Future of Schools

For IPS, middle school test score struggles are a puzzle to solve

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students at Harshman Middle School, where Jack Hesser is a teacher, work on science projects.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has been worried about middle school students in Indianapolis Public Schools from almost the moment he arrived on the job in 2013.

Kids in grades 6-8 were scattered across the district — some in high schools, some in middle schools and some in elementary schools. And hardly any of them were passing state tests.

What he wanted then, he still wants now: a different approach to helping those kids learn. So does the school board.

But what’s the best solution? That’s the big question facing the district, and Ferebee thinks he’s closing in on at least one answer — get them out of high schools.

“Particularly where we have high schools that have middle grades … we really see some struggles,” he said when discussing newly released ISTEP scores. “I don’t think our middle grade students are being served well in that configuration.”

In fact, it’s hard to overstate how bad the situation is. About three out of four IPS students in grades 6-8 failed ISTEP last year. Middle school is also when IPS begins to lose student to competition. Hundreds of students leave IPS entirely during the middle school years.

Ferebee has a fix in mind: reconfigure middle school grades to move pre-teens out of the combined middle and high school buildings and into schools that serve grades K-8 and possibly middle schools.

A lot of research supports the plan. Even so, reconfiguring schools alone may not be enough to solve the problem of low middle-grade test scores.

The middle school conundrum

There are legitimate biological reasons why middle school students bring special challenges. The physical changes kids go through in those years are often accompanied by emotional shifts, which can lead to behavior problems or difficulty focusing on school work.

It’s not just IPS that faces this problem. Middle schools are a puzzle for nearly every type of school district.

Across Indiana, middle school students have unusually low ISTEP scores with an average passing rate about 7 percentage points below elementary students last year. Test scores were particularly low in 2015, when Indiana introduced new standards and scores plunged across the state. But the middle school test score gap has existed for years.

Part of the problem is that middle school students generally don’t get the social support that kids get in elementary school, but they also don’t yet have the maturity to effectively manage their academic work, which most students become better at in high school, said Ryan Steuer, who taught middle school English and launched a project-based learning community in Decatur Middle School.

“They’re in a weird, awkward phase and they need a lot of help,” he said.

In IPS, middle school students score very poorly, but they actually aren’t any farther behind in how they compare to their elementary school peers than in the rest of the state.

The passing rates for IPS middle school students lags behind the district’s elementary school passing rate by about 7 percentage points, exactly the same gap as the state averages.

What’s different is that the average scores for all schools in IPS, along with other high-poverty districts and schools in cities with lots of barriers to learning, are unusually low compared to other types of public schools. Still, the results are stark — just 24 percent of IPS middle school kids passed both the math and English ISTEP tests. Statewide about 49 percent of middle school kids passed ISTEP.

The passing rates are extraordinarily low at the most troubled schools. Less than 10 percent of middle school students passed ISTEP at seven IPS schools. Most of the worst test scores are at combined middle and high schools, where kids in grades 6-8 share a building with older students.

There are eight of those combined schools in IPS, and none of them did better than the district average for middle school students.

“The data has shown that them being in those buildings has not been successful,” said Wanda Legrand, deputy superintendent for academics. “Our goal now is to create the best situation for children based on data.”

IPS is also losing kids during the middle school years, to competing options such as charter schools, private schools — sometimes thanks to state-funded tuition vouchers — other districts or possibly even dropping out.

For a district that depends on robust enrollment as the basis for per-student state aid, there are also financial reasons to try to persuade kids not to choose other options or give up on school. And middle school grades are a period when many kids disappear.

Consider the class of IPS students who moved from sixth to seventh grade last school year. At most grades, a class of students varies a little bit from year to year. But it appears an unusually small proportion of kids stuck around for seventh grade last year at IPS schools. The district last year had about 1,907 seventh graders. But the class was 24 percent smaller than the prior year’s sixth grade class, which had 2,499 students.

