fact.

Hartford’s graduation rate also has a number of question marks. Between 2006 and 2011, several policies changed that inflated graduation rates. First, the formula changed to calculate graduation rates. This new formula has excluded hundreds of Black and Latino students. They have been transferred out of their cohorts, and effectively removed from all calculations.

Second, online credit recovery and the policy of mandatory minimum grade of 55% inflated graduation rates. Online credit recovery, required by State law in 2010, meant that students that did not pass a course the first time were allowed to take the course online instead.

Hartford’s “F-55” rule mandated that a student failing a quarter or semester would get a 55% percent. With this rule, a student could earn a 75% in one quarter and pass the rest of the course, even without doing any work or even showing up to class. The Hartford Board of Education never approved these changes for online credit recovery and the “F-55” policy.

The information is not new, but ignored. Elected board members in Hartford raised concerns about both the test scores and graduation rates with little response from the Superintendent or his successor. Interestingly, the video of the meeting in early 2011 where Board members confronted the superintendent about the test inflation was reported as “damaged”. This was the only missing or damaged meeting video in my six years of service.

Rather than outright success, much of what happened in Hartford can be explained by these data illusions. Also, the tremendous State investment in school choice, particularly magnet schools, under the Sheff v. O’Neill agreement has played a major role.

The Hartford Public Schools are still trying to recover from the considerable damage caused by the school “turnarounds” started in 2006 and the unregulated school choice system. Our district is in as much or more financial distress with the expansion of school choice programs beyond our ability to support them. Many of the “turnaround” schools have experienced their second closure and reopening. In many of the Sheff magnet schools and most of our non-magnet schools, our staff still struggles to meet the needs of all children. Even former proponents of these policies have come to question their viability and performance.

I believe deeply in the ability of our city’s children and families, mostly Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino folk, to succeed academically and thrive in life. That is what we have been doing for hundreds of years with substantially unequal and separate opportunities in education and the economy. Yet, the limited resources that sustained our Black and Latino communities are now diminished, dismantled, privatized, or provided to only selected students. These resources included broad academic curriculum offerings, sports, special education services, bilingual education, and libraries.

While you are free to make the decision that is best for Norwalk, I would recommend not to make that decision based on discredited claims about Hartford. What happened from 2006-11 in Hartford may have helped some kids, but came along with further marginalization of the most vulnerable children and families in our city. In Hartford, we are still working for equitable opportunity.

Sincerely
Robert Cotto, Jr.

Member, Hartford Board of Education

CT Charter Renewal Update: The Accountability is Still Flexible

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The State Department of Education has recommended to the State Board that six existing charter schools get renewed. Today, Wednesday, May 6, 2015, the State Board of Education will vote to approve (or not) those recommendations to renew the charters of six existing state charter schools in Connecticut. My quick reading is that charter school accountability is still always flexible, as I wrote here.

The charter schools up for renewal include ISAAC, Odyssey, New Beginnings, Explorations, Common Ground, and Stamford Academy.  Although all the schools are recommended for renewal, the conditions of their renewal vary. I’ve listed each school below with a summary of the recommendations and conditions. Click on the link to view CT SDE’s resolution for each school.

There a number of unresolved issues here. CT SDE lists some of the highlights and concerns at each school. The reports talk about culture and climate, finances, test results, and demographics. But some of the major issues are ignored.

Racial and ethnic segregation in charter schools? There are state laws prohibiting segregation in charter schools.

Comparing charter school test results with school district test results? That’s comparing apples to oranges.

Using test results from 2013 to make a decision about a school in 2015?

Also, Stamford Academy squeaked by with a three-year renewal and one-year probation. If that school was a regular public school, with the test results it has, it would have been closed, turned into a charter school, or converted to a charter management organization. Right now, it is a charter school operated by a charter management organization.

I can justify not closing the school, but now we have a massive contradiction. On the one hand, CT SDE uses low test results to justify the privatization of “turnaround” schools with high needs and limited resources and lots of children of color. And on the other hand, they will never close a charter school, managed by a private, charter management organization with similar or far worse academic results over time.

So the next time CT SDE or your school board want to close a school in your town because of test results, or some other reason, in order to make it into a charter or privately-managed school, you might ask, “where’s our flexible accountability”?

(Here is the meeting agenda and materials. The meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 6, 2015 at the CT SDE Office in Room 307.)

Five year charter renewal

ISAAC – five year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism.

Odyssey – five year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism.

Common Ground – five year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism.

Three year charter renewal

New Beginnings – three year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce suspensions/expulsions and chronic absenteeism. Must develop growth
targets and may face probation for not meeting goals.

