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The graduation-proficiency gap in DPS

Monday, June 6th, 2011

Alexander Ooms is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, the West Denver Preparatory Charter School and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children.

The recent Westword article on Denver North High School’s manipulation of its graduation rates, the  belief that “juking the stats” likely spreads beyond a single school and a sage comment at the end of Alan’s post wondering what other Denver high schools were affected all indicate that this is a topic where rhetoric might benefit from a closer relationship with data.

At its crux, the question is if graduation rates tell us something meaningful about how district schools are performing academically. And it sure looks like they do, but not in the way one might have hoped.

For what the North debacle — and a previous yet related controversy over Lincoln High School — bring into question is twofold. First, does a high school diploma signify a reasonable, baseline level of student achievement; and second, is the rise in DPS’s graduation rate spread evenly throughout the district or is being used by some schools to mask a lack of academic rigor and proficiency.

To answer the first question, we need to see if there a pervasive gap  – particularly at certain schools — between a school’s graduation rate and the ability of its alums to read, write, and do math at grade level.  As one teacher at North commented for the Wesword article, are we reaching a point where someone could say “Oh, they went to North? They’ll give a diploma to anyone” – and for how many schools might this be an issue?

So here is a quick graph comparing respective 2010 graduation rates (data here) and 2010 average proficiency rates* (from CDE’s at a number of notable, open-enrollment DPS high schools.

The red line indicates the trend; the schools above the line will have more students who graduate with solid academic skills; those below the line will have more graduates who lack basic proficiency. How far you are from the line shows the gap: well above the line pretty much guarantees a close correlation between graduation and at least a base level of academic ability; well below the line increases the likelihood that a diploma has little relation to academic skills.

What do we see? Joining North below the trendline and as prominent outliers are Bruce Randolph and MLK – both of whom have graduation rates within spitting distance of 90 percent, and yet proficiency rates that are but a small fraction of those numbers. Also below the trendline, but somewhat closer, are Kennedy and Montbello; while Lincoln teeters just above the line but with poor scores on both. And perhaps this will surprise no one, but is is exactly these schools who have had the most recent progress with graduation rates, and DPS has not been shy on trumpeting this data as a mark of success.

The recent increases in DPS graduation rates seem to be driven by precisely this same set of schools — all of whom lag badly in academic proficiency.  While both Bruce Randolph and MLK are graduating their first class and don’t have previous data, the other schools all have double-digit percentage increases from 2009 (North 21 percent, Kennedy 17 percent, Montbello 15 percent and Lincoln 14 percent), while the four schools with higher proficiency saw far smaller jumps (East 4 percent, GW 6 percent, DSST 8 percent, and  TJ 10 percent).

So, are these schools masking their poor academic progress with the easier task of boosting graduation rates?  Should we celebrate these schools for their progress with graduation rates (as President Obama did with Bruce Randolph), or question why few of their graduates are able to do basic academic work? Particularly for administrators (as the Westword article showed), it may be far easier to achieve — ethically or not — higher graduation percentages (and proclaim your school a success) then the more difficult work of driving better academic results. Should one obscure the other, or should the two go hand-in-hand.

Mind the Gap

To look at the same data a slightly different way, here is a table showing the same schools, this time ranked on the final column of a graduation-to-proficiency gap (the ratio of graduation percentage over average proficiency).

There is one school with a graduation rate significantly above the mean, and a proficiency rate significantly below the mean: Bruce Randolph.  North places second, and it is testimony to its low proficiency that they do so while still ranking significantly below the mean in graduation rate.  Montbello manages the largest gap with stunning inadequacy at both ends, including some single-digit proficiency scores and the second-lowest graduation rate overall. Lincoln and MLK round out the quintet of schools where the numbers look askew (with Kennedy pretty close behind). While it is a somewhat arbitrary line, a gap ratio greater than 2:1 is a good place for further examination.

Does this mean that some of these schools, along with North, are “juking their stats”? It’s not clear – many are also achieving higher than average academic growth (including Bruce Randolph and MLK) — but then again, diplomas are intended to indicate some measure of academic proficiency, not growth.  And, as Westword pointed out, North, Montbello and Lincoln all have full-blown Credit Recovery centers offering a different (and let’s be honest and say a far less rigorous) path to graduation. In many ways, in boosting graduation rates — and any lowering of standards to ease the path to a diploma as is clearly the case at North — these schools are probably digging their proficiency holes even deeper.  It means not just that these schools may fulfill the fear articulated by the teacher at North of awarding a diploma to just about anyone, but that the gap may increase still further.

And, perhaps more importantly, does it even matter if the heightened graduation rates are “juked” (with programs such as online Credit Recovery) or honestly achieved if they are not accompanied by increased academic proficiency? In 2010, DPS increased its graduation rate by 5.4 percent but saw a boost in overall proficiency of just 1.3 percent (and that was for all schools – I’d bet for traditional high schools the proficiency increase was probably flat).  If you were a school administrator, where would you put your efforts (and what can you better control)? And if you were DPS, to which measure would you prefer to highlight?

