Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Yo! What About The Other Failing Schools?

We’re the first to admit when we make a mistake. So here it is: we were wrong about Memphis City Schools Interim Superintendent Dan Ward.

We had misgivings that he would just be a caretaker during a transition period when Memphis City Schools should be engaged in a period of self-reflection, self-examination, analysis and priority-setting. It’s our view that these transition times aren’t just “down time” for districts, but the best time to develop a strong plan for transitioning from one superintendent to another and to making sure there is no lost momentum for school reform.

But, we were wrong about Mr. Ward, because soon he will apparently unveil a plan to close 99 city schools.


Or at least that’s the only conclusion we could reach based on the shut-down of Yo! Academy with a speed unseen in the city district in decades. We're just taking Mr. Ward at his word.

In explaining his recommendation to shut down the charter school, Mr. Ward concluded that to keep Yo! Academy open would be to condemn students to attending a school that is not working, according to The Commercial Appeal’s fine education reporter, Dakarai Aarons.

In light of this unequivocal operating philosophy, we’re looking to see some dramatic action in the coming months as he delivers what he promised – making sure that students aren’t attending schools that aren’t working.

Free The Memphis 99

Last time we checked, that would be 99 of the schools in his district.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that’s the number as a result of the conspiracy of silence that exists between the educational bureaucrats at Memphis City Schools and the Tennessee Department of Education. Through their breathless news releases about the increasing numbers of schools in good standing, they mislead the public at best and lie by omission at worst.

At the time that these releases are issued, both state and local education officials know the truth - the reason the numbers of schools in good standing are going up is because the state has lowered standards for proficiency and that the city is masterfully executing the minutiae of No Child Left Behind. More than anything, both Tennessee Department of Education and Memphis City Schools know – even in the midst of their celebrations about schools in “good standing” – that none of this means that our students are learning more or better.

Lowering Standards To Raise Success

After all, to be judged as proficient in reading in Tennessee classrooms, an eighth grader has to answer only 40 percent of the questions right. In 2004, it was 43 percent, and in 2003, it was 51 percent. Last time, we got one of our children’s report cards, that test score was a solid “F” no matter who calculated it.

Supt. Carol Johnson was masterful in her use of safe harbors, a strategy made possible under No Child Left Behind and she was only taking advantage of the provisions of the sweeping federal law. Admitting on the front end that we are seriously oversimplifying the definition of safe harbor, in essence, it gives districts a way to include schools that really aren't making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) – but are making strides – into the list of “good standing” schools.

There are 41 of these safe harbor schools at Memphis City Schools. Or put another way, of those 128 schools touted in news release for setting a new record in “schools in good standing,” 41 of them actually are not making AYP.

Let’s Be Truthful

In other words, when you add the 17 schools that are targeted for not making AYP this year to the 41 schools in the “high priority” category and then add the 41 safe harbor schools, the number of Memphis City Schools that aren’t meeting the No Child Left Behind standard is 99 out of a total of 186 schools, or 53 percent of the schools.

While there is much to commend about Memphis City Schools these days – and for the record, we have done so – we need to be honest about the facts and what they mean. Rather than pacify the public with public relations statements, Memphis City Schools needs to tell it like it is – a time of crisis that requires every one of us to work to improve our schools and to support the kinds of programs that can make a difference.

We do nothing to address the scope of the problem by soft peddling the consequences and the reality.

Getting The Boot

Which brings us back to Yo! Academy.

It was booted out of the district after one year on the “high priority” list of schools (Tennessee is the only state where the local school board can close charter schools). Meanwhile, the infamous 17 schools have been on the list for six years, and most of the other 82 who aren’t making AYP have been on the list for multiple years.

So, what was the real motivation for the blinding speed shown in closing Yo! Academy? It seems clearer and clearer that it was an act of political theater, designed to show that the Memphis City Schools’ administration and board of commissioners won’t countenance poor performance in its schools.

The Subtext

The fact that Yo! Academy was a charter school – always a preferred target for the teachers’ union and traditionally-minded administrators – made the action ever more sweeter. But most of all, it gave the board the chance to simulate leadership without really showing the real thing. After all, Yo! Academy was one of the smallest student bodies in Memphis, with just over 100 students.