Explorations – three year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce suspensions/expulsions and chronic absenteeism. Must develop growth
targets and may face probation for not meeting goals.

Stamford Academy – three year renewal, one year probation, must submit plans for improved academic outcomes, must submit a plan to reduce suspensions/expulsions and chronic absenteeism.

Connecticut Schools Excelling without Testing?

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When it comes to standardized testing, there are a number of stories we can tell. One of the dominant stories about education goes something like this: ‘Kids must take standardized tests every year or else we can’t hold adult accountable for learning – all kids, every year, in all schools. Parents need to know how their children are doing in school. For low-income, Black, and/or Latino & Puerto Rican children this is doubly true. Once the test data comes in, then assign merit to individual students. For groups, punish the “low-performers” and reward the “high-performers”.’

Another story is that Black, Latino, and Puerto Rican children and adults have been forced to take standardized tests since IQ tests were first administered in the 1910’s. This testing served to mask and justify the underinvestment, academic tracking, segregation, and miseducation in schools. (Au, 2008) Within these conditions, we persisted. Occasionally, lawyers won a civil rights case by citing test data. Oftentimes the tests helped authorities select the most meritorious among us for advancement.

But what would happen if there weren’t high-stakes tests to sort children and rate teachers, schools, and districts? Would the schools still function? Would kids still learn? How would we know who to reward and who to punish? How might this disrupt these two very different stories about testing?

There are, in fact, a small number of public schools where kids don’t take high-stakes tests in Connecticut. For these schools, the CT Department of Education does something very unusual, contrary to what we are told should or needs to be done to schools. CT SDE simply invents rankings for these schools. No tests needed. As former CT State Representative Jonathan Pelto might say, “Wait, what?”

Under the original NCLB law, the state judged schools using kids’ test results, then labeled them as “In need of improvement” or “Not Making Annual Progress”/”Made Annual Yearly Progress”. With the NCLB Waiver in 2012, CT schools instead received new, more pleasant-sounding labels such as “excelling”, “progressing”, “transitioning”, “review”, “focus”, or “turnaround.” These labels were similarly based on standardized test data, as well as a few other data points such as graduation rates when they were high schools.

In Connecticut, there were 60 schools where children did not take high-stakes tests in 2012-13. So those schools can’t be labeled something like “excelling” or “transitioning”, right?

Wrong.

The 60 schools where kids haven’t had high-stakes tests were in two main categories. The categories included:

a. Schools that only served grade pre-k to grade 2

b. Schools that only served grade 9, or grade 11, and/or grade 12

These grades did not have high-stakes tests such as the CMT or CAPT in 2012-13. In Connecticut, children in public schools in pre-kindergarten through grade 2, grade 9, grade 11 and 12 did not have annual, high-stakes tests in 2012-13. But these 60 schools only had children in these “non-tested” grades. Still, they may have had local diagnostic tests or assessments such as the “DRA” to check in on kids’ academic progress. The high schools may have had graduation rate data that could be used to help assign a rating. But the key data point to make the rankings–the test results–didn’t exist.

Additionally, there were two schools (+2) with fewer than 20 students taking the tests, so their test results weren’t used for “accountability” purposes, but they were given a rating. (Briggs High School and Explorations charter school)

CT SDE found a way to work around the fact there wasn’t any test data to label these 60 (+2) schools. According to its school “performance” reports, the State of Connecticut, “analyzed district-wide data and applied the results of those analyses to schools without tested grades.”

This means that the State just looked at how the kids in all the other schools in the same district did on the standardized tests (CMT or CAPT) in grades 3 to 8 and 10, then applied the most frequent ranking across the district to any schools without tests.

Lost?

Here’s the State’s explanation from the school “performance” reports from 2012-13. In this example, Coventry Grammar School was labeled “Excelling” based on the test results from the other schools in Coventry.

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So to recap.

As far as we can tell from the state’s open data, the students in Coventry Grammar School did not take the CMT, CAPT, SBAC, PARCC, or any other high-stakes tests in 2012-13. The school only had children in kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2. As of this writing, these grades were “untested” by the state, so the whole school was “untested” by CT SDE. Yet, this school was labeled as “excelling” based on the test results from other schools in Coventry. That’s excelling without testing!

Because these schools didn’t take the tests for one of the reasons listed above, the State Department of Education simply made up a ranking based on data from other schools. As the report reveals, this practice served to appease the Federal Department of Education.

So who were these schools? They were primarily suburban and rural schools with only elementary school grades, such as pre-k to grade two and a handful of high schools too.

