Test scores are mixed, costs are high and teachers are pissed. Why critics say Sacramento city school reform could …
School districts all over the country are struggling to turn around “failing schools.” It’s a harsh label, but the pressure to raise student test scores and graduation rates is enormous. The system created by No Child Left Behind and its offspring, Race to the Top, can impose tough penalties for schools and school districts that don’t make steady gains.
In Sacramento City Unified School District, the same schools often lag behind on the alphabet soup of standards that schools are measured by these days: the Academic Performance Index, the California Standards Tests, the Early Assessment Program, the list goes on. And these struggling schools tend to cluster in low-income neighborhoods.
But last year, SCUSD’s Superintendent Jonathan Raymond launched a plan to turn around the failing schools.
Out of the 80-plus elementary, middle and high schools in the district, Raymond declared the seven with the worst test scores to be “priority schools” and candidates for an array of reforms.
He said these would be “incubators of innovation”—they’d get more money, more attention. He got rid of the principals at these schools and many of the teachers. He brought in new, reform-minded staff and an army of paid consultants. And they collected lots and lots of student data.
And this summer, when the results of the CST came back, the administration touted higher scores as evidence that the priority schools experiment was a success.
“I am very proud of the hard-working priority-schools principals, teachers and staff who have embraced these reforms and who now have the data to back up their efforts,” Raymond said in a press release this summer celebrating the new scores.
But SN&R took a closer look at the test data, and found some of those gains may be overstated. In some cases at least, higher test scores may have as much to do with changing student population at those schools as with improved teaching methods or new leadership.
Teachers also complain that in some priority schools, the principals have abused their new power, played favorites or gotten rid of teachers for not being “team players.”
And the program is siphoning money away from other schools. In some cases, schools have seen their budgets slashed by tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to support Raymond’s priority schools.
One longtime teacher, Alice Mercer, was optimistic when her school Oak Ridge Elementary was named as a priority school. But she left after a year in frustration.
“If this is the answer, you have to wonder what in the hell the question was,” she said.
Choosing the worst
Raymond joined the district in 2009—from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district in North Carolina. He served as the chief accountability officer there and was tasked with raising student test scores.
Raymond has little classroom experience. He was a business lawyer, and CEO of nonprofit organization focused on education and workforce development. He also served as an aide to GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch, and was himself once a Republican candidate for Congress in the state of Massachusetts.
Raymond also did a 10-month stint in the Broad Superintendents Academy. The Academy—named for construction tycoon and philanthropist Eli Broad—has made a mission of turning business executives into superintendents in large urban-school districts. Broad’s is one of the bright lights of that wing of the education reform movement that includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and some controversial figures like Michelle Rhee, who recently made Sacramento the home base for her Students First lobbying group, meant to counter the power of the teacher unions. Rhee is married to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.
Drawing on all that background, Raymond chose the six worst performing schools in the district for an overhaul.
They are clustered in south Sacramento and Oak Park and include Hiram W. Johnson High, and the middle schools Fern Bacon and Will C. Wood. Three elementary schools round out the set: Jedidiah Smith, Father Keith B. Kenny and Oak Ridge. This year, Raymond decided to add a seventh school to the list, Rosa Parks Middle School.
In the first year, the district spent $5 million on the priority-schools program. All of the money came from federal stimulus funds, which is intended to help Title 1 schools that have a large number of low-income students.
Each priority school got a deep cleaning, a fresh coat of paint and often new landscaping outside.
“These facilities were filthy and not well-maintained,” Raymond told SN&R. Beyond physical shabbiness, the priority schools suffered from a “culture of complacency.”
And as part of the housecleaning, Raymond got rid of the principals at all of the priority schools but one, along with most of the assistant principals.
Raymond also used the funds to give these new administrators sizable raises. Felisberto Cedros, a high-school principal at the Hiram Johnson priority high school makes $137,000 a year, about $10,000-$15,000 more than his counterparts on other high-school campuses. Principals at priority elementary schools and middle schools come out about $15,000 a year ahead as well.
