Transformation fails to spark improvement in Chicago high schools, say researchers

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Former CEO Arne Duncan often said that a key to creating the best urban school district in the country was to improve long-failing high schools. But Duncan’s broadest, most expensive effort, called High School Transformation, sputtered in implementation and has failed to spark significant improvement, according to an evaluation released Thursday.

The evaluation blames poor teaching and student absenteeism, among other factors. The report is part of a package of evaluations that also criticize the lack of impact on high schools of two other district initiatives: Renaissance 2010 and AMPS, or Autonomous Management and Performance Schools, which aimed to give higher-performing schools more freedom.  The reports are from research institute SRI International and the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The report is not the first sign that the High School Transformation project wasn’t going well. In fact, the district has dropped the name and simply calls the project IDS, for Instructional Development Systems—the package of curriculum materials, professional development and support that were supposed to be the first phase of the transformation project.

Former CEO Arne Duncan often said that a key to creating the best urban school district in the country was to improve long-failing high schools. But Duncan’s broadest, most expensive effort, called High School Transformation, sputtered in implementation and has failed to spark significant improvement, according to an evaluation released Thursday.

The evaluation blames poor teaching and student absenteeism, among other factors. The report is part of a package of evaluations that also criticize the lack of impact on high schools of two other district initiatives: Renaissance 2010 and AMPS, or Autonomous Management and Performance Schools, which aimed to give higher-performing schools more freedom.  The reports are from research institute SRI International and the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The report is not the first sign that the High School Transformation project wasn’t going well. In fact, the district has dropped the name and simply calls the project IDS, for Instructional Development Systems—the package of curriculum materials, professional development and support that were supposed to be the first phase of the transformation project.

Only 43 schools implemented IDS, short of the 50 that were supposed to adopt it during the project’s first three years.

As we reported previously, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which spent millions on High School Transformation, initially planned to pay for four evaluations, but pulled the plug after this first one.

Current CPS officials have said they are going to keep implementing IDS, though they cut funding by $3 million for the coming year.

Among the more interesting findings about Transformation:

Attendance is the elephant in the room. The evaluators found that absenteeism increased significantly when schools adopted the new curricula, which were supposed to be more engaging and challenging. Students were absent entire weeks at a time, they found. The report quotes one teacher who said during a site visit: “Attendance is bigger than curriculum.” Catalyst found the same problem at one high school, Marshall: In our February 2008 issue, we reported that Marshall students missed a stunning average of 50 school days per year—greatly reducing the chance that any new curriculum could take hold.

Bad teaching hurt the project. More than half of the teachers observed by evaluators were rated as unsatisfactory or basic—the two lowest ratings. The evaluators found that the vast majority of teachers had low expectations of students, lacked creativity in assignments and failed to ask good questions that challenged students to think critically. The evaluators ask: “Without stronger instruction, can IDS improve outcomes?” The evaluators also found that many teachers don’t know how to manage student behavior and created a classroom climate that was not conducive to learning.

Testing and data didn’t help. Companies that provided the curricula also created assessments and provided teachers with data on student performance. But evaluators found that it took teachers up to a year to understand how to use the data. Also, several teachers reported that the assessments were too hard and discouraged students. CEO Ron Huberman is pushing the idea of regular assessments that provide real-time information, so he might want to take note of the experience of transformation teachers.

Test scores didn’t improve. Given all the other problems noted, this finding comes as no surprise. Sometime soon, the district will release the Prairie State and ACT scores for the first cohort of students who have been in transformation schools since freshman year. The evaluators based their findings on the EXPLORE and Plan tests that are taken freshman and sophomore years.

Renaissance 2010 and high schools

One of the reports offers a limited but fascinating glimpse into teacher turnover and staffing at Renaissance schools. The researchers studied student performance data from 27 schools (12 charters, 3 contract schools and 12 performance schools), and explored teaching quality more fully in nine schools through classroom observations and follow-up interviews with teachers, principals, counselors and other staff.

Those interviews and classroom visits uncovered troubling trends. In fact, one principal said his school lost half its teachers between 2008 and 2009. Among the explanations posited in the report:

“Turnover occurred in some cases because teachers were not an appropriate fit for the school or [they] were underperforming, so their contracts were not renewed. In other cases, teachers were overwhelmed by the stresses of start-up demands and chose to leave. Creating even more disruption, some turnover occurred mid-year, often because inexperienced teachers were not prepared for the realities of classrooms serving at-risk students.”

Turnover and the newness of Renaissance schools have apparently led to an oversupply of novice teachers, according to the report. But the Renaissance schools are credited with taking an intensive approach to beefing up teachers’ skills. Atop professional development, many of the schools have strong teacher evaluation systems in place.

The schools also get credit for using student performance data to effectively spot learning deficiencies. With the extra learning time provided to students (charters often have longer school days and a longer school year) the data-driven approach has potential to dramatically help students who are behind academically. But it’s a challenging work environment:

“Teaching is hard work, but the demands and high expectations for teachers in Renaissance 2010 schools appear to be particularly intensive. Although some innovations such as the extended school year and school day may be an appropriate response to the low academic performance of the students, the risk is that committed teachers are unable to maintain the level of effort necessary.”

In terms of student performance data, the report offers a largely incomplete picture. Renaissance schools are so new that standardized testing data is generally not available. Still, the report does suggest that attendance is relatively high in Renaissance high schools and school climates are notably more orderly.