A test case for Obama's education reform
HACKENSACK, N.J. – In one of the toughest sections of Paterson, N.J., a hulking brick school with metal grates protecting the windows is on the front lines of President Barack Obama’s battle for education reform.
With more than 500 children in kindergarten-through-eighth grade, School 10 has long had some of the worst test scores in the state and is one of two schools in North Jersey undergoing a massive overhaul. Its students face a world of hardship in a neighborhood ravaged by drugs, gangs and violence. Dana Castellitto says even her third-graders have mentioned seeing guns.
“They don’t know that’s not a part of life for everyone,” the teacher said.
Now, with an infusion of federal money, the district is trying to turn around a school where most children lag far behind grade level. Starting with a $2 million grant for this year, and expectations of $4 million more over the next two years, School 10 is following a precise strategy prescribed by the U.S. Department of Education: a longer academic day, new technology, intensive training for faculty and new teacher evaluations that depend on their student progress. The district also had to replace the principal and half the staff in hopes of a fresh start.
School 10 is an important test case of whether more money, spent on specific remedies, can buy better achievement for poor children. Over the past three years, Obama has pledged $4.6 billion of these “School Improvement Grants” to break the cycle of dysfunction at 1,200 of America’s lowest performing schools.
The stakes are high. Now, one in four Americans fail to finish high school on time or quit altogether. In cities like Paterson, that’s one out of two. Dropping out dramatically increases the chances that young people will end up on public assistance or in jail, becoming drains on taxpayers instead of contributors.
In a report released last month, the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations declared this problem a national security issue: Seventy-five percent of young people can’t join the U.S. military because they are too uneducated, unfit or have criminal records.
School Improvement Grants are one attempt to reverse this trend. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan expresses faith that the “massively disproportionate investment” in the bottom 5 percent of schools can lead to major change and “incredible stories of children trying to beat the odds.” He says this mix of money, aggressive interventions and sense of urgency will make a difference.
But skeptics abound. After all, for decades various attempts to fix persistently failing schools have had disappointing results _ from the harsh tactics of Principal Joe Clark, who brandished a bat through the halls of Paterson’s Eastside High School in the 1980s, to the Gates Foundation’s “small schools” initiative and the restructuring mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind law. State takeovers of distressed districts, including Paterson, have made scant headway.
Even the New Jersey Department of Education’s deputy commissioner, Andy Smarick, wrote in a 2010 article titled “The Turnaround Fallacy” that “today’s fixation with fix-it efforts is misguided.” Written when Smarick worked at a conservative think tank, the essay argued that it’s usually better to simply shut down chronically failing schools and start from scratch with new ones. That includes reopening them as charters.
Now Smarick says School Improvement Grants present promising opportunities with more forceful steps than past reform efforts, but many approaches are necessary. “We can no longer put all of our eggs in the turnaround basket,” Smarick said in an email. “We have to continue to explore other strategies like new starts, closures and third-party operators when turnarounds don’t work.”
Each of these schools has goals for boosting test scores, discipline, parent engagement and other indicators, and will be judged by how many targets are met. “Turning around schools that have been dropout factories for decades is not an overnight process,” cautions U.S. Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton. “It’s hard to undo in three years damage that’s been done in 10 or 20 … but we will make significant progress.”
So far, School 10 appears to be making some strides. During a January visit, it was more orderly than last June, when some teens loitered in hallways, cursed teachers, cut class and threw paper on the floor. The new principal, Lolita Vaughan, gives students daily pep talks over the public address system, like this one from a winter morning: “Your attitude determines your altitude.”
Most of these students face high hurdles. Only one out of three eighth-graders passed state tests in language arts last spring. One out of six passed in math. Demographics are a factor: In a city where the median family income is $36,446, almost all of School 10’s students qualify for free lunch. About half are black and half Hispanic. Some enroll speaking little English.
Numerous studies show that parents’ education and income are strong predictors of student learning. A 2009 report by Educational Testing Service noted several challenges of poverty linked to academic struggles: Poor and minority children are more likely to have absent fathers, lack nutrition, have medical problems, switch schools often, watch too much television and fear for their safety.
Some teachers, including Passaic County Education Association President Joseph Cheff, argue that in schools with high concentrations of very poor students, poverty has to be alleviated before achievement can improve. New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, says that’s a cop-out.
“Of course poverty and circumstances play a very significant role in academic outcomes,” Cerf said. “But the standard is, can we do better?”
Teacher quality is the biggest in-school factor affecting achievement, many studies say. That motivates a key requirement of the School Improvement Grant: replacing half the staff. That wasn’t easy. Nobody outside the district applied last summer to work there, only two Paterson teachers asked to transfer in, and the district had to find spots for School 10 teachers who lost positions. When school opened, there were still 16 vacancies among 65 positions. It took months to fill them.
Castellitto, the third-grade teacher, said the staff upheaval cleared out some demoralized people who “gave us a negative reputation. … Now you think they’re moving in the best of the best.”
Eight coaches from Seton Hall University come several days a week to give teachers in-the-trenches advice and help them use test data to tackle students’ weaknesses. Latoria Scott, a fifth-grade teacher, said this mentoring helped her tailor lessons to individual children. Some read at second-grade level, some at sixth-grade level. “I’m trying to teach five different grade levels here,” she said. “But I believe in them.”
Now students stay an extra 90 minutes per day, until 4:30 p.m. It took months for the district and union to hammer out teacher pay for the extra hours. Some teachers say young children are too tired by late afternoon to benefit much, but the principal embraces the new schedule. “Teachers often say we just don’t have enough time,” Vaughan said. “Now we have the time. We’ll see.”
Students have already made gains on reading tests in all grades, and in math in most grades, she said. In Grade 3, for example, 51 percent of students were doing grade-level work in math in February, up from 33 percent in November. In reading, 27 percent were on grade level, up from 23 percent.
The grant bought whiteboards and iPads, but several teachers said increased parental support would be even more helpful than those tools. While some parents sign sheets daily to show they’ve checked their children’s homework, some never do.
First-grade teacher Gina Solensky was dismayed that only one parent came to her class on back-to-school night. Perhaps some had jobs or baby-sitting issues but she couldn’t help being concerned.
“I went to my son’s kindergarten back-to-school night and there wasn’t an empty seat in the house,” said Solensky, who lives in a high-achieving suburb. “It’s gotten better since then. As the school year progresses you form connections with parents. It’s up to the teacher to do a lot of reaching out.”
Research says students with involved parents, no matter what their income or background, are more likely to earn high grades, attend school regularly and have better social skills. Reading to children and simply talking to them makes a huge difference.
One study found that children from low-income families could hear as many as 32 million fewer words by age 4 than peers with professional parents. Teachers say it’s hard for schools to close a vocabulary gap that starts so early.
Aliviyah Goodson, 11, reflects the impact of an attentive parent. Her mother works as a librarian, and she got a perfect score in the state’s science test last year. “I call myself a geek,” Aliviyah said with a wide smile. “It means a smart, beautiful boy or girl.”
Duncan argues that these schools have to be more aggressive in getting parents involved. “Parents in our poorest neighborhoods are desperately interested in their children’s education,” he said. “They might not always know how to help. Many had failed experiences in school themselves. It takes going out knocking on doors, it takes giving out home phone numbers, it takes giving GED and ESL classes in school. It means pot luck dinners and family literacy nights.”
Some parents said they did their best. Daisy Hernandez said she tried to read to her second-grader two or three times a week, but had only six books at home. After a nearly 10-hour workday as a child care center aide, it was hard to get to a library.
“I don’t have time,” she said. And then, she added with pride, “My son is on the honor roll.”