Is Graduation an Academic Measure?

For the larger issue is a point on which there is surprising disagrement: Is it the primary purpose of public schools to graduate students with a certain threshold of academic skill?

A surprising number of people – some of them friends, many of them reasonable – argue that, particularly in high-poverty urban schools, academic achievement is subordinated to other measures. Advocates of these schools would say that increased graduation rates means kids are not dropping out, are meeting other metrics of responsibility (such as attendence and basic class assignments) to earn passing grades, and are absorbing critical social and other skills that leave them more mature and better equipped for their lives after high school.  Under this rubric, it is an achievement to simply keep these kids in school at all.

Detractors would argue that the purpose of schools is not simply to warehouse kids in a safe facility and build social aptitude, but to impart some basic level of academic ability, and that allowing them to graduate without these skills may do more harm than good, particularly when many of these students — who have, after all, successfully passed their classes — have no idea that they are ill-prepared compared to many of their peers, and will quickly find that the demands of college or the modern workforce far outstrip their preparation. There is no second chance at K-12 education.

A related problem involves rising remediation rates – the percentages of students who go to college who are unprepared and have to retake classes at a high-school level.  As Alan pointed out just over a year ago, this is a state-wide issue, but many of these same DPS schools (North, Montbello, Lincoln) are again leading the pack. There is a good and reasonable debate on what these remediation numbers really mean, but at a minimum, the relative differences between schools is cause for apprehension.  And in looking at proficiency scores, we are talking here about something even more fundamental – not just if students are prepared to continue on to higher education, but for those who have decided to stop (or are unable to continue) their scholastic careers, do they have the academic skills that one might expect after 13 years of public education?

Several states now require some independent assessment for graduation. California, by way of example, has a High School Exit Exam, which survived a considerable legal challenge on its way to becoming law. When they first instituted the test, nearly 20 percent of seniors failed it. Recent classes have done better. This exam is hardly draconian: one gets eight chances to pass, the test measures English at a 10th grade level and Math at an 8th grade level, and it requires just 60 percent or less of correct answers to pass. But if you have a high school diploma in California, it has a set meaning – one that connotes something of value to both its student recipients and the employers who seek to hire them. Does a diploma in Denver have the same meaning?

For these diplomas are widely viewed as a critical and central measure of public education. In the most recent (and final) mayoral debate, both candidates criticized DPS’s current 52 percent graduation rate and singled out graduation percentages as an important metric they would track to better understand the success and progress (or lack thereof) of public education in Denver. Graduation rates were mentioned more times than any other single metric, academic or otherwise.

As moderator of the debate, I asked both candidates about the graduation problems at North, and if they favored an independent academic assessment at graduation (or at other points in K-12 education) so that a DPS diploma would indicate a certain level of academic achievement. Both candidates somewhat slipped past the question without answering it directly (hear the question and responses in the full podcast at 36:30 to 40:40 via link or download).

Asking for a higher graduation rate without also wanting to measure or interpret what it may mean is the norm, and not just for politicians. This is partly due to the heightened political climate of Denver’s education debate, where a reform-oriented administration pumps up some stats beyond what they may deserve, while any negative news is seized by defenders of the status quo as a way to criticize the superintendent and  weaken the administration and its reforms. This discourse makes rational discussion increasingly difficult.

But aside from the political theatre, the people who are harmed the most by the graduation-proficiency gap are the legitimate students from many of these schools who have worked hard and justly earned their diplomas, only to find this achievement largely debased both by the actions of their peers, and a system that — rightly or wrongly — seems to increasingly use the mantra of “multiple measures of achievement” to boost graduation and other metrics while undermining academic preparation and proficiency. This, after all, is the blunt narrative at the heart of public education’s problems: adults fighting each other to protect jobs and for political supremacy while kids suffer.

* Note: It might be more accurate for a particular class to use 10th grade proficiency from 2008 (since this will be the graduation class in 2010), but I thought it was a more complete to look at the proficiency for the school overall, and also more fair if a school has had significant academic progress in intermittent two years.

Popularity: 34% [?]

A North High diploma mill?

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

This excellent piece of reporting by Westword’s Melanie Asmar exposes some scandalous practices in the “credit recovery” program at Denver’s North High School. As a fomer North teacher says at the article’s conclusion:

“What sucks is that there are kids working their butts off for a diploma to mean something and there are kids getting diplomas from North who have earned every single credit on there plus more,” says Brown. “Then a bunch of other kids get the same diploma, and it devalues it.”

She adds, “I’d hate for…people to look at a transcript and say, ‘Oh, they went to North? They’ll give a diploma to anyone.’”

Watch for this story to change some practices at North and probably other DPS high schools.

Popularity: 23% [?]

Fixing the education pipeline

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

This post was submitted by Dr. Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York and the co-creator of Strive.

