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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: 18% [?]

Low-income students and college

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

An evil twin to Paul’s earlier post about the continuing economic benefits of a college education is the depressing news that fewer and fewer low-income students are both attending and graduating from college (see full article):

Fewer low- and moderate-income high school graduates are attending college in America, and fewer are graduating. Enrollment in four-year colleges was 40 percent in 2004 for low-income students, down from 54 percent in 1992, and 53 percent in 2004 for moderate-income students, down from 59 percent over the same period, according to  a report recently submitted to Congress by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. [...]

Persistence through four-year colleges dropped to 75 percent in students entering in 2003 for low-income students, down from 78 percent in students entering in 1995, while persistence for students from moderate-income families remained at 81 percent. Persistence rates for low- and moderate-income students in two-year colleges, however, fell 10 percentage points to 49 percet over the same period.

A significant part of this is economics.  As the article notes, the net price for a low-income student attending a four-year college is 48 percent of family income, compared to 26 percent for a moderate-income student. Combine this with the tendency of students to pile on more and more debt, and the opportunity of college can quickly become financial quicksand.

Public K-12 education is increasingly focused on students attending college. As the study that Paul cited shows, that can be a catalytic factor in improving incomes.  But as the focus on college as a partial solution to basic issues like income inequality increases, it is equally important that the students are college-ready, and that college is affordable. We do no one a favor by praising the benefits of a college education for which a student is unprepared and unable to finish, and then sticking them with the bill.

Popularity: 4% [?]

Why college matters

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Taking a break from state politics, and a short piece in The Economist with some sharp points on why students need to be prepared for college, and have the fiscal and academic ability to attend:

In 2007 graduates earned 77% more per hour than those with only a high-school degree. The share of poor teenagers aspiring to college tripled from 1980 to 2002. Nevertheless, rich, stupid children are more likely to graduate than poor, clever ones. Sadly, the increase in the proportion of Americans who graduate from college has slowed.

[...] Though some students are ill-prepared for university, many go to colleges that are not demanding enough. This makes them more likely to drop out, explains William Bowen, a former president of Princeton, who co-wrote a book on completion rates. Black boys who go to rigorous colleges graduate at higher rates than do similar peers at easier ones.

Popularity: 3% [?]

Lemon musical chairs

Monday, February 8th, 2010

In another sign that antiquated and harmful education practices once thought sacrosanct are starting to fall, Denver’s “Dance of the Lemons” — the process by which the teachers no principal will hire are forcibly placed into a classroom somewhere in the public school system — may finally change.

Last year, the Denver Post noted:

Nearly three-quarters of unassigned veteran Denver Public Schools teachers who have not found jobs are forcibly placed into schools with the poorest students… Under union and district rules, these direct placements are made without regard to the desires of the teachers, school principals or parents.

On Friday, DPS superintendent Boasberg announced his intention that the District’s lowest performing schools — almost all with high poverty student demographics — become exempt from receiving any of these teachers.

This is a significant move by DPS, and also long overdue.  Now the music still plays, and lemon dance is not over yet, as under the DCTA contract these teachers will have to be placed somewhere, but the seats are going to be a little harder to find, and far better illuminated.  When higher-performing schools, which generally have a stronger culture and leadership, and more engaged parents, get stuck with lemons, you can bet the chance the system undergoes change increases, because the tolerance for bad teachers will be far lower.  I’ve written about the power of affluent parenting previously — if some of Denver’s best schools suddenly face the forced hiring of several teachers, expect some parents and civic groups to finally take a stand on this deplorable practice.

There is increased agreement that education hiring should be by mutual consent (both the teacher and the principal agree to the hire), an approach that was embraced by the rest of the employed world, oh, just a few decades ago.  Changing the lemon dance to a game of musical chairs is a good first step, but far better would be to turn the music off entirely.

Popularity: 5% [?]

For board member, ideology apparently trumps facts

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

The new Westword features a lengthy and interesting article on the fate of  P.S. 1, an early Denver charter school the school board recently voted to close at the end of next school year. It’s worth a read.