And the fact is that the board has looked the other way year after year as traditional public schools affecting the lives of tens of thousands of students fail to meet standards even as the standards themselves were being reduced.

Quickly becoming the poster child for cynical political symbolism, Yo! Academy isn’t the real problem. More to the point, it’s the problem of style over substance by the people we entrust to lead Memphis City Schools. It is the willingness to engage in the sacrifice of a small number of students to give the appearance of displaying the bold leadership needed to turn the district around.

What About The Others?

Meanwhile, as the Five-Year Comprehensive Plan for Memphis City Schools shows, a multitude of schools continue to remain open with dismal physical space, without the capacity to adapt to the digital opportunities for education and without even a science laboratory, as in the case of Trezevant High Schools.

One underlying reason for the closing of Yo! Academy was to deliver this subliminal message: even charter school can’t succeed, so we’re really not doing all that bad at Memphis City Schools.

The difference is that the charter schools never tried to hide the facts from the public, and in fact, each year, University of Memphis’ highly regarded Center for Research in Education Policy (CREP) conducted an exhaustive study of the charter schools, spelling out the progress and the problems of the individual schools. Yo! Academy had been highlighted in the latest reports.

We’re Waiting

Memphis City Schools should be as forthright with the facts about each of its schools. If it was, we’d be focused now on the futures of 99 schools right now instead of acting like the problem rests with 17 schools that can’t seem to get their acts together.

If the board will hire CREP or Harvard University or someone with national credentials to do the same kind of analysis of its schools, we’ll be the first to lead the applause. Until then, we are left with the manufactured spectacle of the closing of Yo! Academy.

Now the ball is in Mr. Ward’s court, and if he’s true to his word, the closing of this school was just the beginning.


mike said...

Very good stuff. I've been pointing out for years how Dr. Johnson and MCS, with the assistance of the Commercial Appeal and its writers (especially Aimee Edmondson), has been obscuring the hard numbers of the NCLB results with their own rewritten and obfuscatory charts and tables.

NCLB was meant to be hard medicine for schools and a wakeup call to cities. And the first year or two of reports were just that. Then MCS stopped publishing the actual numbers and substituted their own labels and re-aggregated numbers to make things look better than the reality.

I don't have the resources to research this but it's all there to see for someone who can.

Anonymous said...

Actually Mike, MCS didn't have to do that, the State Department of Education did it for them.

DoRkIsH-wAyZ said...

Wow, very interesting stuff here. It's apparent that MCS need an overhaul, from the top-down. It's sad that YO! Academy was closed down, and at an alarminly expeditious rate. There's more underneath the carpet, and in DUE timing, it's going to be UNVEILED. Echos of Truth are said to be wanting to start a "performing-arts" charter school, which is what YO! Academy was, and if this surfaces....We'll all know the truth.

Let's see what the months ahead are to bring. The closing of YO! was definitely only the beginning, however YO! is going to make a comeback..mark my words!!

Data Geek said...

Please keep in mind thar while YO!Academy was a wonderful performing arts academy, these young students need more. The language art outcomes there were not too bad (90% proficient and advanced)but they did not teach math well at all (46% below peoficient). Don't want the new generation of Memphis Musicians unable to balance their checkbooks.

Anonymous said...

YO! Academy had not reached AYP for 2 years. Leading to, as you stated, their 1 year as high-priority. While you try to compare this to the number of city schools on the high-priority list, charter schools are supposed to trade their greater independence for greater accountability. In addition to this, there were details presented at the school board meeting that questioned not only the academic, but the financial viability of YO! Academy. It should also be remembered that YO! Academy was the continuation of the YO! grant program that also had questions raised about its effectiveness and money management. I'm sure this was not an easy choice for the school board, and they lamented the fact that they had no other recourse but to close the school. As you state, TN may be the only state where the school board can close a charter school, but you don't finish to say that it is the only option the school board has been given by the state. Optimally, the local school board might have the same options with respect to a charter school that the state has with respect to the local school board, but they don't. I just can't believe the school board sat down together to figure out, (should be read in an appropriately evil tone, such as Dr. Evil or The Brain) "how can we close a charter school to prove the point that we're not doing all that bad at MCS?"