I’ll say at the outset that as an outsider to Colorado politics, I am not an expert on the candidates who are running to be the next mayor of Denver. But as a lifelong educator who has studied urban school issues for decades and helped create and implement successful reforms in Cincinnati and other cities, I would offer this advice to start: Elect the candidate who can bring this community together on education reform.

This is not simply a matter of opinion. Rather, it is a growing national consensus and the thrust behind a data-driven, evidence-based movement that’s been gathering steam among educators in recent years: In order to have educated, successful adults, we need to construct a solid education pipeline that runs straight from cradle to career. I readily accepted the invitation to participate in this week’s Great Teachers for Our City Schools National Summit in Denver because I see it as an excellent opportunity to share inspiring data on what’s happening in a few cities around the country.

The first five years of a child’s life are crucial in building a strong foundation for lifelong learning skills like critical thinking, language development, and problem-solving and social skills. This naturally leads to the idea that children need to be guided into education very early in life, and be programmatically supported in and out of the school setting all the way along the pipeline to ensure that they are prepared to succeed every step of the way until they begin their careers.

What we are finding is that there is an answer to this dauntingly tall order, and it lies in adopting a collaborative approach to building and strengthening the pipeline. In short, there is no single answer, no Superman solution and no silver bullet when it comes to education reform. It takes time, and lots of hard work from invested and interested community stakeholders to effect positive change.

Enter the Strive framework for education reform, a collective-impact approach, that I helped create in 2006. Since then, Strive’s “cradle-to-career” networks have made remarkable advances in public school districts in greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. Measurable improvements include increases in the number of preschool children prepared for kindergarten, improved fourth-grade reading and math scores and higher rates of high school graduation. Even college enrollment among graduates from public high schools has gone up by 10 percent. And at Northern Kentucky University and the University of Cincinnati, graduation rates for students from the local urban area high schools have increased by 10 and 7 percent, respectively.

The success of the Strive approach is based on the commitment of its influential, motivated participants from different sectors—local government, business, school districts, universities and colleges and non-profit and advocacy groups—who have collaborated to solve a specific social problem—rethinking, reorganizing, and redirecting existing resources to promulgate systemic changes and new approaches to problem solving that works. The framework is not meant to be a cookie cutter; rather, it is meant to be adapted to local needs. This is the key to Strive’s success, as we’ve begun to see in Houston; Oakland; Portland, Ore., and parts of New York state, where the Strive approach is being used.

We can have all the valuable, brilliant resources in the world in place to make sure that pipeline is continuous and secure—but none of that will matter if we don’t have effectively trained teachers in our classrooms, successfully guiding and supporting students every step of the way.

It’s clear then that an essential aspect of education reform must be concentrating our efforts on teacher education and preparation, making absolutely certain that every teacher who enters the classroom is clinically prepared, both pedagogically and in subject matter, with the same kind of readiness we’d expect of a pilot in a cockpit.

Last year, I co-chaired the Blue Ribbon Panel convened by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) that, in itself, represented a largely unprecedented consensus. State officials, P-12 and higher education leaders, teachers, teacher educators, union representatives and critics of teacher education were all represented on the panel, which uniformly called for system-wide changes in how the U.S. prepares and supports its 4 million teachers.

A major recommendation of the panel was to move teacher preparation to a clinically based model. This will involve a major structural change, shifting responsibility and accountability for teacher preparation from solely that of higher education to a shared P-12/higher education model.

It makes sense. Teachers who serve districts rife with economic and social challenges that inevitably manifest themselves in struggling public schools not only require, but deserve, the most sophisticated, best quality clinical practice preparation if they’re going to be effective in the classroom. And teacher support can’t end with the awarding of a degree: higher education should be a constant resource for training and best practices for P-12 educators for the length of their careers.

It is a myth that one person or group can cure our education ills by themselves, no matter how visionary or passionate. Only by working together, by engaging public and private institutions of higher education, public schools, civic leaders and elected officials, will we see real, measurable, and sustainable results. Success in Denver—and in every U.S. school district—will rise or fall on collaboration, on how successfully we rally all stakeholders around a common effort to achieve our goals and implement meaningful reform.

Popularity: 26% [?]

Crashing into a low bar

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Let me be clear from the outset: I do not believe many if any education advocates look at our public education systems and see the status quo as acceptable. It so clearly isn’t that people who toss around that accusation are just throwing bombs.

There, are, however, plenty of people who attempt to explain away reported deficiencies in student achievement and post-secondary readiness by questioning the validity of assessments, saying that there is more excellent teaching and high-level learning going on in the nation’s schools than the most strident reformers want us to believe. And, of course, there are people who point to very real societal inequities as the main culprit in sub-par student achievement. Some also say disengaged parents hurt the achievement of some kids.

All that may well be true. But no matter what explanations one might care to devise, there is no explaining away this new report by the Education Trust. The Trust examined results of the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, a series baseline aptitude tests to qualify people for admission to the military, and found that shockingly high percentages of high school graduates, especially students of color, couldn’t clear this low bar.