These 60 schools had, on average (mean), 310 students, 66% white students and 27.5% student eligible for free or reduced price lunch. These schools were generally more affluent, more white, more suburban, and had smaller enrollments than the average school in Connecticut in 2012-13. Here is a full list.

Connecticut Public Schools Without High-Stakes Testing – 2012-13

 

Among this group, and in order of relative prestige, 7 schools were placed into the “excelling” category, 16 were labeled “progressing”, 34 “transitioning”, 4 in “review”, 1 in “focus”.

Only one school among this group-Ramón E. Betances Early Reading Lab School-was labeled in the “turnaround” category. It’s somewhat unclear how the school got this ranking.

Betances was (and is) arguably one of the more isolated schools by race, ethnicity, income, and language status in Hartford. In the past, overall test results were relatively lower than the city’s magnet schools and suburban schools. But the school also went through a “reconstitution” a few years ago in the name of raising test scores. (i.e. firing all staff because of low-test scores and bringing in new people)

However, CT SDE did not report any test data for this school in 2012-13, even though it did have a third grade class, a “tested” grade. The State provided no performance report for this school either.

Again, it’s unclear why the school received the ranking without any test data. As a school that had a federal “School Improvement Grant”, CT SDE may automatically placed Betances into the “turnaround” category. It’s also important to note that the Hartford Courant reported that there was a CT SDE investigation into accusations of test cheating at the school, so maybe that’s a part of all this case.

All this labeling, ranking, and sorting without standardized testing in these schools!

To be sure, no Connecticut public school students in grades pre-kindergarten, grades 1, 2, 9, 11, & 12 never took the CMT or CAPT high-stakes tests. (I know, that kind of bursts the, “All kids need to be tested every year” bubble.) So these 60 schools were special cases of schools with children entirely enrolled in non-tested grades.

By assigning these schools a ranking based on the test results of other schools in the same district, CT SDE quietly patched up another hole in the test machinery. But this patch opened up another hole in the story we are told that all kids need to be tested every year in all schools, or else!

This patch is difficult for CT SDE to defend. It busts a hole in the claim that tests are needed to tell parents how their children are doing in school. And this quick fix comes as more evidence surfaces that CT SDE has actively suppressed parents’ rights to refuse the tests, or opt out, as protest towards better education policy and practice.

The concept of more holistic accountability of schools is defensible, including periodic testing of a representative sample of the students in a district or school to get a picture of basic academic skill development. This is how the NAEP has worked for decades – testing a representative sample of kids in a handful of grade levels, not every kid, every year, in every grade. This is similar to how public opinion polls and the U.S. Census or American Community Survey work.

Remember, the dominant story says, “Testing is doubly important for low-income, Black, and Latino kids so they can learn. Without the testing, how can we know the kids are learning? How can parents know how their children are doing?” But these more advantaged schools didn’t need high-stakes testing to exist, get support from their communities and the state, communicate to parents how students were doing in school (I’m guessing that they have found other approaches), or receive a ranking that lead to the rewards and punishments that we are told they need. How was it that these more advantaged schools communicated children’s academic progress without high-stakes tests every year?

There are drastic differences in power between parents and schools in white compared to communities of color. So this testing business can play out differently in schools. Periodic testing might be used as check-in and provide data that can empower low-income, people of color. But annual high-stakes testing (HST) isn’t designed to erase historic inequities. Instead, high-stakes testing more often exacerbates those inequities. (Valenzuela, 2004)

Take Hartford, CT, where I live and I’m on the school board. About half of Hartford is Latino or Puerto Rican, a third of the population is Black (with many West Indian families) and 10-15 % white folks. The testing that supposedly offers parents more power is often disempowering.

How?

Occasionally, parents speak about the test data to get attention, then their concerns pivot to mismanagement, mistreatment, under- or selective investment, and miseducation. The same test data is used by people with more power to justify mismanagement or under-service, close schools, offer hefty bonuses to teachers, staff, and administrators, provide more school choice “options”, define kids as “gifted” or “deficient”, and make claims about the people in the schools. Parents have power and agency, but testing doesn’t erase the differences in institutional power that they face. Instead of help in Hartford, the schools often get more tests.

The State already claims that schools are excelling, progressing, and transitioning without testing. A stale vision for public schools might call for more, better tests and more data. Why can’t all schools move forward and ditch the high-stakes tests and replace this enterprise with a different system of accountability?

A new vision must remember the other story about testing. That story says that low-income, Black, Latino & Puerto Rican kids have received underinvestment, tracking, segregation, and miseducation. Over the years, we’ve received plenty of testing and it has been used to obscure deep inequity. Still, we have persisted and navigated this world.