There are some benefits for teachers at these new schools, too. They also got paid a little more, because, in the first year, the day was a half-hour longer at the priority schools than at other schools.
Teachers at priority schools are offered protection from pink slips—a big benefit in a time when the district is laying off (though often rehiring) hundreds of teachers every year.
The idea is to create greater stability at the school. But turnover at Raymond’s reform schools has been quite high.
Turnover and transfers
At Hiram W. Johnson High, for example, many teachers rebelled against what they said principal Cedros’ my-way-or-the-highway approach.
“There was just a lot of bullying and intimidation,” said Larry Tagg, who taught English at the school last year. “He came in and said, ‘You guys don’t know what you’re doing. I’m here to save the place.’” “He called our test scores ‘pathetic,’” Tagg added. “He said, ‘You all don’t even know how to play the game.’” After a year, Tagg left voluntarily and has since taken up as an advanced placement English teacher at C.K. McClatchy High School.
Many students didn’t like the changes, either. At the end of last year, some joined with teachers and parents in asking the Sacramento City Board of Education to remove Cedros. Some board members sympathized, but they left the decision to Raymond, and he stuck by his man Cedros.
Cedros didn’t answer an interview request from SN&R. Raymond acknowledged the controversy at Hiram Johnson, but said that, “other people will tell you that school was dysfunctional for 10 years. I’m very pleased with our results there.”
In the end, the school lost about half of its teachers. It lost a lot of its students, too. More on that in a bit.
Turnover has been high at other priority schools as well. At Father Keith B. Kenny Elementary, 70 percent of teachers left or were transferred. At Oak Ridge Elementary, 30 percent of the teachers have left since it was declared a priority school.
One was Alice Mercer, the computer-lab teacher who was optimistic about the priority-schools program, but left disillusioned after the first year. But not everyone left voluntarily.
“Some people were run out, and not based on competence. It was more to do with loyalty issues,” said Mercer.
Across the district, at all the schools singled out as priority schools, the Sacramento City Teachers Association says the use of involuntary administrative transfers is way up.
And Raymond readily acknowledged that administrative transfers were being used to “remove folks who were not set to be supportive.”
“When you’re changing the culture of a school, you’ve got to get everyone going in the right direction,” Raymond told SN&R. “We’ve got to change. For folks who don’t want to change, or who are actively resisting, there isn’t a place for them.”
At Rosa Parks, Emily Lim was one of seven teachers who were involuntarily transferred.
When Lim learned that Rosa Parks would be a priority school, she said she was looking forward to the change. “We were all ready to jump on the bandwagon. It was going to be refreshing and positive. Then we got these letters.”
“There was no evaluation, no explanation, nothing,” she added.
Before Lim opened the envelope, she said, she thought she might be receiving some sort of reward for her 30 years of service. She turned 60 this year and has just a few years until retirement.
She said that all seven of the teachers who were ousted from Rosa Parks were over the age of 50.
Plenty of other teachers have fled priority schools on their own accord.
Another Oak Ridge teacher—who’s since taken a job at another school and asked her name not be used for this story—said experienced classroom teachers were being micromanaged by paid consultants.
Part of the priority schools program is an initiative called “data inquiry,” which, as the name suggests, involves the constant collection of data on student performance.
“You’d get pulled out of your class to make these presentations to the consultants,” the teacher explained. “There was a lot of time wasted sitting in a room with the training specialists and the consultants. But you had to play the game. You’re not going to say what you really think, which is, ‘This is bullshit.’”
Getting rid of teachers who don’t want to change is all for the good, say Raymond’s supporters.
But driving teachers out of one school creates headaches for the principals at other schools. A teacher who gets purged from a priority school will often get to “bump” a less-tenured teacher somewhere else—creating a ripple effect and disrupting staff at other school sites.
And critics say Raymond is really filling up the priority schools with teachers who would be afraid to speak up or disagree.
“It didn’t create staff stability, at all,” said Mercer. Instead, teachers with enough seniority left, knowing they could get jobs at other schools. The teachers left behind were often the “Rapunzels,” said Mercer, teachers who might otherwise be pink-slipped.
“Sure, she’s safe there in her tower. But is she happy?”
