Giving teachers more power helps in turnaround of Boston schools

Six low-performing Boston schools participating in a pilot program that gives teachers more training, support, and leadership roles are showing higher growth on state tests than other low-performing city schools according to a report released Monday by the non-profit Teach Plus.

The T3 Initiative program, a collaboration between Boston Public Schools and Teach Plus, began training and placing groups of experienced teachers with track records of raising student test scores in a set of three failing schools in 2010, after a dozen city schools were deemed underperforming by the state in 2010 for chronically low test scores. The pilot expanded to three more schools the following year.

The report, an evaluation by Teach Plus of its own program, shows that at the first three schools to use the program, the percentage of students earning advanced or proficient scores on their state tests increased by nearly 13 percentage points in English language arts on average over the course of two years, and 16.5 percentage points in math on average.  The second group of schools saw similar growth at the middle school level over the course of one year.

In addition to training and hiring new teachers, the six schools in the T3 Initiative, provided health and wellness services for students, and intensive teacher professional development over the summer. Teach Plus teachers make up 25 percent of the school faculty at T3 schools, and serve in leadership roles to help other teachers improve.

Six other Boston turnaround schools did not participate in the T3 pilot, but did experiment with longer school days and staffing changes. A report by The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education found that state-wide, less successful turnaround schools, including those not part of the T3 program, tended to provide more generic professional development, infrequent coaching and teacher support, and struggled to create a safe school environments. Test scores at those turnaround schools have remained relatively stagnant.

Among the T3 schools, the biggest gains were in the middle grades at Orchard Gardens K-8, which doubled the number of seventh graders scoring proficient in English and math over the course of one year.  At the elementary schools participating in the program, growth has been high in math, but more moderate in English language arts. There was only a 0.3 percentage point increase on average in English language arts scores during the first year of the pilot. The elementary school that joined the program during the 2011-12 school year saw only 4 percentage points of growth, although math scores jumped by 18 percentage points.

The Teach Plus program is among several types of reforms that Boston has tried since the 12 city schools began receiving federal funding to undergo a turnaround process. Principals were replaced in five of the 12 failing schools, and staff members at six of the schools were asked to reapply for their positions, including three schools that participated in the T3 project. One school closed in 2011 as part of a massive school closure and consolidation plan intended to save the district more than $36 million.  Nine of the remaining 11 schools extended their school day by an hour, and two added two hours.

Research suggests that school turnarounds are extremely difficult. Most schools in the federal School Improvement Program, which the Boston schools were a part of, made gains on test scores in the first year, but more than a third did worse after receiving federal funding to make improvements.

“If we’re going to make lasting change in our schools, we need to look to teachers to lead that change,” said Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson. “We’re thrilled with the progress these schools are making.”

Research has shown that teachers are the most important in-school factor that influences student achievement, yet inexperienced teachers are more common in urban and low-income schools. A 2010 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education found that during the course of two school years, half of Boston’s public-school teachers were never evaluated, and a quarter of the city’s schools didn’t turn in teacher evaluations to the district.

Districts in Massachusetts have three years to turn around failing schools before they could face a state takeover.

POSTED BY ON December 11, 2012