Again, SCM, I think you're making the assumption that the school board is shooting for the political decision, not the best decision. It seemed from the school board meeting that if the school board had another option, if there wasn't what seemed like the real danger that YO! would not be able to survive the entire year financially, and if they had gained and not lost ground in the academic achievements of their students, the school board could have made a different choice.

To compare this school with the rest of the schools and their challenges is to oversimplify the matter, as you well know.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: If the school board was making its decision based on concerns about Yo's financial health, why didn't they send in an objective, third party to analyze the books and report back? And if we thought we were oversimplifying, we wouldn't have written the post. Charter schools do in fact exchange greater autonomy in exchange for greater accountability, but the school board has yet to set any reasonable guidelines for how it invokes that accountability and why charter students live in fear of the death penalty for their schools, while public schools continue on. Can the board promise that the Yo! Academy students now are thrust back into better schools in the city district? The message the board runs the risk of sending is that there are two classes of students, and that those in public schools are allowed to flounder for six years before any action is taken and only then when forced by the state.

Anonymous said...

Do we know which financials the school board looked at? If they were given financials from the YO! why should they send in someone to analyze the books? If YO! couldn't provide accurate financials, should they be in business? In addition, you would expect that financials provided by YO! would probably provide a rosier picture, and, at the very least, not the most pessimistic view. In the end, maybe the school board waited too late to review whether YO! would be able to remain open, but I believe part of that was dependent on the state releasing the AYP list.

As with anything, it appears the school board is working through the development of some levels of how it will (and based on state law, can) apply accountability and at what consequence. Remembering that the consequences are limited to some degree by state law. Had the school board wanted to put into place some level of additional accountability or reporting based on financial concerns, I'm not altogether sure they legally could have.

Charter schools are currently a privilege afforded groups and students to attempt to differently, and, hopefully, more effectively educate students than in traditional public schools. Traditional public schools continue on because they must to provide "public" education. Shouldn't charter schools bear the burden of showing that they are more effective than traditional public schools?

Again, I think you overstate that students were allowed to flounder for six years before any action was taken. Are you saying that Dr. Johnson did nothing to try to address the issues in these schools, just letting them languish? That can't be true, because even the governor's list of schools was reduced when the AYP listings were announced.

Also, let's not kid ourselves. We do have multiple classes of students in our public schools. Charter schools, optional schools, traditional schools, all have their own strata within our schools and community. And if we're speaking as a community and what our actions say to children, what about the overwhelming number of private schools we have, and the class-based system that is created along socio-economic and racial lines based on this system spawned in protest of busing?

Tomeka Hart said...

Please understand that the School Board's decisions regarding charter schools are fully guided by the law and the schools' chartering agreement. The law afforded us no opportunity to require Yo! Academy to do any intervention. We have no power to send in consultants or third-parties to do anything with charter schools. Charter schools are given authority to act outside of the authority of the School Board--they are given broad autonomy and are governed by their own Boards.

Once chartered, the School Board has very limited power over the decisions of charter schools. Tennessee law is clear and explicit, if a charter school does any action included in an enumerated list contained within the law (fail to make AYP and fiscal mismanagement being the relevant two), the School Board's only level of intervention is to revoke the charter. Outside of that decision, we are powerless.

I have read the posts here and as I noted in another form of media, I am amazed at how much incorrect information gets passed around--especially when all people have to do is contact a member of the School Board or administration to get information. Contrary to popular belief, we do not attempt to hide any information and are open about what occurs in our schools. If you don't feel you can trust what we provide, the State of Tennessee has all the information you need about all of our schools (it's the same information that we will give you, but if it makes you feel better....).

So, if I may, let me provide some clarity to the issues/statements that have been made. One statement is that we could have given Yo! another year--a second chance if you will. Please know that this year was the second chance. Per Tennessee law, the School Board could have revoked Yo!'s charter last year when it first appeared on the NCLB list. The Board decided not to do so, but to instead give them another chance to improve. To be sure, we had another charter school that was on the NCLB list for one year--we didn't close it then (but we could have) and it made its way off the list the following year. That school is doing well now. So we do believe in second chances, and sometimes they work. Yo! Academy was given a second chance and regrettably it did not improve.