If remember this story, then all this testing business becomes more curious. If the testing stopped, then we might have time to look back and think more deeply about why all of our schools aren’t always “excelling” despite all the annual, high-stakes testing.

(Note: If you learn, work, or send your children to any of these schools, I would love to hear how they manage without all the testing. Comments are activated.)

Charter School Renewal in CT: The Accountability Is Flexible

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Over the next few months, the public and Legislature will debate whether charter schools in Connecticut are sufficiently regulated or not. The State Department of Education and Board of Education will also decide whether or not to renew six (6) existing charter schools in Connecticut.

Already this legislative session, there is a bill for a moratorium on new charter schools and a review of existing ones. There are also proposals for more charter schools in CT. A missing aspect of this debate has been the existing charter school renewal process. This process merits more scrutiny because the firm “accountability” it promises is actually more flexible than advertised and it stands in contrast with how other public schools are treated by the State.

When Connecticut lawmakers initially allowed charter schools to operate in 1997, a major guiding principle was an exchange of “flexibility” for “accountability”. In other words, private non-profit “entities” receive public funds to operate public charter schools with permission to operate outside of various state and local laws, such as limited or no requirements for teacher certification and collective bargaining; but only if they met State educational goals. Charter school laws and guiding principles are similar around the country.

In 2014, the State’s charter school report claimed that, “Connecticut’s charter school law and accountability plan administered by CSDE require charter schools to demonstrate their success and compliance with the law in exchange for their charters.” In 2010, the report put it more directly as success and compliance, “in exchange for autonomy from local boards of education.”

This concept suggests that if charter schools don’t meet defined goals or state educational interests, they will face concrete, firm, and predictable consequences. The case of charter schools renewals, past and present, shows that the concept of “accountability” for “flexibility” is more theory than practice. Instead, when it comes to charter schools, the “accountability” is “flexible” and consequences do not come their way in a regular or predictable fashion.

For other public schools, the concrete goals usually mean some test-score target defined each year; and the firm, predictable consequences for not meeting those targets can mean mandatory state or local intervention in managing the school, firing most of the staff, or converting the school to a private management company, or a charter school. Examples of this “test and punish” approach throughout Connecticut include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Lewis Fox Middle School in Hartford was closed and later replaced with an Achievement First Charter School
  • Milner Elementary School in Hartford and Paul L. Dunbar School in Bridgeport were reconstituted and then operated by Jumoke/FUSE charter management corporation through the controversial “commissioner’s network”. This experiment ended with the demise of FUSE/Jumoke.
  • Last year the State of CT and Hartford Public Schools attempted to close Clark Elementary and replace it with an Achievement First-managed charter school, but that effort failed.

There is a different approach for charter school renewal and evaluation. Depending on the particular charter, the non-profit, private organizations that operate a public charter school must go through a  process to determine whether they can keep their charter or lose permission from the state to operate the school. This process happens every three to five years for each charter school. The process is a way to regulate all charter schools and make sure they are serving the goals of public education.

The process to renew a charter has multiple parts and extends over several months. The charter operator must first submit an application to the State Department of Education explaining their work, including areas such as students’ academic progress (interpreted by the state as standardized test results), curriculum, staff development, finances, and governance (management & administration) of the school.

Six schools will go through the charter renewal process this school year (2014/2015). Those schools include: (click on the school name link for the 2014/15 renewal applications.)

These aren’t new charter schools, but have enrolled children for ten to twenty years at this point. Having opened in 1997, Odyssey, Common Ground, and ISAAC were among the first state charter schools created in Connecticut. Here’s a list from The CT Mirror for future charter school renewal years.

 

The red tags on the map are the six charter schools up for renewal this year. Blue dots on the map are all other charter schools in CT.  Click on the dots/tags for more basic info on each school, including its website.

 

The next step is that the State Department of Education reviews the application and conducts a site visit to observe how a school operates compared to the description in their renewal application. A look into this process can be seen in this letter from CT SDE’s charter school program manager to administrators at the Common Ground High School in 2009, when the school was last up for a review. The letter shows some of the criteria for the charter renewal, which includes categories listed above, such as finance, test results, etc. If the school is meeting its goals and the educational interests of the state, then the State Board of Education can renew the school’s charter.

The state’s charter school law, specifically Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-66bb(g), outlines basic criteria that should guide the State Board of Education in deciding whether or not to renew a school’s charter. The criteria include, but are not limited to:

  • “student progress”,
  • administrative irresponsibility or misuse of public funds,
  • non-compliance with applicable state laws,
  • and failure to attract, enroll, and retain certain demographic groups such as students with disabilities and emerging bilingual children, identified as “English Language Learners.

