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Do schools change? Not much.

Tom Loveless is a former California public school teacher who has become one of the nation's most contrarian education scholars, always looking for something to upset us conventional thinkers. Maybe you, like me and most people, believe that most schools can be significantly improved if done the right way. Guess again, says Loveless.

Each year he produces a Report on American Education on behalf of the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, of which he is a senior fellow. He likes to crunch old data in new ways. In the report he goes back decades in California to see how rare turnaround schools---the much improved campuses that are the goal of the Obama administration and most state governments---really are.

"The statistics are eye-popping and, in a way, depressing," he concluded. Nearly two thirds of the California public schools in the bottom quartile based on average test scores in 1989 (182 schools) were still in that bottom group in 2009. Only four out of 290 schools rose from the bottom to the top quartile during that time.

"Even if California lagged behind the rest of the nation," Loveless said, "one would think that the numerous reforms that have been attempted since 1989 would mix up school rankings within the state. Californians tried just about everything: traditional and reform mathematics, whole language and phonics-based reading instruction, acountability systems running from "soft" and "professional' to 'hard' to 'punitive'" plus much else.

"If all California schools had improved academically from 1989 to 2009, the study's findings might be easily dismissed. Percentiles are a relative measure. A school that stays at the 10th percentile for twenty years can be making substantial progress if the state is gaining academically," he said. "Unfortunately, that is not the case. The state scored 6 points below the national NAEP average for eighth grade math in 1990 and 12 points below the national average in 2009."

Could it be that schools full of impoverished students stay that way, which is why their scores don't improve? No, Loveless said. Less than 12 percent of the variance in achievement change can be explained by change in socio-economic status. Loveless found it interesting that professional sports teams, who aggressively try to disconnect themselves from bad years, have only 24 percent of teams in the bottom quartile 20 years later.

So why don't schools change? It appears to be, for want of another word, the persistence of a school culture of low-expectations and low-performance that outlasts all over changes. "Some of it may be due to how school populations change, with teachers and administrators--and kids and their parents--slowly transitioning in and out of schools. The newcomers learn about the culture of the school from those who have been there and are preparing to leave," Loveless said.

Loveless adds that his results do not mean school change is hopeless. Many schools get somewhat better. But jumping from the bottom to the top of the list, like the New Orleans Saints, is not going to happen very often.

His results appear to support the notion that trying to turn around schools may be wasted effort. As I said in a previous posting, starting new schools with new teacher and new approaches, may work better. It seems to be part of the secret of the success of some charter schools. But as Loveless says, much more research needs to be done.

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By Jay Mathews  | March 19, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Brookings Institution, Tom Loveless, pro sports teams change more than schools, schools don't change, the power of school culture  
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In many areas, school results are continually skewed - downward - by a regular influx of newly-arrived, non-English-speaking immigrants and a persistent pattern of high turnover among students. The high turnover is especially pronounced among the low SES students, who may attend several schools in one year. I have also read teachers' comments about the practice of parents taking their kids out of school for weeks at a time, for visits "back home" (usually Mexico, by the numbers). Unless each individual student is assigned a unique ID number which would follow that child everywhere in the country, it is difficult to track real progress; either within or between schools. It's technically possible, but politically impossible.

Posted by: momof4md | March 19, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

I immediately wondered about turnover rates and those other issues mentioned in momof4md's post. I also wonder if constant reforming isn't part of the problem. Sometimes big districts change things that are working.

Also, it seems to me that the definition of an excellent school has been changed in the last twenty years. Sometimes schools with many arts programs, or bilingual education, writers workshops, etc. are considered excellent. Then there is a backlash and the old "reform" is out of style.
The data required for NCLB makes it look like very strict schools have a lot of problems with discipline. (too many suspensions, etc.)

On the other hand, maybe those people who think the problems with schools are the faults of society or parents are correct.

The analogy to sports teams may not be fair. Sports teams select athletes. Schools select teachers, but not students.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 19, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Loveless ceratainly has a valid point. But the problem with education reform is that we group all schools together in our discussions and that is exactly what public education does....and part of the problem.

What is happening in California is not necessarily the same problems I face in Virginia.

Each school district is different and each school within a school district is different, and each student brings their own baggage to class.

Teachers are powerless to make systemic change. Far too many are too afraid they will lose their jobs if they speak out. This is a culture that should not exist and does not speak well of the administration...not those who follow orders. To continually blame teachers is like blaming the soldier's for losing the war.

Reconstituting schools with new teachers is no more the answer than any other single suggestion and does nothing to bring respect to a group of professional's from the community. (Sure, some teachers may need to go...but the question needs to be asked, "Who hired them?") In most schools where I have seen problems, it is the Principal who sets the tone for the building...and the parents know it.

What we need are town hall meetings or something similar where real and current teachers can freely express their concerns, their ideas, and their frustrations. We are relying too much on people who do not currently teach and never have taught to set public policy for education.

I can go the dentist and tell him his magazines are dated, his staff is rude, his oral hygenist scratches my gums when she cleans my teeth and his office needs to be repainted...but I can not tell him how to do a root canal.

Posted by: ilcn | March 19, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

There are 9000 schools in California -- the numbers you use don't make sense.

Posted by: richardguy1 | March 20, 2010 2:13 AM | Report abuse

The other approach is one I've championed for some time: using the military paradigm.

If An Air Force Operational Wing fails an Inspection, the Wing Commander is fired essentially, and a complete new leadership team is brought in. Failing schools must have the authority to not only bring in new leadership, but also hire a cadre of teachers who will establish and maintain the proper culture for at least 8 to 10 years. In her latest book Diane Ravitch speaks about neighborhood schools with 'rich traditions, sports teams, etc.' Those traditions are rare in our urban schools today because of the continual turnover in educators at those schools (except for maybe a successful sports coach).
At my first school I remained for 8 years; I taught countless brothers and sisters of students, as did many of my colleagues. Teachers need to sign not 1 year but 5 YEAR contracts at a school to help build those essential traditions and expectations that great schools possess.

Posted by: pdfordiii | March 21, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

pdfordiii makes a point, but is it the wrong point. What if the problem was underperforming teachers and administrators?

My first elementary school in Bethesda, MD was one of the best performing elementaries in the county in the 1960s but after the beloved principal retired many teachers near-retirement transferred in. They simply stopped teaching. The PTA was up in arms and parents of older kids couldn't believe the negative transformation due to "experienced" teachers who really just needed a rest and picked an out of the way suburban school to rest in.

To confirm that I'm not wrong, let me illustrate- the school decided not to teach cursive writing. It was a MoCo requirement that we simply were never taught.

My mother recounts a meeting with the principal where he said that it was unfair to pick on older teachers because they couldn't be expected to work as hard as younger teachers- including the teaching of cursive writing.

At the end of 1976 the PTA revolted and 48 students left the school including me. Montgomery County blamed the exodus of 1/4 of the students on the conversion of an apartment building to condos, but the curse of the bad school meant kindergarten enrollment was cut in half and the school limped along until 1980.

I completely disagree that frequent turnover of teachers is a bad thing when the teachers are unwilling to teach the children. That is a major major issue in DCPS that should not be ignored. I have met over a dozen fake teachers in DCPS who have no interest in teaching (never bothered to get certified) and in fact are terrible at it. At least 5 were been fired by Michelle Rhee since 2007.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 24, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

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