The Trust examined the scores of 350,000 high school graduates between the ages of 17 and 20 who took the tests between 2004 and 2009. here is what researchers found:

About 23 percent of the test-takers in our sample failed to achieve a 31—the qualifying score—on the (tests). Among white test-takers, 16 percent scored below the minimum score required by the Army. For Hispanic candidates, the rate of ineligibility was 29 percent. And for African-American youth, it was 39 percent. These dismally high ineligible rates for minority youth in our subsample of data are similar to the ineligible rates of all minority Army applicants as recorded over the last ten years.

As Trust President Kati Haycock wrote in her preface to the report, these results should serve as a wake-up call to high school educators…

…because this shatters the comfortable myth that academically underprepared students will find in the military a second-chance pathway to success. For too long, we educators have dismissed worries about the low academic achievement of “those students” with the thought that “if they’re not prepared for college or career, a stint in the service will do ‘em some good.”

Actually, “those students” will not have the military as a choice. Just as they have not been prepared to enter college or find a good job in the civilian world, they have not been prepared to qualify for the military.

Young people of color who pass the tests generally do so with lower scores than white test-takers achieve. And this has serious real-world consequences:

Since these scores determine eligibility for training opportunities, financial rewards, and scholarships, this means that young people of color have more limited opportunities in the Army once they get in than do their white peers.

If there’s any good news here, it’s that Colorado as a whole does better than the national average on the military aptitude tests. Soe 17.6 percent of Colorado test-takers scored too low to be eligible for military service. But the number rose to 33 percent ineligibility for African Americans (compared to 39 percent nationally) and 28 percent for Latinos (29 percent nationally). Still, those are not numbers that should cause jubilation.

Not to stuff coal in anyone’s stocking, but this report provides some food for thought over the holidays. How have we gotten to this point, and how the heck do we extricate ourselves from the mess? If you believe in the validity of the recently released 2009 international PISA exams, our top students are getting their clocks cleaned by top students in other countries. Meanwhile, this new report shows that students father down the ladder lack the skills to do, well, much of anything beyond manual labor.

And with that, I wish you happy holidays.

Popularity: 12% [?]

Ghost alumnus

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Perhaps it is the proximity to Halloween, but what I find most troubling about the wrenching and difficult decision to close or transform schools are the ghosts: All of the kids who went through the school, received an education wholly inadequate to the demands of modern life, and are no longer in view. Traces of them linger, but they have largely vanished.

I see this with the controversy over Montbello. Many of the people attending public forums to comment on the plan are current students, their parents, and teachers.  If the reform plan goes through, teachers will lose their jobs, and they are fighting intently for their positions and livelyhood.  That’s their right, and should surprise no one.

Students and parents are fighting for the devil they know.  I continue to think that the opinions of current students and parents are critical, valid, and almost hopelessly biased (in much the same way that all parents believe their children are beautiful – to them they are).  Several years ago a survey of parents showed that 72 percent of them gave DPS overall a grade of “D” or “F”, however only 27 percent of them gave their child’s school a grade of “D” or “F.”  As a parent, I implicitly understand this — how could any parent admit to themselves that they are sending their child off to a failing school each and every day?

How could a student get up each day with the knowledge that their school will not prepare them for full lives as adults? Students and parents in a school will always believe that it is better than it is, or that it is about to become much better. This hope is essential, but it is not a strategy.

No one questions Montbello’s numbers: Of the freshmen who start at Montbello, six percent graduate and go on to college without needing remedial work.  94 percent do not.  The overwhelming majority of these 94 percent are the ghosts. Over a 10-year period when Montbello’s performance has been an ongoing issue, the school has had roughly 3,750 students pass through its halls.  Probably about 3,300 of them do not receive a advanced degree of any kind.  Maybe 10% of these can overcome their lack of academic preparation and are successful. Who is left?  One decade, 3,000 alumnus ghosts.

These ghosts should be a haunting presence over the current proceedings. What is missing from the meetings where school closings are debated are alumni lining the walls to defend these schools.  Where are the alumni who can point to the significant role that Montbello played in their future success? How the school nurtured and prepared them for the challenges they face as adults? How it fostered in them an interest, or kindled a passion that they were able to follow to be a leader in their company, industry, organization, or community?  Not the odd alumni who succeeded despite the school, but legions upon legions who left its halls and prospered.

So when the voices are raised and rage, look to quietness. When teachers fight for their jobs, and students to stay with their classmates, and parents who want to walk their kids to school — all of whom are absolutely right to champion what they want — remember the absence of all the students who were once there, and consider where they might be today.

In the cacophony over school closings, remember the echoing, haunting silence of the alumnus ghosts.

Popularity: 15% [?]

How to evolve the School Performance Framework

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Ooms is a member of the West Denver Preparatory Charter School board, and several other boards involved in education reform

The recent results of Denver’s School Performance Framework (SPF) was fairly minor news. That’s encouraging, because it means that evaluating schools, with a premium on student academic growth, is more and more part of the lexicon. No one will, or should, claim that the SPF is the only metric that matters, but it is pretty hard to argue that the data is not useful (although I’ll offer even money that someone in the comments may take up this challenge).