It’s worth reading the CT charter school renewal law here.

The law leaves the door open for flexibility in this process. The text states that the State Board of Education “shall” (must) take into account the findings of a holistic, independent appraisal, but “may” (can) deny the application based on criteria in four categories, but not necessarily others. In short, the law does not require the State Board of Education to deny a charter renewal application for any particular reason, although it may do so.

In this way, lawmakers created loose rules in the charter renewal process. Like a judge may have discretion on a legal matter, or a psychologist uses clinical judgement, the CT State Department of Education reviews charter schools on a case by case basis and has a wide range of options in responding to their strengths and weaknesses. This provides administrative leeway or flexibility for state charter schools in Connecticut in the charter renewal process, but is contrary to this apparently strict mantra of “more accountability for more flexibility.”

Not included in the above section of charter school renewal law or the checklist are requirements to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation or other state laws. To that point, the very next section of the charter school law states:

(h) The Commissioner of Education may at any time place a charter school on probation if (1) the school has failed to

(A) adequately demonstrate student progress, as determined by the commissioner,
(B) comply with the terms of its charter or with applicable laws and regulations,
(C) achieve measurable progress in reducing racial, ethnic and economic isolation, (continued…)

Finally, the state can revoke a charter at any time in cases of an emergency, or with written notice for failure in any of the areas listed above. The commissioner has to provide notice in writing about why she/he moved to revoke the charter. The law states:

(i) The State Board of Education may revoke a charter if a charter school has failed to:

(1) Comply with the terms of probation, including the failure to file or implement a corrective action plan;
(2) demonstrate satisfactory student progress, as determined by the commissioner;
(3) comply with the terms of its charter or applicable laws and regulations; or
(4) manage its public funds in a prudent or legal manner.

Even if the State Board of Education moves to revoke a charter, the “governing council”, or a charter school’s managing board, can provide an oral or written presentation to contest the State’s decision to revoke the charter and demonstrate compliance in areas deemed deficient.

Perhaps because of the flexibility in the charter renewal law, there have been times when charter schools have been renewed despite apparent examples of not meeting specified goals, the listed criteria in statute, or educational interests of the State. Another possibility is that the implementation of the policy has not been sufficiently discerning to identify major problems such as financial malfeasance or the mistreatment of children.

As a result of this flexibility, the state Board nearly always renews charters. Between 2010-2013, all 17 charter schools  in the state obtained a renewed charter from the State Board of Education, according to this list  from the CT Mirror. (excluding one that became an interdistrict magnet school) Non-charter public schools have not been so fortunate as they have had to follow strict federal and state rules and consequences, primarily on the basis of standardized test results. Since 2007, at least ten non-charter schools in Hartford, CT alone were closed or the staff fired on the basis of rigid test-based targets and subsequent punishments as outlined in state, federal, and local policy.

(Note: To my knowledge, there isn’t a list of all CT schools that have been closed, reconstituted, converted to charters, turn(ed) around, or restarted as a result of NCLB/RttT test-based accountability. If you know of a list, please share!)

Take the charter schools requirements to enroll representative populations of emerging bilingual students and students with disabilities and the reduction of racial and ethnic isolation. In my report with Kenny Feder, “Choice Watch,” over at CT Voices for Children, we reported that charter schools in CT tend to have smaller proportions of emerging bilingual children and children with disabilities when compared to local school districts, and are often more racially segregated than local school districts. Yet, no charter school was revoked because it didn’t include emerging bilingual students, children with disabilities, or because it was racially segregated, as state law would suggest.

When problems are found, the State Board of Education has often allowed schools to keep their charters rather than closing the school through a non-renewal. In some cases, the State board required more frequent review of charter schools, such as a renewal process after three years rather than five, for example. This scenario happened in 2007 with Common Ground and Odyssey Community School (due to poor test data) and Achievement First-Hartford in 2013 (due to excessive suspensions/special education/civil rights complaints). In other cases, schools received “probation” by the State Board of Education before a charter was revoked or non-renewed. Examples of this action included Highville/Mustard Seed (due to financial malfeasance) and Jumoke (due to financial malfeasance).

According to past and recent State Department of Education reports on the operation of charter schools, only five charter schools closed their doors since 1999. Three closed because of insufficient funds, despite the fact that the State Dept. of Education was required to review their financial plans before a charter was granted. Additionally, the CT State Board of Education shut down one charter school for health/safety violations and closed one charter school because of lack of academic progress.