Last year, nearly 2,700 IPS middle school students went to 6-12 or 7-12 schools. Almost exactly the same number of IPS middle school kids were at elementary schools. Close to 150 students went to Key Learning Community, a K-12 school that will close next year. The district’s only middle school Harshman Middle School, has about 600 students. (Emma Donnan, a former IPS middle schools is now run independently by Charter Schools USA after state takeover in 2012, so its enrollment is not counted as part of IPS.)

Teaching matters

IPS plans to move most middle school students to elementary schools, and it may also add middle schools, in hopes that students do better academically. The district is planning public forums this spring and aims to begin the conversion in 2017-18.

But a question remains: will simply keeping kids in elementary schools longer or creating new middle schools make the difference? Some experts say only if there are also changes to the way students are taught.

“If you can create an environment that would be conducive to the creating of culture specifically for middle school, then I think that that could be beneficial as a practical step,” said Steuer, who now leads Magnify Learning, a non-profit that trains teachers to use project-based learning. “But the teaching methods also have to change.”

As a teacher in Decatur, Steuer helped create a school-within-a-school that dramatically boosted test scores in middle school grades, he said. And when Magnify works with teachers in combined middle and high schools, they try to create groups of educators who focus on middle students.

It’s harder to offer spaces designed for each age group when many grades are in one building, said Marcus Robinson, CEO of the Tindley Accelerated Schools, an Indianapolis-based charter school network. But schools can create a customized experience for kids even if they share buildings.

Tindley began growing rapidly in 2012, launching two middle schools and three elementary schools. But for most of its history, it ran a single combined middle and high school, much like those common to IPS. Tindley students scored well on state tests because the school had a completely separate and very structured program for middle school students, Robinson said.

“Those kids need things that are categorically different,” he said, “both for their emotional development as well as for their academic achievement.”

The value of rearranging kids

There’s some pretty strong evidence IPS is on the right track. Rearranging kids might, indeed, help with achievement, especially if it’s paired with good teaching methods, some of the latest research shows.

When Harvard professor Martin West saw a study showing that in New York City middle school age students who attended elementary schools scored much higher on standardized tests than students who went to middle schools, he was skeptical.

“We know that what matters really is the quality of teaching,” he said.

So West and a colleague decided to do their own study comparing students who went to middle schools to those who went to combined middle and elementary schools. They looked at several years of test scores from students across Florida. The results, he said, were stunning.

Students who went to combined elementary-middle schools learned significantly more than students at middle schools. When students transitioned to middle school, their test scores suggested they lost the equivalent of up to seven months of learning in the first year.

All transitions can be hard on students, said West, but the move to middle school from elementary school appeared to be significantly more difficult than the move to high school from middle school.

Even worse, there was no catching up. Students fell further behind for every year they were in middle school. Then, when they entered high school, Florida students who’d attended middle school came in behind their peers who stayed in elementary school.

“On average students tend to learn less while they’re enrolled in middle school,” said West. “Stand alone middle schools appear to be very difficult to run well.”

The future of middle grades

Even with the IPS plan still being developed, middle school students already are shifting away from combined middle and high schools.

Last fall, IPS removed middle school grades from Shortridge High School as part of a wider overhaul of magnet programs at several schools. And it announced plans to phase out middle school grades at Broad Ripple High School, an arts magnet.

The district also plans to expand the arts magnet elementary school to eighth grade and launch an additional Center for Inquiry magnet school, which will serve students in grade K-8.

But Ferebee said other changes, including opening new standalone middle schools, are still open to discussion.

The district already has plans to provide a building for an experimental, charter middle school being developed by Sheila Dollaske, a former-IPS principal and Mind Trust fellow.

Legrand said decisions will be designed to improve outcomes for children in middle school grades, whatever the setting.

“We want to make sure we invest in staffing appropriately and providing the resources and the professional development so that it’s a true middle years program,” said Legrande. “It has to be designed specifically for that adolescent child that’s in the middle.”

Story booth

With no art teacher, students at this Detroit school say their talents go unnurtured


When the eighth-grade students at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side talk about things their school needs, they point to a classmate named Casey.

“He’s a great artist,” one student said. “He can look at a picture and draw it in like five minutes and it will look exactly the same.”