At the same time, after spending considerable time with the SPF, I also think it needs to evolve. Now I come to praise the SPF, not to bury it — in my opinion, the Colorado Growth Model (the engine of the SPF) is one of the most important developments in recent memory. However let’s take the SPF seriously enough to acknowledge its limitations and look for ways to improve it.

There are three main ways I think the SPF could evolve to include and sort data to provide a fuller view of school achievement. It’s been true for too long that some board members actively resist comparative data, which allows them to support pet projects and political agendas when a hard look shows their programs to be underperforming. Moving to a data-informed opinion is critical to make any significant changes in the way we educate our children.  The data I would add include: a confidence interval; inclusion of selective admissions, and a comparison by FRL.  These are all highly important variables in school evaluation. Let me explain each.

First, as SPF academic data is based on the CSAP, which is administered only in grades 3-10, so the percentage of students whose scores count toward a school’s ranking varies considerably. For example, elementary schools offer 6 grades (K-5), in which academic growth data is available only for 4th and 5th graders.  This means that — assuming every grade has an equal number of students — only 2 of 6 grades (or just 33% of students) are counted in the growth score, which is the single largest component of the SPF. There is a similar problem in high schools, in which all academic data is only available for roughly 50% of the student body (9th and 10th grades).

Assuming even distribution across grades, the percentage of students whose scores are included in the growth data varies considerably by type: elementary schools (33%); high schools (50%); K-8  (56%); 6-12 (71%) and middle schools (100%). Particularly for smaller schools — which are most often the elementary grades – this means that a pretty small cohort of kids can determine the academic growth score for the whole school.

What I’d like to see the SPF do is two-fold: first, there needs to be a confidence interval for each school. Now, as Paul Teske has pointed out, data is often based on sampling, and this alone does not invalidate the results.  However, at a minimum one should be aware to comparisons between schools where 100% of the students contributed academic data versus only 33%. The required math here is not that hard (here is an online calculator) — for a school of 300 students, to get 95% confidence that the growth score is +/- 5 percentage points, you need a sample size of about 170 students.  I don’t believe there is an elementary school in DPS that comes anywhere close to that standard, and my guess is that most have a possible swing on academic growth data of +/- 8 percentage points (so a mean growth score of 50% could be anywhere from 42% to 58% – which spans 3 SPF categories). That’s significant.

So in recognition of what will be very different confidence intervals, schools should thus be compared primarily by grades served (apples, meet apples).  Compare K-8 programs first among themselves and the median of their group score, and then among all schools. Maintain the overall ranking, but acknowledge the significant difference between the data sets of different grades served by setting them apart (example to follow).

Secondly, I’d like to see the percentage of students in each school that are selective admissions — students who are awarded places based on academic ability or skill.  This would include both entire magnet schools as well as selective admissions programs within larger student bodies. Simply put, it is deeply unfair to compare schools that can hand-pick students with those that do not. With few exceptions, the percentage of selective enrollment seats within many DPS programs is lost in the statistical bureaucratic muck, and badly deserves some transparent light. I’ve written about this previously, and I remain at a complete loss at a system in which schools with these different enrollment policies are ranked as if they are equal when they are clearly not.

Third is to more explicitly consider the percentage of students in poverty (or FRL). The correlation between subpar student academic achievement and poverty remains high, and particularly if we are serious about addressing the achievement gap, we need to look more closely at schools that have FRL higher than the district average (of about 65%), and less at those schools whose demographics only resemble those of our city when inverted.

What might this new SPF look like? Here is some of the data for DPS high schools (chosen because sample size is large enough to be interesting and small enough to be manageable):

Now I don’t have a confidence interval here — which is most useful in comparing schools who serve different grades — but given that all of these schools are relying on academic data from roughly 50% of their students, I’d sure like one.  Selective admissions reveals one school: GW, whose 28% selective enrollment is from their web site and may be slightly dated, but I’d bet it’s pretty close.

Note that the four lowest scoring schools (who are in the two “danger” categories) all have FRL above 85%, while of the top four (in the second highest category), only one does. Which leads us to the second part: a graph comparing the SPF score with the percentage of students who are FRL (red is the regression line):

What is telling here is the easily discernible pattern through the lens of FRL and achievement. The median point score – for the high school category alone – is 45%.  Three schools scored significantly above that median: CEC, East and GW.  East has open enrollment and an FRL of 35% (note that the latter is neither a pejorative nor discredits their high SPF score); GW has 52% FRL and a selective admissions policy for over a quarter of their students, which makes a considerable difference (my guess is that without these students GW would drop a category). The high school that is most impressive is CEC, with high SPF points, FRL of 81%, and an open-enrollment policy.* as benefits its isolated position in the top right.