Even relatively low test scores haven’t been a sufficient reason to deny a charter renewal. When its charter was renewed in 2012, Trailblazers Academy charter school had among the lowest aggregate test results in CT. By the rules of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Trailblazers had not met “Annual Yearly Progress” for six years.

Stamford Academy, which had among the lowest aggregate test results in 2013 is now in a similar situation this year as it faces a charter renewal process. (They are up for a renewal after only three years.) By 2010-11, Stamford Academy hadn’t made “Annual Yearly Progress” for five years.

(Note: Annual Yearly Progress was such a problematic measure that it was abandoned by the CT State and U.S. Federal Departments of Education in Connecticut’s 2012 waiver to parts of the NCLB Act.)

According to the logic of more “accountability” for more “flexibility”, shouldn’t these schools have lost their charters?

Despite not making AYP (the goal back then) and the State reporting this negative status, it is still unclear why these charter schools never faced the same sorts of clear, strict punishments as other public schools under NCLB. While the CT State Department of Education and State Board of Education delegated the responsibility of implementing NCLB sanctions to local districts for schools under local control, they apparently haven’t assumed that responsibility for schools under their own supervision in recent years.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, if these schools had been non-charter public schools, they would have been targeted for punishments such as firing the entire staff, notifying parents that they could choose to go to another school, closing the school, state takeover, conversion to charter schools, or taking away public governance in favor of private management. Ironically, Stamford Academy and Trailblazers were the end goal of No Child Left Behind – privately managed, publicly-financed state charter schools that parents chose to enroll their children, ostensibly to produce higher test scores. Yet, they were still amongst the most struggling academically and the state renewed their charters in 2012.

In defense of these schools, (Trailblazers, Stamford Academy, and others) perhaps they are offering educational benefits not captured by overall low test results. Stamford Academy and Trailblazers Academy enrolled high proportions of children that struggled in school. These schools also served a much more historically under-served group of children, mostly Black, Latino, low-income, and many more students with disabilities when compared to the more affluent Stamford Public Schools, which also have higher proportions of white students.

I am not advocating that Trailblazers and Stamford Academy should close because I don’t have enough information on either one to make a judgement, nor would closing the schools improve them. But I am pointing out that there have been two sets of rules when it comes to state “accountability”. Several years ago, Wendy Lecker also pointed to what appeared to be “double standards” in evaluating charter and other public schools in her column at The Stamford Advocate.

Let’s also consider what the renewal process has looked like for some of Connecticut’s charter schools that look better as measured by test score data. When its charter was renewed in 2012, the State touted Amistad Academy’s high test results compared to New Haven schools in 5th grade, and particularly for 8th grade students.

The state’s resolution on Amistad Academy noted that the school didn’t meet “Annual Yearly Progress” in the elementary grades, but did in the high school grades in 2010-11. But there didn’t appear to be any firm academic goals apart from the AYP metric, just general description of its test results and how they were better than the New Haven Public Schools overall. There was a presentation of test results with some narrative, particularly of the vertical scale scores offered as evidence in the final resolution to approve the charter renewal.

Undiscussed however, was the fact that the test participation data showed massive student attrition at Amistad Academy. In 2008, there were 76 students in grade 5, but there were only 53 students that matched that group in grade 8 in 2011. This was a loss of 30% of the student population from the original 76 students that started 5th grade in 2008.

Amistad Table 3 VS

So the high overall test results in 8th grade only accounted for 70% of the kids that stayed at the school-those students that took the standard CMT in math in both grade 5 and grade 8 at Amistad Academy. This attrition happened in CT and New Haven overall, but not to the same degree. Such attrition impacted the way the test results were interpreted (we are only looking at 70% of an already selected cohort) and the manner in which the test results were obtained (removing low-scoring or undesirable students can inflate results at this school and impact other local schools that later enroll these students). This attrition went unmentioned in the State Board’s renewal resolution despite one of the questions in the State checklist being, “Is there a high turnover of students?”

The State’s resolution, referencing the audit and site visit, also explained that the school lacked curricula in grades 3-8 science, K-12 health, physical education, and the arts. There were also problems with financial controls and safeguards between Achievement First, Inc, the private charter management corporation, and Amistad Academy, the public charter school; and many of the school’s teachers lacked proper state certification. The school was allowed to remedy, or begin fixing these deficiencies before their hearing at the State Board of Education, thus securing a renewed charter.