Equally interesting is a sidebar examining how Denver’s three newest school board members view charter schools. The position staked out by Andrea Merida should send a chill through anyone who supports school choice. After saying she doesn’t want to approve any more charters for now, Merida goes on to complain that most charters are too small to serve enough kids to make a difference in a neighborhood.

But what’s most troubling is her distorted, flat-out inaccurate view of the Denver School of Science and Technology. Written into DSST’s charter is a dual lottery system, so that the school will always have AT LEAST 40 percent of its student eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch (the current number is 45.1 percent). DSST’s founders instituted the dual lottery because they knew full well that low-income families often get driven out of successful, popular schools because affluent parents have sharp elbows and know how to work the system.

This means that DSST will always have at least 40 percent of its kids coming from low-income families. Nothing prevents the number from going much higher than that.

So how does Merida interpret this eminently sensible and socially responsible policy?

But, she argues, the portion of low-income students in DPS as a whole is higher than that: 70 percent.

“That really isn’t a public institution,” she says. “An underprivileged child can be excluded from participating in a school that’s funded with public money.”

Factually she could not be more wrong. But who cares about facts when you’re trying to put ideological points on the board?

Popularity: 2% [?]

Countering the culture of violence

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

This is one of those teacher diary type blog posts.  At this moment, policy seems to me about the least useful tool in education reform. (I’m having one of those days).

It’s finals week and since most of my class finished their test on Monday (it didn’t take them as long as I had imagined and I’m happy to report that most of them did pretty well), I spent our scheduled time today talking with the few kids who turned up.  The main theme of the conversation was the culture of physical violence in which they have grown up.

I find it most striking that they appear to revel in it.  People getting hurt badly is “hilarious.”  I don’t know enough about their internal experience to tell but I suspect such a response is a form of psychological armor.  Of course, I’m a math teacher and not a psychologist so I’ll leave it to better trained professionals to make that determination.

I hasten to add that I don’t think these are bad kids at all.  In fact, I quite like them and that they’re sitting in my room in a school after the experiences they describe (and being assured that, “oh, Mister, that’s nothing …”) says something about their strength.  These kids did not drop out, made it to their junior or senior year, and most of them will probably graduate.  They clearly get that they need a diploma but they don’t show a lot of interest (outwardly anyway) in the expectations of school.  Their grades certainly don’t reflect their obvious intelligence and resourcefulness.

Immediately following this conversation another student of mine, one who most probably did not grow up in a violent household, walked up to me in the hall and handed me a holiday gift with a smile.  He’s a 9th grader in an honors class and doing well.

The contrast between this “thank you, you’re very kind” experience and the “oh my god” experience of minutes before hit me hard.  Without the second experience, the first would have been just another reminder of the challenges many of my kids face.  Instead, it has created a dissonance in my head that I’m not sure what to do with.  And so here I am at the keyboard.

Now, I know perfectly well that not all lower income people grow up or live with violence.  And I am also aware that physical, verbal and emotional abuse takes place in wealthy households too.  However, I have worked with economically disadvantaged kids my entire career and I know the experience is common enough that I think any conversation about reform must explicitly include the supports to develop non-violent and productive ways to solve problems and to help students transfer what they learn to settings outside of school.

And honestly, most of the kids who did not grow up with violence could use some support in learning these skills too.

Popularity: 5% [?]

School Performance Framework shorthand

Friday, September 18th, 2009

I looked at the DPS School Performance Framework (SPF) data in a number of different ways. There is some intriguing data, but I found a shorthand that I think serves as a pretty good summary.

Let’s look at the DPS schools with an SPF score equal to 65% or higher of possible SPF points (which is roughly the top quintile). This group comprises the top 27 of the 140 total schools.

Start with these 27 high-performing schools:

Filter #1. Elementary schools (and selective K-8) do pretty well.  Fully 21 of the top 27 schools are either elementary (16 schools) or K-8 (7 schools). Full kudos to these 21.  The problems at DPS are not primarily at schools with elementary students.

…Subtract these 21 and you have six schools left.

Filter #2. Of the six remaining schools, 2 are selective admissions (DSA and CEC). Good schools both, but if you get to choose your students, you have a bit of an advantage.  Partial credit kudos.

…Subtract these 2 and you have four schools left.

