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September 23, 2009
October 02, 2009
On Monday CEE-Trust’s Ethan Gray and I provided ideas to the Columbus Education Commission on ways that city could improve its schools. The following provides more details for some of the recommendations offered at that time.
Like much of urban America, Columbus urgently needs more high performing schools for its children, especially its poor and minority children. In 2011-12, nearly 30,000 (just under 50 percent) of all Columbus students attended failing schools (D or F on the state rating system). Within the Columbus City Schools, 60 of 117 buildings have been designated by the state as “persistently low-performing” – meaning they had been rated “academic emergency” or “academic watch” for at least two of the last three years. The city’s charter schools are equally troubled with 28 out of 59 being rated D or F by the state in 2012. In contrast, only 3,500 students attended schools with grades of A or A+.
Yet, turning around failed schools is nearly impossible, despite the best of intentions. Both charter and traditional district schools are stubbornly resistant to significant change—the kind that might actually make a difference, which generally entails replacing the entire staff and program. In Fordham’s 2010 report “Are Bad Schools Immortal,” researcher David Stuit identified more than 2,000 low-performing charter and district schools across ten states and tracked them from 2003-04 through 2008-09 to determine how many were turned around, shut down, or remained low-performing. Results were generally dismal. Seventy-two percent of the original low-performing charters remained in operation – and remained low-performing – five years later. So did 80 percent of district schools.
To be sure, closing failed schools is wrenching for all involved, but it is better for children than leaving them in hopeless situations. No child should be stuck without hope or alternative in a failed school Closure, however, should apply equally to both long-suffering district and charter schools.
Smart school closure requires a workable triage strategy for determining which schools are salvageable and which should close, what achievement data will be used to inform those decisions, and what non-achievement variables may also bear on closure decisions (e.g. demographic and enrollment trends). As with federal “base-closings.” Columbus may want to consider empaneling an independent body to recommend—to the mayor, the district, the charter authorizers, even the legislature—which schools must go and why.
In tandem with the strategic closure of long-suffering schools, Columbus should pursue a new schools strategy. This would entail helping current high-performers expand their efforts while also recruiting higher performing models to Columbus from across the country and the state. There are a handful of non-profit charter management organizations (CMOs) running some of the very best and most effective urban schools in the country. This list includes national models like KIPP, Achievement First, Aspire, Green Dot, Uncommon Schools, High Tech High, and Rocketship. Together these CMOs presently operate about 250 schools serving some 85,000 students in 22 states—but only one of these schools is in Ohio (KIPP). Columbus is not starting from zero, however. It has 14 charter schools serving about 4,300 students that are ranked Excellent or Effective. Some of these schools are well positioned to grow and/or replicate.
But the organic growth of these existing Columbus school models alone won’t be enough to meet the needs of 30,000 kids currently enrolled in troubled schools. Providing better opportunities for more of these students demands a larger strategic effort. Specifically, Columbus needs a multi-faceted reform plan that includes significant reforms to the school district, plans to improve pre-K for the city’s neediest children, and a “new schools” strategy that focuses launching new high-performing schools across the K—12 spectrum. These new schools could include schools already operating in Columbus and Ohio as well as national CMOs.
A significant new-schools strategy could be supported and accelerated by Columbus leaders in five ways:
Great schools demand quality teachers and school leaders. To help improve the talent available to schools, Columbus civic, business and philanthropic leaders should invite Teach for America (TFA), The New Teacher Project (TNTP), the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and other national talent partners to work in Columbus and its neediest schools – district and charter alike. TFA is already established in Ohio (northeast and southwest) and is looking to expand its efforts in the state. Columbus is a natural expansion site. These teacher programs not only place top talent into the neediest classrooms, but serve as an important pipeline for future school leaders and innovators.
Taken together, these steps – strategic school closure, new school development and focused talent recruitment and development – would allow for a significant expansion of high-quality schools in Columbus and provide better opportunities for the nearly 30,000 Columbus students who need them.