If Casey attended school in the suburbs, his friends believe, he and other talented students would have an art class where they could nurture their skills.

“They don’t have the time to put in the work with their talent because we don’t have those extra-curricular activities,” another classmate said.

The students at the K-8 school have no art, music or gym teachers — a common problem in a district where resources are thin and where a teacher shortage has made it difficult for schools like this one to find teachers for many subjects, including the arts.

While the Detroit district has committed to expanding arts programs next year, it would need to find enough teachers to fill those positions.

“People out there think we’re not smart and they always criticize us about what we do,” Casey said. “We can always show them how smart we are,” he said, but that requires “getting the type of programming that we’re supposed to.”

Chalkbeat spoke with students at the school as part of a “story booth” series that invites students, teachers and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools.

Watch the full video of the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X students below and please tell us if you know someone who would like their story featured in a future story booth.

First Person

A Chalkbeat roundtable: The promise and perils of charter networks like Success Academy

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

When we published an essay about the promise and perils of charter schools by our CEO and editor in chief Elizabeth Green last month, we heard from a lot of readers.

Elizabeth’s piece outlined her conclusions after more than a decade of reporting about charter school networks, and more specifically the Success Academy network in New York City. She wrote that charter school networks offer both great advantages — in their ability to provide rare coherence in what is taught across classrooms, and — and significant danger. Charter networks, she wrote, have changed public education by “extracting it from democracy as we know it.”

Some of our readers saw their own thinking reflected in her conclusions. Others had a very different take.

What was clear was that Elizabeth had kicked off a conversation that many Chalkbeat readers are ready to have, and that, as always, robust and respectful debate is good for everyone’s thinking.

So we reached out to people who engage with big questions about how schools are structured every single day, in their work or personal lives. Today, we’re sharing what they had to say. But we think this is far from the end of the conversation. If you want to add your voice, let us know.



Charter networks’ needs and goals may not be the community’s

By Tim Ware, former executive director of the Achievement Schools managed by the Tennessee Department of Education and founder of Ware Consulting Group

As the founder and former executive director of a high performing public charter middle school in Memphis, Tennessee, I am a firm believer in the promise of well-run charter schools. I also understand the limits of these schools.

A key aspect of public charter legislation is autonomy. This means that public charters decide how to staff their schools, which curriculum to use, how to allocate resources for student support, and how their daily and summer schedules work. However, this legislated autonomy creates issues that thoughtful policymakers need to address.

For instance, in Memphis, a high-performing public charter network began operating a chronically underperforming middle school as a part of a turnaround intervention effort. Despite significant improvements in learning and school culture, as well as the support of the community, the school grappled with dwindling enrollment and suffocating building maintenance costs. Fewer dollars were available to invest in high quality teaching and learning, social-emotional supports, and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, the charter operator made the difficult decision to cease operating the school.

This example illustrates the limits of public charter schools. The same autonomy that allowed them to create an approach that drove improvement for children also allowed them to decide that they could no longer operate the school. This means that, as long as autonomy exists for public charter schools (and it should), we cannot eliminate traditional districts.

The solution for historically underserved communities will be found by creating strong ecosystems of education. These ecosystems should consist of a healthy mix of traditional schools, optional schools (schools with competitive entry requirements), magnet schools, public charter schools, and private schools. By ensuring that multiple types of schools flourish and are accessible to all, parents will be able to make informed choices and select a school which best meets the needs of their most precious belonging — their child.

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Focusing on charter networks is a mistake. Districts have the same potential

By Josh Thomases, dean of innovation, policy, and research at Bank Street College of Education

Elizabeth Green’s article on Eva Moskowitz misses one important detail – districts have successfully scaled change for students. In this era of attacks on government, it is worth looking closer.

The hundreds of new small high schools opened in New York City between 2000 and 2012 transformed thousands of lives. The research firm MDRC documented that impact, showing a 9.4 percent increased graduation rate and an 8 percent increase in college attendance. Notably, this increase was driven by success with groups that school systems often fail: poorer students, black students, and students with disabilities.

This extraordinary effort happened with district educators and unions, public resources and processes.