Somewhat appealing are Lincoln and Manual – both received SPF scores just over the high school median, but did so with large numbers of FRL students. TJ had a somewhat higher score, but their relatively small FRL population shows them far below the trendline.  Kennedy looks remarkably average or below; South, West and North all disappointing, and laggards Montbello and DVS are already (and rightly) undergoing programmatic changes.

Now this view is largely lost in the overall SPF, which gave CEC an overall ranking of 24th and placed them in the second-highest category of “Meets Expectations.” But if you are a parent searching for a good high school program, you care a lot less about the comparison to elementary, K-8 and middle schools.  And you should take a hard look at the impressive results at CEC.

So while I believe it remains important to show the relative performance of all schools, this is how I would like to see the SPF evolve.  For the combination so evident in CEC is, to me, the rare trifecta that narrows the achievement gap: academic growth (hopefully with a strong confidence interval); open-enrollment policies;* and serving a large FRL population.

This trifecta is also really hard to do.  Last year I wrote a depressing post on the SPF which was more specific about the truly lousy prospects for high-poverty, open-enrollment students. The results this year were just not that different – the worst schools have somewhat narrowed, but there is still a long way to go at the top, particularly in grades 6-12.

However we should acknowledge the achievements that are being made: for high schools that is East and especially CEC , who are deserving of recognition not easily apparent in the overall SPF. My guess is there are similar schools in each of the different grade structures.  It would benefit all of us to have a clearer picture of who they are. Hopefully the SPF will take some tender steps towards this evolution.

*Update: I regretfully spoke too soon about CEC’s enrollment policy.  The school does not have geographic enrollment, and instead accepts students based on an application process that requests transcripts and grades, awards received, attendance data, and three recommendations.  This clearly places CEC (and they somewhat self-identify) as a magnet school with 100% selective admission.  To operate as a magnet with 81% FRL is commendable, but this is not a school with open-enrollment and their achievements should include this qualification.

Popularity: 16% [?]

Summit 54: Noble concept, tweaks needed

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Tony Caine seems like a heck of a guy. He’s 53 but looks 10 years younger. He has made more money than he’ll ever need and could rest on his laurels and live la dolce vida in Aspen.

He may be enjoying  the good life, but he’s determined to do more. So he has founded a new non-profit, Summit 54, which aims to help “academically motivated” eighth-graders in Chicago and Denver have successful high school careers and graduate from top colleges. He’ll do this, he says, employing a “360 approach,” providing each kid with intensive tutoring, mentors, a rigorous curriculum requiring 1,600 hours of work from each students over four years, and an eight-week boot camp for incoming freshmen.

Oh, and Summit 54 promises to pay the full college tab for all its graduates.

You may be asking yourself at this point: “Haven’t we hard this all before?” Well, yes, at least in bits and pieces here and there. Caine’s vision may be a bit naive, but spend a little time around him and you begin to understand why he has been such a successful entrepreneur.

He shows not the slightest sign of dogmatism. He asks everyone he comes across to critique his ideas — “lay a 2×4 up against the side of my head” — and appears not to take criticism personally.

Summit 54′s approach is to find motivated eighth-graders languishing on waiting lists for top charter high schools and get them into the program. Caine figures there are thousands of such kids in the two cities, condemned to attend low-performing high schools. Summit 54 can help them rescue themselves, he said.

Caine invited a group of educators and advocates up to the Aspen Institute for a couple of days of brainstorming this week. He got a good turnout, which is no surprise given that the Aspen Meadows resort is one of the world’s beauty spots, we’re in peak leaf season and the weather is postcard-perfect. (Henceforth I will accept all invitations to attend meetings and conferences at the Aspen Institute. I don’t even care what the topic is.)

Attendees include Terrance Carroll, outgoing speaker of the state House of Repesentatives, Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, ex-Manual High School Principal Rob Stein, West Denver Prep honcho Chris Gibbons, representatives of Colorado Youth at Risk, Facing History, Denver Public Schools, Aurora Public Schools, Adams 14, Chicago Public Schools and various foundations.

Perhaps the most important participants have been three members of Project VOYCE, a worthy Denver non-profit perpetually starved for funds. Started by Brian Barhaugh, who also started the excellent Youth Biz non-profit, Project VOYCE aims to “make youth voice real in school renewal.”

Barhaugh brought with him Shelby Gonzalez Parker, a single mom attending Metropolitan State College after graduating from Denver Justice High School, Lorenzo Sanchez, a University of Denver student who graduated from the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts and won a Daniels Fund scholarship and Phillip Douglas, a 2002 Manual grad who oozes charisma. Douglas attended Fort Lewis College came back to Denver before graduating and ended up in prison, and now works as a Project VOYCE youth trainer.

The VOYCE triumvirate led off the conference this morning, and they weren’t shy about letting Caine know where they found his vision deficient. They had two major criticisms, which were echoed by other attendees:

  1. Seeking only “academically motivated” eighth-graders leaves out a lot of promising kids. Parker, Sanchez and Douglas said they would not have made that cut.
  2. Starting with eighth grade is too late. Many kids have fallen too far behind and become too disengaged by then. Why not start at sixth grade?

