As an ashamed TFA alum, I receive their quarterly alumni magazine, ‘One Day.’ In the most recent issue, which I also saw on their Twitter feed, was an article called ‘Undefeated: Inside Five Baltimore Turnaround Schools that Refuse to Fail.’
The article is about five Baltimore schools that are run by TFA alumni and were recipients of some of the Obama/Duncan $3 billion school turnaround grant. The most aggressive turnaround strategy is to replace the majority of the staff, which is what these five schools did. The school turnaround grants have generally been considered a failure across the country, even by staunch reformers.
But, at least at a first glance, these turnaround schools were exceptions that prove that firing all the teachers at a school and replacing them, presumably with a lot of TFA teachers, is something that can work as long as TFA leaders are involved.
The five schools are Commodore John Rogers Elementary/Middle, Academy for College and Career Exploration (ACCE), Harford Heights Elementary, James McHenry Elementary/Middle, and Mary E. Rodman Elementary. They are three years into their turnaround efforts under a plan called ‘The 100% project.’ According to the article, these schools are showing promising improvement though they still have a long way to go.
They provide very little data in the article. One example is:
Dave Guzman is the principal of Rodman Elementary, where 23% of students passed the state math assessment in 2018, up from 2% prior to turnaround, and 22% passed the ELA assessment, up from 5%.
Based in part on its dismal test scores, Commodore ranked 872 out of 875 schools in Maryland when Martin was hired to lead it in 2010. At that point, the school enrolled 250 students, barely viable in a building built for more than 600.
Today, in a district grappling with steep enrollment declines overall, Commodore squeezes in more than 900 students (including Martin’s three kids), almost all of them from the neighborhood. They crowd into classrooms and spill into meeting rooms. They collaborate on clusters of chairs pulled into alcoves under the stairways. Not a minute too soon, renovations and expansions are planned for completion in 2021.
In October, Commodore was recognized for excellence by the Baltimore City school board. Over four years, 37% of its students who initially tested at the lowest level of proficiency moved up to one of the high levels, compared to 14% of similar students districtwide. In 2019, the school earned Maryland’s three-star rating (out of five), up from two stars in 2018. The improvement reflects factors like Commodore’s high attendance rate and parent satisfaction, as well as student test scores, which consistently meet or exceed Baltimore City averages. (The state no longer ranks schools numerically from best to worst.)
It’s been a while since I’ve done a ‘debunking.’ I remember back in the day, about 8 years ago, stories of miracle turnaround schools were popping up every few days. After my posts about the miracle schools and usually showing other aspect of their data that were not so miraculous, I would get a lot of trolling from the guys at Education Post or the other lesser known reform propaganda sites about how I don’t believe in the potential of kids. So let me say, again, for the record: I do believe in kids and I also believe that almost every school has room for improvement. I also can imagine a scenario, though it would be rare, where there is a huge percent of low quality teachers and that if that staff were replaced by high quality teachers, the school would improve — that’s just common sense. But what I consider to be a false miracle is when a school with average teachers replaces their staff with other average teachers and suddenly gets a huge increase in how much their students learn. I think that schools need more resources for smaller class sizes in order to get an authentic increase in quality. That’s why I’m accused of not believing in children.
OK, so I took a look at the Maryland school report card site, and here’s what I learned about these five schools that have been ‘turned around.’
Maryland has the star system where schools can get from one to five stars, kind of like the A to F letter grades. The stars are based on test scores and also on ‘growth’ and other factors. There are 1,300 schools in Maryland and about 10% of them get either one or two stars. So 3 stars is like a ‘C’ and over 60% of the schools in the state are either 4 stars or 5 stars. Of the five schools that have been ‘turned around,’ three are still 2 stars, which is like a ‘D.’ But looking more closely at the data from these five schools, I found some pretty awful numbers.
The Commodore John Rogers Elementary/Middle School that has the test score increases got two different percentile ranks, one for the elementary and one for the middle school. While the middle school is the one bright spot of all the schools , or subschools, in the 100% project, having risen to the bottom 28% of schools the elementary school is ranked in the bottom 8%.
One school, The Academy For College And Career Exploration (ACCE) has a middle and a high school. The middle school is ranked in the bottom 2% while the high school is in the bottom 9%. In the high school they had 9.3% score proficient in math and 3.6% score proficient in ELA. In the middle school they had 2.7% score proficient in ELA and, no this isn’t a typo, 0% score proficient in math.
The lowest rated school of the five is James McHenry Elementary/Middle. While the middle school was ranked in the bottom 15%, the elementary school was only ranked in the bottom 1%. If not for the middle school, the elementary school would be one of the 35 schools out of 1,300 that would have gotten just one star and be slated for possible closure.
I’m not sure why TFA is clinging to a narrative that went out of style about five years ago, when Arne Duncan stepped down as Secretary of Education. These five schools, on average, do not prove that firing most of the teachers in a school is likely to cause an incredible turnaround at a school.