About those numbers
Some hurt feelings among teachers is small price to pay for results, say supporters. The California Standards Tests scores for English at Hiram Johnson went up 7 percent this year; math scores rose 3 percent. Oak Ridge seemed to have remarkable increases in math, with a 19 percent rise.
That translated into big gains on the state Academic Performance Index, which is based largely on test scores.
History and science are also tested annually, and according to the state’s calculations, all of the priority schools made gains in at least some categories.
But some, like Larry Tagg, weren’t so sure about the numbers. He noticed that his school was shedding students. Many went to what’s called a continuation high school for “credit recovery.”
SCUSD spokesperson Gabe Ross said that it’s common practice to refer students in danger of failing to a credit-recovery program. But that had not been happening at Hiram Johnson for years, Ross said. “Rather, they were left to get further and further behind their classmates.”
When Cedros came in, those students without enough credits to graduate got moved to other programs off campus. Today, the school has hundreds fewer students than it did before becoming a priority school.
That should raise a red flag said Monty Neill, executive director of a national organization called FairTest, which has been critical of the reliance on high-stakes testing in schools.
“Even with good intentions, credit recovery can be used to keep certain students ‘off the books,’ so to speak,” Neill explained.
Tagg also feared that the school’s gains came about because the school was “counseling out” lower-performing students.
If you don’t look critically at the test results announced at Hiram Johnson, Tagg said, it’s easy to argue that overhaul measures are working because of strong leadership from a no-nonsense principal, or new teaching methods or a new paint job.
“I think we lost 20 percent of the student body, obviously in hopes of making test scores go up,” said Tagg.
But Ross called the notion that students were being counseled out to inflate test scores, “One hundred percent inaccurate.”
“My question is, where was the outrage and concern about these Hiram Johnson kids and their test scores when they were failing out of school?” he said.
Tagg counters with a question of his own. “If it was all about credit recovery, why didn’t those kids ever come back?”
Crunching the data
The only way to tell if the missing students had made a difference would be to isolate their test scores, and track just the scores of students who stayed at the school—and took the tests—both years.
SN&R obtained the individual student scores on the CST for all students in the district for the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years. The district did not give SN&R student names, but instead generated a unique ID number for every student who took the CST tests in those years.
That gave SN&R the chance to compare test scores just before and just after the implementation of the priority schools. And it allowed us to separate out the students who actually took the test, at the same schools, both years, and to track their progress.
Looked at this way, SN&R found that average English scores for Hiram Johnson students were flat from one year to the next. In math, the scores actually dropped a bit.
So it would seem that the changing student population made some difference in the increased scores there. The students you would expect to benefit the most from the changes at the school—those who were there before and after—saw no increase in their test scores.
Hiram Johnson’s performance looked even worse when the results of the college-readiness tests were factored in. According to the results of the California Early Assessment Program only 2 percent of 11th graders were ready for college-level English classes. That’s compared to 5 percent the year before.
When SN&R compared the test scores for students at the other priority schools, the results were also a mixed bag.
Again, the CST test scores for many of the priority schools went up, according to the California Department of Education and according to the statements from the district.
But when SN&R tracked just the students who attended their school both years, the results looked different. CST scores at Oak Ridge, Keith B. Kenny and Fern Bacon all went up. At Jedidiah Smith and Will C. Wood, along with Hiram Johnson, scores all dipped slightly.
Mercer also said she was concerned about an increasing number taking the California Modified Assessment last year. The CMA has historically been taken by students in special-education programs, and it’s easier than the CST test.
“I think the CMA scores are probably part of the gains,” said Mercer.
District officials acknowledge that the number of students taking the CMA at Oak Ridge and at all other priority schools did rise this year, from 191 students to 254 at all six schools.
The increasing use of the CMA in the Sacramento region and around the state has been controversial.
But according to the district’s figures, the number of students at Oak Ridge taking the CMA only rose from 31 to 33 students.
“Saying that increased CMAs may have contributed to test-score increases in any substantial way would be irresponsible, given the statistical complexities,” Ross said.