I saw this reform inside and out. I helped create a small school in the 1990s and was part of community protests against some of the initial school closures under Chancellor Joel Klein. And, in 2004, I became responsible for the development and support of new schools within the education department.

The new schools work was an example of democracy in action – with all its imperfections. There were legendary protests against the Department of Education and arguments over race, equity and power. And through all of that, the process transformed schools.

Why the success?

  1. The point was to improve teaching and learning. Everything was looked at through this lens.
  2. Educators were the agents of change. The new schools process challenged principals, teachers, community members and parents to reimagine school.
  3. External partners multiplied the power of the changes. These included school development organizations (such as New Visions and CUNY) and local partners ranging from the Brooklyn Cyclones and South Bronx Churches. For the first six years of the reform, the unions were a partner, too.
  4. The district shifted authority towards the principal and school based staff in key areas: hiring, scheduling, budgets, and curriculum.

This is not a story of perfect success; as a district, we made mistakes and they were debated publicly. But the results show that districts can take bold action to change what is happening in schools.

Charters in New York have also demonstrated they can make an important contribution to a district. The task ahead is not to forego government, but to activate its strengths.

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Charter networks are a laboratory for consistent and high-quality instruction

By Seneca Rosenberg, chief academic officer at Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee

My first year in the classroom, I desperately wanted to be the teacher my fourth graders deserved. A diligent student, I carefully examined California’s standards, the curriculum my district had adopted, new research, and popular trade books. I quickly saw that the approaches they outlined — for how to teach reading, for example — were often in direct conflict.

Veteran teachers advised: have your students fill out the mandated worksheets to avoid scrutiny, then close your door and teach as you want. This would have been good advice if only I had known what to do behind that door to help my students to learn.

Now, as chief academic officer of Valor Collegiate Academies, a small charter school network in Nashville, I reflect daily on how our autonomy and network structure provide crucial, and often unremarked upon, resources for developing coherent systems of teaching and learning.

Like other charter networks, Valor has the flexibility to set our educational vision and then organize our own curriculum, assessments, hiring policies, student and teacher schedules, and culture to realize it. Many of our teachers and school leaders report that our shared systems, while demanding, buffer them from some of the stress that comes with making sense of dissonant policies and practices they more regularly encountered in traditional public schools.

Even more importantly, our infrastructure provides our teachers and leaders with a common framework around which expertise can be developed, shared, and improved.

For example, at Valor, our teaching teams meet frequently to study and plan from our students’ work. We have shared protocols for data analysis and teacher coaching. Each piece has been intentionally developed as part of a system. As a result, teachers have opportunities to learn that far exceed anything I had access to as a teacher — and our students benefit.

I share some of Elizabeth Green’s ambivalence about the potential impact of the rise of charters nationally, though she inflates the extent to which charters “extract” public education from democratic control — at least in states in which authorizing laws are well crafted. I am also skeptical of Moskowitz’s suggestion that perhaps “a public school system consisting principally of charter schools would be an improvement.”

But charter networks’ unique conditions do provide a useful laboratory. Critics who dismiss our high-performing charter networks’ many successes risk missing what we are learning from this critical innovation — coherent instructional systems — and how that might contribute to new possibilities for American education.

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In my city, no schools have it figured out

By Bernita Bradley, parent advocate and blogger at Detroit School Talk

Take all kids out of charter schools, they say. Close them down and require those students to attend their closest public school, no matter how far, how full the classrooms, and how low-performing. Hop on a bus more than 25 minutes to attend the closest high school near you and sit at the back of the class on the floor. After all, public schools were perfect before charter schools came along, and in order for them to be perfect again, we need everyone on board.

Don’t talk bad about public schools, they say. Don’t draw attention to the fact that we are still figuring out how to improve public schools and need your help. The city of Detroit must unite, be of one mind, and let all charter school leaders know that we are only supporting traditional public schools.

These arguments won’t work. I fight for quality public schools and fought for us to not lose more of them. However, if you strip parents of choice, you prove that you are not committed to providing children with what they need.