The Board was not at all interested in or attempting to send any messages about different classes of students with its decision to revoke Yo!'s charter. During the committee meeting, we discussed all possibilities available to us and to Yo!. The truth of the matter is we had to choose between doing nothing and revoking the charter. The data (I love data--it doesn't lie, it doesn't succumb to political pressure, and it is what it is) showed that since Yo!'s opening, the scores of the students have decreased every year--in both math and reading. The school is on the high priority list due to the students' performance in math. However, while the school was making AYP in reading, the scores were on a steady and constant decline (98% were proficient/above avg in 2005, 90% P/A in 2006, 87% P/A in 2007). Thus, it's unfortunate, but true, that Yo! has not improved the students' academic achievement. Again, that's data folks--and the School Board didn't make it up. So, if we continue to give chance after chance, could we expect to see that the scores would continue to fall and that soon the students wouldn't even be making AYP in reading? That is not a chance we wanted to take and please remember the choices we faced--do nothing or revoke the charter.

Board members have expressed that had Yo! been on the high priority list for two years, but in an improving category, the school likely would not have closed. In that scenario, the school would still have not made AYP, but the students' scores would be steadily increasing (albeit still failing), as opposed to steadily decreasing as indicated above. There, we could have imagined that given another year or two, the school could come off the list as the grades would likely continue to improve. However, we were not faced with that situation.

Another statement is regarding the timing of the Board's decision. To affect change there, please call the State of Tennessee. The state released the data on NCLB around August 6 and we immediately called for a meeting the following week to determine what to do about Yo!. If the state had released the information in early summer, we could have made the decision long before school started. That was not the case and we could only work within the time frame that we had. Please understand that we did not just sit around all summer holding on to information about the school and then decided to be mean and vindictive by waiting until the week before Yo! was to start school, and the day after the MCS students had returned to school to make such a difficult decision. Why would we do that?

As for the school's financial situation, it has been suggested that we could have done something other than revoke the charter in response to fiscal mismanagement. Again, I refer you to the Tennessee law that governs charter schools. Our only options were to do nothing or to revoke the charter. The data (and you know how I feel about data) showed that it was probable that the school did not have sufficient funds to get them through this year. The School Board receives data on charter schools from the schools; therefore, we had no reason to believe the data was unbelievable. With no power to send in consultants or third parties, what else could we do? Should we have waited for the school to crash and burn maybe in the middle of the year and then close it? We know that charter schools do not follow the curriculum the MCS schools follow—thus how much more difficult and harmful would it have been to send students to new schools with a totally different curriculum in the middle of the year?

Finally, it is not true that the MCS has allowed other schools to remain on a list without doing anything until the state intervened. Dr. Johnson came into this system and immediately began working on plans to improve the failing schools. She began fresh starting schools long before the state gave any recommendations. Her actions in fresh starting the schools has resulted in many schools NOT being on the high priority list that could have been but for her intervention. Further, as a result of Dr. Johnson's programs, many of the schools that the state was targeting moved to an improving category and several came off the list completely. For all the schools that face restructuring, the administration has worked hard for years to improve their performance. Still, too many remain. We are aware of that and are trying to change the situation. We have a strategic comprehensive plan, a balanced scorecard, more support staff at the needed schools, extended school days, free tutoring and other resources to help those schools. I wish the matter was as simple as some try to make it. Suffice it to say that the MCS has not had its head in the sand attempting to hide from its problems. The administration has and will continue to devise plans/programs to reach the students so they can improve and perform satsifactorily. And, prior to closing Yo! the School Board has closed many of its own schools--about 8 of them since I've been on the board (including some that were on the NCLB list).