And Ross said that SN&R was simply looking at CST scores the wrong way, by focusing on just the cohort of students who stayed at the school both years.
The state doesn’t use the numbers that way when it’s calculating the progress an entire school makes. “I don’t see how you can draw a comparison between individual-student cohort growth and school-wide growth, given all of the statistical variables at play,” said Ross.
And even when touting the gains his priority schools have made, Raymond has cautioned against putting too much importance on a single test score.
It can be pretty arcane stuff. Most newspaper stories focus on Academic Performance Index as a measure of a school’s overall academic progress. But even teachers and principals don’t generally know the exact formula by which the California Department of Education combines CST and CMA scores, along with other factors, to get an API number.
In fact, the booklet, which explains the California Department of Education’s “formula” for calculating API is 77 pages long.
“We have a whole division whose job is to spend all year calculating this stuff,” said Tina Jung, a spokesperson for CDE.
And by the state’s calculations, a couple of priority schools like Oak Ridge made some big gains this year. That’s going to be good enough for most people.
Ironically, Mercer noted, “A lot of the teachers involved in those gains are gone now.”
Who pays the price?
If the test-score gains for Raymond’s priority schools don’t always add up, the costs certainly do.
The priority-schools program costs about $5 million the first year—much of it came from a timely influx of federal stimulus money. This year, the budget for priority schools is about $4 million, but much of the money will come straight out of the budgets of other struggling schools.
The money comes from the stream of federal Title 1 money that’s spread around to schools that have a large population of low-income students.
All of the priority schools are considered Title 1 schools. But not all Title 1 schools are priority schools. That means some low-performing schools are helping to subsidize the reforms at Raymond’s priority schools.
Hollywood Park Elementary is a good example. In the 2009-2010 school year, Hollywood Park got $85,000 in Title 1 money. The next year, it got just $43,000.
The huge budget cut means, among other things, that the school’s bilingual aide had her hours cut in half. The school also lost a full-time resource teacher—a credentialed teacher who works to support other teachers, organizes training and occasionally works one on one with certain students.
Jim Aldridge, a second-grade teacher—and a union representative at his school site—says it’s not fair for his school to lose money to the other schools on the list.
“Half of our kids are reading at grade level,” said Aldridge. “We are a blue-collar, Title 1 school. Why are our kids being penalized?”
At Luther Burbank High School, the amount of Title 1 money dropped from about $600,000 to a little more than $300,000. And John F. Kennedy High School lost nearly $200,000 in Title 1 money. The list goes on.
It is true that part of the reason Title 1 money has dropped is because more schools qualify for that money this year. For example, McClatchy High was just designated a Title 1 school for the first time. But Scott Smith, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association says the impact of priority schools is important.“I don’t think parents really know that their school is losing that much money to pay for someone else’s school,” Scott Smith, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association.
“I think it’s going to be difficult to expand the priority-schools concept, because there’s no way you could afford it,” added Smith.
Indeed, the district has already had to abandon some reforms because they didn’t work or were too expensive.
For example, in the first year, all priority-school students stayed an extra half-hour at school. Doesn’t sound like much, but many teachers say that extra instruction time can make a big difference. But it was too costly to pay the teachers to stay late, so the longer days were ended this year.
Raymond argues that many of the things that the district has learned can be exported without a lot of additional money. The use of the data-inquiry methods used in priority schools is already being exported to other schools, said Raymond.
The program could still fail if teachers don’t support it. And based on the way teachers have been treated at some sites, the union is not exactly singing the praises of priority schools.
Likewise, as one school board member cracked, “If you throw enough money at a school, you damn well better see test scores rise.” Next year, there will be another set of data to pour over.
But Raymond said the program has already been a success. “We’ve demonstrated that you can innovate. You can change the paradigm,” said Raymond. “And we already know that what we were doing before was not working.”
But critics like Tagg say the district is actually moving backward with priority schools.
“The whole idea is the disempowerment of teachers. … We were all going to be replaceable parts.”
He added that teachers at priority schools were being programmed to “teach to the test,” and the test gains will likely be temporary.
“I hate to see these kids’ educations played with in such a cynical way.”