To be clear, I am an advocate for both sides. Parents don’t care about this war — we just want good schools that will educate all children equally. Can we have that conversation?

Let’s tell the truth about how, here in Detroit, both sides cherry-pick students and “counsel out” parents. Public schools just suspend students indefinitely until parents leave to find a charter school. Let’s tell the truth about how teaching to the test has affected both charter and public school teachers’ ability to make sure student academic growth is more robust.

Both sides could do better. My children have attended both kids of schools. I’ve bused my kids 15 miles away. I’ve sent my kids to the top charter and public schools in the city. And no one — including charter schools — has this figured out.

I can’t think of a person would say they are totally happy with their child’s educational experience here in Detroit. We have come to the point where, while we’ve made friends in both charters and public schools, this is a journey full of struggles and broken promises that we would not wish on any parent.

Believe me, if we had our way there would be no need to choose. The school on the corner would be full and alive with students, parents, and teachers who have one common goal, to educate all kids.

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The rise of networks hurts the charter movement

By Steve Zimmerman, Coalition of Community Charter Schools

In the ongoing saga of Eva Moskowitz and her war against the the educational status quo, two key issues are overlooked. The first is that the rise of Success Academy has come at significant cost to the charter school movement and the democratic values that were at its genesis.

The rigidly top-down managerial approach of the Success network is the antithesis of the original idea of chartering: to free schools from district-imposed conformity so they have autonomy to innovate. There is no autonomy or innovation in a franchise. Franchisees follow the script.

The second issue is that Success Academy schools, for all intents and purposes, turn teachers into technicians. They are trained in a rigid model of classroom management with a relentless focus on student outcomes. As Elizabeth Green and others point out, the effectiveness of this system, at least in terms of test scores, is well documented and ostensibly justifies the orthodoxy of “no excuses” education reform.

Relentlessness, however, comes at a cost. Just as legendary as its record-high test scores is Success Academy’s teacher attrition. Success Academy appears to welcome an increasing number of bright young people to learn and execute the scripts, and then watch as they move on to their real careers after they burn out in three years. The consequences of this trend are chilling to imagine.

If we believe the purpose of public education to be the development of exceptional test takers, then Eva Moskowitz has clearly pointed the way to the promised land. If, however, we believe the purpose is the betterment of society and the development of the whole child, there are better models to emulate.

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Coherence is important, but charter networks aren’t necessary to achieve it

Andy Snyder, social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City

Who should decide what students learn in school? Families or individual teachers? District and charter school leaders, elected officials, or panels of professors?

Elizabeth Green’s recent essay focuses our attention on this huge question. She points out that many other countries provide “a clear sense of what students need to learn, the basic materials necessary to help them learn it (such as a curriculum).” And she argues that some charter school networks, enabled by their anti-democratic powers, are developing coherent and meaningful ideas of what to prioritize and how to teach it well.

When I began student teaching, I was shown stacks of textbooks and boxes of transparencies, quizzes, tests, homework — corporate-branded, filled with facts, empty of meaning. I switched to another mentor and recreated the trial of John Brown. Later I left one innovative public school where administrators were attempting to bend my courses into more traditional shapes for another where the interview includes, “Describe a dream course that you would love to teach” and where we teach those courses every day.

But I’ve seen in Germany the effects of a thoughtful curriculum — classes connect between disciplines and spiral powerfully between grades, and teachers adapt rather than invent.  Improvised individual efforts often produce a worse result than a strong system. That’s why I commute in New York by subway, not bicycle.

The systemic approach can break down too. Today we curse the defunding of our transit agency, and we saw what happened to the Common Core. How can charter schools develop truly excellent curriculum when their priority seems to be preparing students to win against bad bubble tests?

Students, no matter what kind of school they attend, deserve lessons crafted by well-trained practitioners who draw from the best ideas of the profession.

In the best future I can imagine, each school or district adapts curriculum from one of several coherent curriculum packages developed over years with millions of dollars and genius and honest sweat. Teachers trained in that tradition lead students in cultivating the deep questions and necessary knowledge, and students graduate with a sense of how it all adds up and what they can bring with them into the world.

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