I apologize for such a long post, but I'm sure there's more I could say. Earlier in the year this blog asked people to write in to give their wish lists for the citizens of Memphis for this year. I did not participate, but if I had, my wish would be that those who purport to "report" about the actions and decisions of the School Board (or any other entity for that matter) would first make sure they have all the correct information needed to give an informed statement. People are certainly entitled to their own opinions, but no one is entitled to his/her own facts. When information is reported as facts, or when opinions are based on purported facts, the author of such owes it to the intended readers to make sure the facts are as he/she states they are.

Smart City Consulting said...

Commissioner Hart:

Thank you for the thorough comment. We appreciate your taking the time to respond.

We are well-aware and understand the law governing charter schools, but the fact is that in a situation where a school is fighting for its life, the ability of the board to send in consultants or experts to evaluate it is very real. At this point in the process for Yo, its option would be to accept the consultants or get closed down. That may not be the law that you're citing, but it's possible in the political environment to make these kinds of interventions, whether spelled out in the law or not.

We recognize that you have a different point of view from ours on several recent posts, and since we've been criticized before for being too easy on the city schools, we guess that when we're getting criticized by both sides, we must be doing something right.

We've praised progress by the school district in the past and we hope to have many new opportunities to do so in the future. Right now, however, the board has an important chance to ease public concern and build public confidence in the future. We know from conversations with you in the past that you are sensitive to these concerns, and we appreciate your contributions to getting the actual facts and what they mean out to the public.

We welcome your comments at any time and particularly appreciate them now as many in the community question the board's decision with Yo! Academy.


Anonymous said...

And Dear Commissioner,

What about the other 99?

Tomeka Hart said...

Dear Anonymous 4:17 pm,

Please see quote below from previous post.

"Suffice it to say that the MCS has not had its head in the sand attempting to hide from its problems. The administration has and will continue to devise plans/programs to reach the students so they can improve and perform satsifactorily."

This addressess ALL schools.

Dear SCC,

I did not address your past criticism. As a Board Member my role is to take criticism and I do not mind it at all. It's criticism that makes one stronger--or at least it should when its constructive. So be as critical as you please. I will continue to work as hard as I can to make a difference for the students of the MCS. While it's the most thankless and difficult thing I've ever done, I will continue to serve, because it's also the most rewarding and fulfilling sacrifice I've ever made.

I did address the attempts at stating a position and giving opinions about actions when one does not have all of the pertinent information.

While you continue to suggest we could have done something else, we have to work within the rules/laws we are given--even Matt Throckmorton, Executive Director of the Tennessee Charter School Association, agrees with that.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Hart,
I fear you have missed the heart of the original blog. Ther are many schools failing out there and you folks took the easy stab at the weakest link. To say "Suffice it to say that the MCS has not had its head in the sand attempting to hide from its problems. The administration has and will continue to devise plans/programs to reach the students so they can improve and perform satsifactorily."

really doesn't suffice. Some of these schools have been failing for 6 years. Some have only begun. The Governor has made it clear that he is raising the standards and you folks chose to take an hysterical approach to hiring an interim, then chose the one who says he will not change anything.....

Tomeka Hart said...

At what meeting did Mr. Ward say he will not change anything? The truth is, at the press conference he said that he will do whatever it takes to have us moving in the right direction. When he was asked by a reporter whether he would be a caretaker he said "I don't know what that means, I will do whatever it takes...."

Please, somebody tell me when and where Mr. Ward said he wouldn't change anything? I guess time will have to tell on how he will perform in this position. Based on my conversation with him, he is ready, willing and able to do what is needed.

I am not trying to change people's mind about the MCS. One thing I know is that when someone's mind is made up, there's not a whole lot you can do to change it. I just want to make sure that you hear from all sides.

Those who think the MCS is doomed to fail will continue to think so; those who think that there's hope for the MCS, and who know that there's plenty for which to be proud of the MCS will work with us to find solutions. I'm trying to communicate facts to the latter, so that they don't become the former.

Smart City Consulting said...

Commissioner Hart:

Thank you for taking the time to have this conversation with some of the readers of the blog, and as we've said previously, there is no more thankless job than school board member. However, there is also no more important election position in this city, because you do truly touch and shape the future of Memphis.

Again, thanks for your lengthy responses and for your commitment to the children of MCS.