Caine, to his credit, acknowledged the legitimacy of these critiques and vowed to rethink his approach. The program is slated to launch next year, so he still has time.

So Bravo to Caine and major kudos to Project VOYCE and especially to Parker, Sanchez and Douglas.

Here is a video of the three speaking their minds.

Popularity: 14% [?]

Here’s the answer – sleep

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Well, here it is. The silver bullet to increasing student achievement at the high school level: more sleep for students.

In a study at a Rhode Island High School, researchers found that delaying the start of high school by 30 minutes for students showed significant improvements in measures of adolescent alertness, mood, and health. The study in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine supports other research that has reached similar conclusions: push back the start of high schools.

My high school starts at 7:15 a.m. I can tell you that over the years my first block has had fewer discipline issues but has traditionally performed at a lower level than my blocks starting later in the day. The Rhode Island study supports my anecdotal observation (at least in the area of student alertness). So why is this empirical research being ignored?

I’ve found that the reasons for not pushing back starting times come from two areas: busing and sports. Most districts use the same buses to transport elementary, middle school, and high school students. If you stagger the starts of K-5, 6-8, and the high schools, you don’t need as many buses. You could flip the start times and have elementary schools start first and high schools start last, but nobody wants a seven-year old waiting for a bus in the dark of winter mornings.

By far the most difficult barrier to later high school start times is extra-curricular activities and, in particular, sports. There is, in suburban schools especially, a heavy amount of pressure to have strong sports programs in high schools. Fall sport coaches (football) complain that they lose daytime light if they have to start practices after 4 pm. To be fair, these coaches are only responding to the extreme amount of pressure by the school community to produce winning sports programs.

The Rhode Island school did not lose practice times for their sports teams because they actually decreased the school bell schedule. I’d argue that this is not the best approach to the problem, but at least they looked for ways to find more sleep time for their students. The R.I. school encountered resistance to the changes from parents and teachers, but after they saw the difference for students, they changed their positions.

So, here it is. A way to increase students alertness (the R.I. school also saw an increase in students attendance which we know is an issue in urban schools), the mood of students (decrease in discipline issues), and health. Let’s get creative and find ways to implement late start times without increasing transportation costs. Let’s get over the presumptive importance of winning sports programs and start high schools later so students can get more sleep. Anyone want to wager that my pleas go ignored?

Popularity: 9% [?]

Are big urban high schools too expensive to keep?

Friday, June 18th, 2010

High school graduation took place a few weeks ago for most Colorado schools.  For many, this was a great time to celebrate the hard work with a look forward to entering college ready to learn.  For far too many others, the coming seasons will be a time for dead-end low wage jobs and/or entering college unprepared to do the work.

There are approximately 3.2 million young adults who will graduate this year from American high schools.   About 40 percent or 1,280,000 of these students will not be able to do college-level work.  And most of those needing remediation are likely to drop out of college without any degree.

Colorado will have about 55,000 kids graduating, with about 30 percent needing remediation, according to the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

It’s a travesty that the once great American comprehensive high school designed to prepare the top third for college and rest for low-skill but well-paying jobs has not evolved to meet the challenge of educating for the 21st century.

American high schools worked reasonably well for many when a college degree and the skills attached were not a barrier to living a middle-class life.  This is no longer the case.

And it’s not just India, China, Denmark, South Korea that get it, Turkey and a growing list of other countries understand the relationship between education, quality of life and economic development.

There are far too many American high schools that graduate less than half. For those that do graduate, few are ready for college.   Education Week’s latest Diploma Counts reminds has some powerful maps of dropout “epicenters” showing that there are more than 40,000 projected not to graduate from LA and New York City Schools.  NYC has recently made progress but still only has a 54.8 percent graduation rate.  LA is at 40.6 percent.  Remember this is just a small piece of the elephant.

So how is your high school doing? How would you find out?  Are test scores and graduation rates enough?

What would kids and families do if they knew how well or poorly their school was doing?

Would a 50 percent chance, 5 percent odds or even a 1-in-50 chance of graduating and being prepared for college be good enough to attend the school or for the district to continue to support it?

I recently reviewed the data in Colorado and found that there are at least four big comprehensive high schools within several miles of my house that have fewer than 5 percent of their high school graduates ready for college.

Denver’s North High School had 13 kids ready for college in last year’s class.Yes, I said 13 and that’s out of a freshman class of about 412 students (a 3.1 percent college yield rate).   Denver is currently investing $40 million in bond funds refurbishing the crumbling building.

Another nearby high school, West had 7 college ready graduates out of starting freshman class of 301 (a 2.3 percent college ready yield rate).  That’s a 1-in-43 chance of success!

And this is not just a Denver issue. Aurora’s Central High only graduated 25 students ready for college.   It’s a school that started with around 800 ninth-graders and a staff of over 200.