That’s pretty much it.  After these two filters, there are just four remaining public schools in Denver that are both open admissions and serve primarily middle and high school students. Four.

…Who are these premier four?

Three are charter schools: DSST (ranked #1 overall); WDP (#2); and KIPP (#21).  These are now clearly three of the four best open-enrollment middle and high schools in Denver, particularly given that they are all serving a substantial percentage of low-income students (respective FRL of 45%, 93%, and 93%). The top two overall schools in the district are now charters.

The remaining school, the one and only open-enrollment district school without elementary students in the top quintile (with 27% FRL) is East High (#14 overall). Congratulations to East.

So, to put this in perspective, how far down the list of 140 schools do you have to go to find an another open-enrollment middle or high school with a FRL percentage greater than the DPS average of 67%?  All the way down to #48.

How many of the lowest performing 27 schools (the bottom quintile) have a higher FRL population than the DPS average? 25 of 27.

Filter #3 is that if you are a low-income student in Denver, your future remains very, very bleak.

Updated Note: I should point out that while KIPP is listed as K-8, the school only has grades 5-8 and I thus consider them a middle school.  Any similar updates would be appreciated.

Popularity: 5% [?]

Cows: sacred. Oxes: gored

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

The Harvard economist Roland Fryer did a recent study on the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).  The NYT’s usually reliable David Brooks sort of botched it.  That’s a shame, as it is worth an unfiltered read.  To whet your appetite for original (in every sense) research, here are two cows Fryer comfortably gores.

To begin, it is a trusim that low-income children do better in schools with more high-income kids.  Most people have always assumed that this difference is largely explained by income (peer group).  Fryer points out that might not be the case:

This suggests that a better community, as measured by poverty rate, does not significantly raise test scores if school quality remains essentially unchanged.  Additionally, and more speculative, there is substantial anecdotal evidence that the Children’s Zone program was unsuccessful in the years before opening the charter schools. Indeed, the impetus behind starting the schools was the lack of test-score growth under the community-only model. (p. 22)

That first sentence is pretty radical.  The usual assumption is that wooing the middle class back to urban districts (more…)

Popularity: 3% [?]

The Ruby Payne wars

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Some teachers who teach kids from low-income families swear by Ruby Payne and her seminal work “A Framework for Understanding Poverty.” Others find her work to be cloying, simplistic and damaging. For a fascinating, close-up look at this war of ideas (and ideologies), read this 2008 critique from the Teachers College Record, and Payne’s just-published response. Please weigh in — especially if you are a teacher.

Popularity: 7% [?]

Study debates what schools can and can’t overcome

Monday, March 9th, 2009

The Education and the Public Interest Center at the school of education at CU Boulder has fired the latest salvo in the ongoing debate between the “factors outside of school matter most” faction and the “no excuses — schools alone can close gaps” group.

As usual in these debates, both sides make cogent arguments and both sides are right in places and wrong in places.

The current study, Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, does not provide startling new evidence or break much new ground.  Rather, it argues, a la Richard Rothstein, that out-of-school factors do more to create and exacerbate achievement gaps than anything going on within schools.

David Berliner, the study’s author argues that

(1) low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics

“limit what schools can accomplish. ”

Berliner also argues that KIPP and similar schools are being held up as The Answer when they are nothing of the sort:

The occasional school that overcomes the effects of academically detrimental inputs-high rates of food insecurity, single heads of households, family and neighborhood violence, homelessness and transiency, illnesses and dental needs that are not medically insured, special education needs, language minority populations, and so forth-has allowed some advocates to declare that schools, virtually alone, can ensure the high achievement of impoverished youth. This point is made by Chenoweth in a book documenting schools that “beat the odds,” and it is the point made repeatedly by Kati Haycock, the influential head of the Education Trust, and other organizations like hers.

But these successes should not be used as a cudgel to attack other educators and schools. And they should certainly never be used to excuse societal neglect of the very causes of the obstacles that extraordinary educators must overcome. It is a poor policy indeed that erects huge barriers to the success of millions of students, cherry-picks and praises a few schools that appear to clear those barriers, and then blames the other schools for their failure to do the same.

So, ladies and gentlemen, your thoughts, please…

Popularity: 3% [?]

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