In Connecticut, there are laws against both excessive suspensions of students and racial/ethnic segregation of students, particularly for charter schools. [see above CGS Sec. 10-66bb(h)] But the renewal process for Amistad Academy ignored its exclusionary disciplinary policies, racial and ethnic segregation, and provided no analysis of representative populations of bilingual children and students with disabilities, among others. To be sure, these issues aren’t specified in the renewal checklist, but the school is required to follow applicable laws and regulations, including laws about students suspensions, special education rights, and racial and ethnic segregation, among others.  A year after the Amistad renewal, The CT Mirror and The Hartford Courant reported that Amistad Academy and its Achievement First affiliates had the highest numbers and rates of suspensions of children in CT. As Choice Watch reported, the school was (and still is) racially segregated, as well as most charter schools in CT.

Amistad Academy may be a school that people want their children to attend amidst the relative disinvestment, neglect, and mis-education of children of color in other schools. However, parent and families’ decisions about schools happen in the context of State over-investment and policy in favor of public school choice programs and under-investment in other public schools with high proportions of low income and Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino children.  This arrangement is a key feature of Connecticut educational policy, like other states. (See M. Apple, P. Lipman, & K. Buras writing on this issue.)

Regardless of Admistad Academy’s status, the State’s own charter renewal report documented educational concerns and overlooked substantial problems. It was not until then-State Child Advocate Jamey Bell intervened that the suspension information and the depth of the problem became known to the public, particularly throughout the Achievement First charter school chain. As a result of State and public pressure, Achievement First/Amistad has reportedly made improvements to its disciplinary policies; and lately the company has explored the idea of alternative methods in addition to its current “no excuses” schooling. 

Like all schools, Amistad Academy has both its strengths and  weaknesses. Recognizing this point, the State’s charter renewal process has been flexible in its approach towards renewal and remediation of charter schools, instead of responding with rigid “accountability.” In addition to flexible, the state’s approach has also been selective in valuing particular types of “achievement” data first, and everything else after.

Accountability at Traditional Public Schools

In Connecticut, however, plenty of other non-charter public schools have similar groups of children as Stamford Academy and Trailblazers Academy charter schools, may need more support, and struggled on overall test results. Unlike these two charter schools, other public schools faced crude forms of high-stakes test accountability under federal, state, and local rules.

This flexible “accountability” stands in stark contrast to the regimented consequences that other public schools face under the No Child Left Behind Act, NCLB Waiver, and other high-stakes test accountability systems such as in Hartford, Connecticut. These systems outline firm, test-based numerical targets and emphasize clear punishments when the goals aren’t met, such as school closings, conversion to charter schools or private management. Unlike the charter renewal process, there are rarely second or third chances for other non-charter public schools, and excuses aren’t acceptable when it comes their “accountability” process.

So here’s a dilemma: Carefully implemented, the ability of  authorities to have administrative discretion (reviewing each school on a case by case basis) and assess schools holistically may be pragmatic and humane policy in some cases. In other cases, this flexibility can result in vague, selective accountability. It’s worth considering this local administrative judgement and holistic assessment in the context of all public schools. So I will explore this idea in a future post.

In the meantime, let’s watch this charter renewal process. The charter renewal process offers the possibility for people and groups to weigh in through letters to the State Department of Education, a public hearing for people to testify about the school’s work, and, ultimately, people can testify at the CT State Board of Education before a school’s charter is renewed.

The dates, times, and locations for the local public hearings on these charter school renewals are here and the chart is below. So take a look at the charter school applications and the process documents. In the meantime, here are a few questions to consider:

  • Is the State of Connecticut exercising sufficient oversight of charter schools through the renewal process? Is the law sufficient?
  • Are these charter schools meeting their goals and the educational interests of the State?
  • What evidence should be weighed in this process of charter renewal?
  • Can the holistic process of reviewing charter schools be applied to other public schools?

(Note: Comments are activated and you can now share this link with a “share it” button.)

 

Charter Renewal
Public Hearings 2014-15

School Name

Dates

Time

Hearing Location

Robert Trefry

New Beginnings Family Academy

Tuesday
February 24, 2015

6:00 -8:00 pm

Bridgeport City Hall
Common Council Chambers
45 Lyon Terrace

Bridgeport, CT 06604

Estela Lopez

Odyssey

Wednesday
February 25, 2015

6:00 -8:00 pm

Howell Cheney Technical High Multi-Purpose Room

791 W. Middle Turnpike

Manchester, CT 06040

Stephen Wright

Stamford Academy

Thursday
February 26, 2015

6:00 -8:00 pm

J. M. Wright Technical
High School

Gymnasium
120 Bridge St.
Stamford, CT 06905

Charles Jaskiewicz

ISAAC

Tuesday
March 3, 2015

6:00 -8:00 pm

Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern CT
Lecture Hall
490 Jefferson Avenue

