No silver bullet in school reform

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Catalyst this week reported the release of a long-delayed study that showed decidedly mixed achievement at 15 Renaissance 2010 schools opened in 2005 and 2006.

The Renaissance Schools Fund, which paid for the report and delayed its release for nearly a year, subsequently issued its own summary of the research, adding performance measures from 2008 for all RSF-supported schools. Generally it trumpets an upward trend in test scores. (To read the full summary, click here.)

Catalyst this week reported the release of a long-delayed study that showed decidedly mixed achievement at 15 Renaissance 2010 schools opened in 2005 and 2006.

The Renaissance Schools Fund, which paid for the report and delayed its release for nearly a year, subsequently issued its own summary of the research, adding performance measures from 2008 for all RSF-supported schools. Generally it trumpets an upward trend in test scores. (To read the full summary, click here.)

The organization is a partner in Mayor Richard Daley’s Renaissance initiative, helping to fund school startups and vet new school proposals.

Among the updated performance measures, RSF notes:

A more recent assessment of the RSF portfolio in 2008 shows continued growth. Overall, nearly 70 percent of RSF-supported schools are outperforming their neighborhood counterparts. On average, RSF-supported schools are outperforming district comparison schools by 4 percent in reading and 1.5 percent in math. Over three years, the first cohort of RSF-supported schools is outpacing the district (including selective enrollment schools) in average annual growth (4.0 percent vs. 2.9 percent).

These measures, however, use a controversial approach that compares Renaissance schools to nearby neighborhood schools. The method does not control for the background characteristics of individual students.

In the original report, which was conducted by researchers at SRI International and the Consortium on Chicago School Research, students’ background characteristics were considered in the analysis of test scores.

Still, their report was able to look at only two years of data—painting a largely incomplete picture of new schools. Researchers are well aware of the fact that new schools face major challenges in the early going and rarely make academic strides until school staff and programs are better established.

RSF hopes to fund a more thorough study that does control for students’ backgrounds in the coming years. But from the organization’s perspective, the latest study has at least confirmed what they say they already knew:

  • New schools require at least nine months to incubate
  • They need leadership with both strong instructional and entrepreneurial capacity.
  • They must be free to adopt longer school days and/or years so they can offer students time for remediation and teachers more professional development.
  • They must use data to inform instruction.

SRI’s Dan Humphrey, who led the school site visits and qualitative research, offers a blunter perspective.

The research, he says, really shows that “there’s no silver bullet for reforming urban schools.” The students in Renaissance schools, like Chicago’s traditional public schools, are performing at dramatically low levels, he notes. But there are several promising practices taking shape in Renaissance schools that may lead to the accelerated learning that new school advocates want to proclaim.