Adams City High School in Commerce City (Adams 14 district) prepared 17 out of a freshman class of 460 (3.7 percent college ready yield).  Pueblo’s Central High had a college yield of 8.6 percent.

By the way, if you do go to any of these or most high school or district websites looking for data on their quality, you will find everything from lunch menus to sports schedules but you’d be hard pressed to find a link or any data about their quality.  There are often marketing materials like the DPS enrollment guide which says:

“West High School is becoming one of Denver’s premier high schools emphasizing college preparation and career and technical education. The rigorous coursework and real world experiences offered at West provide students with relevant pathways to higher education.”

I’d be fine with the spin if that is, in fact, the future direction of West and if there was other data next to the spin.  When I’m looking for a new cereal, I expect and count on the information about sugar content while I also appreciate a nice box with photos of blueberries even if they aren’t in the cereal.

Savvy education consumers have to search for quality by reviewing DPS’ excellent school performance framework, SchoolView,, or do more complicated digging to determine the quality of a high school.

I will say that many districts, and Denver in particular, are doing a great job of improving the quality of their high schools by increasing AP, expanding duel enrollment classes and setting up new structures like ninth grade academies. Denver Scholarship Foundation has done a remarkable job of cutting many of the financial barriers for low-income kids to attend college. All of these initiatives have had a positive impact on keeping more kids in high school and creating a stronger tie to higher education.

None of these measures, however, address the fundamental design flaw in these big inefficient and impersonal urban high schools.  The reforms don’t change the basic design of kids moving through an instructional assembly line where no one is formally responsible for ensuring that every kid is ready for graduation.  Horace’s Compromise written appropriately in 1984 is still the definitive book on the problem of the American High school challenge.

The current high school reform efforts, while better than many in the last 30 years, are still like adding an airbag to a Chevy Corvair (remember Unsafe At Any Speed), only helpful if that’s the only car available.

It’s time to be honest and take on these big ineffective high schools.  We can no longer afford to educate so few students.  The design doesn’t work for today’s society.

The great news is that there is now a small but growing list of highly effective new schools with similar student demographics.  The challenge is in creating enough of them quickly while brave superintendents and school boards phase out the big old failing schools.

New high school networks like YES College Prep in Houston, Uncommon Schools in NJ /NY, Denver’s School of Science and Technology, Chicago’s Noble StreetAspire Public Schools throughout California and many others have shown that you can retain most of your students and prepare most to enter college ready regardless of race or poverty.   We’ve demonstrated that we have the knowledge to design a modern urban high school that works for most kids.

According to the Education Commission of the States, there are only 17 states that collect remediation data and tie it back to the high schools.  I know of no state or district that regularly reports this data to students and families.   In Colorado, you can find this data buried in an appendix in a Colorado Department of Higher Education’s annual remediation report.

Could you imagine what would happen if the US Department of Transportation had data buried in their website that certain cars only had a 5 percent chance of reaching their destination?  Would you knowingly get into one of these cars?

Let’s all push the feds, the Colorado Department of Education, school district and your local school to collect and make this data available to not just educators and policy makers but most importantly the public.

An important step in this process will be to clearly define college readiness with a national standard as was done with high school graduation rates a few years ago.  Different states, colleges and universities use different definitions which result in confusion and opportunities to game the system.

We’ve made some progress with high school graduation rates and assessment data.  It’s now time to make sure we know how many kids go on to college and whether they are prepared to succeed.

Popularity: 12% [?]

Clogged pipes

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Alan Gottlieb and Nancy Mitchell did a great job highlighting one of the most important indicators of a public education pipeline and high school.

Are Colorado urban high schools and their school districts preparing kids to enter college without needing remediation?

Unfortunately in many cases, the answer is a resounding NO.  I do wonder whether any district or schools can make progress given high school structures, history and culture.    We’ve got 30 years of failed attempts to transform existing urban high schools; here’s hoping there’s more thoughtful reflection on these failures so new schools can be made to work for most kids.

This remediation data raises a number of very important questions that few policy makers or educators seem to be taking seriously these days in spite of all kinds of mostly good new reforms.

This remediation data is probably one of if not the most important measure of quality when thinking about the future of our democracy, communities and economy.

  1. What does this say about the 20th century high school design/practices for low-income students?
  2. Why is this remediation data not provided to kids and families when entering these schools?
  3. Why doesn’t Colorado connect our student level data to the National Student Clearing House data so that we can accurately track how every Colorado high school graduate does when entering higher education throughout the US?
  4. How should remediation data be included in a new 2.0 version of a Colorado Report Card for High Schools (you’d think more policy makers would be calling for one using all the various data sources including the growth measures)?
  5. What’s the “return on investment” on preparing college ready students?   My estimates are that Denver’s West High school’s “return on investment” for college ready graduates is about $3,000,000 per college ready graduate compared to Denver School of Science and Technology at about $70,000 per student (blog post to follow) .

Popularity: 15% [?]

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