New London, CT 06320

Allan Taylor

Explorations

Thursday
March 5, 2015

6:00 -8:00 pm

Winsted Town Hall
P. Francis Hicks Room
338 Main Street
Winsted, CT 06098

Maria Mojica

Common Ground

Tuesday
March 10, 2015

6:00 -8:00 pm

Wilbur Cross High School
Auditorium

181 Mitchell Drive

New Haven, CT 06511

 

 

“Mix It Up” at Lunch Day at Mary Hooker School

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“How would it be if there were no rules?,” one female student asked at the lunch table.

A male student cautiously responded with, “crazy;” and another yelled, “awesome!”

For “Mix It Up” at Lunch Day two weeks ago on October 28, the rules changed at Environmental Sciences Magnet School (ESM) at Mary Hooker in Hartford’s “Behind the Rocks” neighborhood. Rather than sitting with the usual group during lunchtime, students were asked to try sitting with students they don’t usually interact with each day, or maybe ever.

In the past, a number of city and suburban schools around Connecticut have also participated in the event.  This year, “Mix It Up” Day was supported locally by the Sheff Movement, a coalition for quality integrated education for all kids. In collaboration with the Sheff Movement, a handful of other interdistrict magnet schools also participated in the “Mix It Up” Day in the Hartford area.

As part of their mission to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation, these magnet schools are thinking about how their students interact with each other. While the goals of desegregation are defined numerically for magnet schools, these activities are addressing the more qualitative aspects of diverse schools.

Are kids interacting across racial, ethnic, and economic lines? Do racial, ethnic, economic, and gender groups have equal status in these schools? Does the school’s academic program support and include students in equitable ways?

photo(5)

So at the invitation of the school administration, I visited Mary Hooker for two lunch waves and saw “Mix It Up” Day happening in person. The idea to hold a “Mix It Up” day has been a longstanding effort of the Teaching Tolerance Project (Southern Poverty Law Center).

I observed two lunch groups (grades 3-4 & 5-6) participating in “Mix It Up” Day. Students entered the lunch room with Pharrell’s song “Happy” playing on the speaker system, then staff asked the students to sit at tables by birthday month, rather than the usual crew. The different colored balloons at each table corresponded to different months in the year. (See photo below) Some kids weren’t too bothered. Others were a bit annoyed.

ESM Mary Hooker CafeESM School at Mary Hooker Cafeteria on “Mix it Up” Day

Once they were at the tables, students had a handful of questions in a bucket that they could choose and ask of each other. These were icebreaker questions to get to know each other. Some were funny, others more serious.

Questions ranged widely and included, “If you could be an animal, which would you be?” Two boys answered “dog” and another said a mythical creature that I’ve never heard.

Another question was, “What is your favorite sports team?

One sixth grade boy replied, “Dallas Cowboys.”

I replied, “I’m sorry, man.”

Not exactly answering the question, another boy said, “I like sports.”

The last student at the table said, “I don’t like sports.”

photo(6)Box of Icebreaker Questions for Mix It Up Day

Moving around the lunch room, I asked a few students, “Do you know the other students here at this table?” They mostly responded, “no.”

But some kids managed to sit next to friends, as I learned from other kids at the table that told on them. According to a few boys at a table, two girls that were best friends managed to sit next to each other at their table. (The girls denied they were best friends though.)

Judging by the awkward looks and the kids randomly seated by race, ethnicity, and gender, these seating arrangements were legitimately new. The most interesting response to whether they knew the randomly assigned students at their table was, “I know who they were, but never talked to them.”

The issue is straightforward: kids form cliques and groups in school and these groups often overlap with racial, ethnic, class, and/or gender affiliation. Students, educators, and parents have noted this phenomenon and many have wondered whether it represents exclusion or positive group affiliation. In 1997, Beverly Daniel Tatum, who is the current President of Spelman College, questioned in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? 

In many ways, I don’t know that we’re any closer to confronting the issue even if we’re willing to ask Tatum’s question. Some places don’t even see this as a problem, and maybe it isn’t for some.

Interestingly, researchers from Stanford University recently reported findings from their study showing that the way adults structure school impacts how student cliques form. Schools are taking notice. In response, a number of local schools, like ESM School at Mary Hooker, are building positive climate that is inclusive of all kids.

How do the schools you attend or work in confront racial, ethnic, gender and economic inclusion in and outside the classroom? Are these issues even addressed at all?

Share your thoughts in the comments!