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Is Renaissance plan the right medicine for all 14 schools?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In announcing on Tuesday that all 14 Renaissance Eligible schools would be slated for turnaround, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman explained that she couldn’t justify leaving any of them alone to continue on the path they were on.

Based on poor conditions and low academic outcomes, “It was hard to decide which schools would not move forward” with some form of radical intervention, she said.

But a close look at the reviews conducted by teams of representatives from the evaluation firm SchoolWorks and the District shows that some of the 14 are characterized by far less dysfunction than others.

Ackerman decided to make five schools Promise Academies under her jurisdiction: Ethel Allen and Paul Lawrence Dunbar elementaries; Roberto Clemente Middle; and University City and Vaux high schools.

Nine will become “Renaissance Schools” and be matched with outside providers: Guion S. Bluford, Samuel H. Daroff, Frederick Douglass, William F. Harrity, William B. Mann, Potter-Thomas and Franklin Smedley elementaries; Stetson Middle, and West Philadelphia High School.

In the reviews, some of the schools were cited for good leadership and a collaborative culture; others for a leadership vacuum and deep, systemic problems. On a 24-item checklist – in which schools were rated either green, yellow, or red – some schools were virtually all red.

But several schools, notably Ethel Allen, Dunbar, Potter-Thomas, and West Philadelphia, had many greens and yellows.

West had six of 24 items flagged as serious problem areas, Potter-Thomas only three. Both those reviews cited evidence of strong school leadership.

At West, the reviewers wrote, “The principal has strategically distributed leadership responsibilities and empowered faculty and staff in order to establish a culture of accountability and sustainability. This has built a climate of collaboration that focuses on community, as opposed to just a few individuals. Teachers reported having a voice in school decisions.”

Are schools with strong collaborative leadership really suited for the drastic and disruptive process of “turnaround,” which will involve staff upheaval and in most cases bringing in outside management?

“My general feeling, if you see signs of improvement in an urban school, you pretty much leave it alone, unless [the proposed new provider] has a real good track record of improving low-achieving schools,” said Charles Payne, an expert on urban education and a professor at the University of Chicago who has studied school turnarounds in that city.

At each school, the review team studied documents, visited at least 20 classrooms and conducted at least 15 interviews or focus groups with teachers, parents, and students. Some visits were conducted on consecutive days and other weeks or even a month apart.

The schools were evaluated in eight areas: mission and vision for high expectations, organizational leadership and school management, instructional leadership, instruction and assessment, professional learning culture, supports for students, safety and classroom management, and parent and community engagement.

What all the schools have in common are low test scores. Most of them were cited by the reviewers for poor quality instruction and no sense of urgency about improving it. In many of them, teachers got no clear feedback from administration about their instructional practices, the reviewers found, and even those with high expectations of the students often could not translate that into rigorous instruction.

In fact, on four checklist items directly related to instructional practices – including use of informal classroom assessments and strategies that “encourage active student engagement in the learning process” – ratings consistently low, with only five schools getting even one yellow score.

For instance, at West Philadelphia the principal, assistant principal, and coaches provide regular feedback to teachers on their teaching, but those efforts “have not fully translated into improved instructional practices in the classroom,” the review said.

At Potter-Thomas, the school that got the best reviews for instructional strategies and practices, the reviewers said that “there is some evidence” that teachers use informal assessments in classrooms, like questioning them on what they’ve learned, but that “these practices have not been established schoolwide.”

None of the reviews commented directly on the issue of whether it was possible to use instructional techniques that promote higher-order thinking with the curricula mandated for use at these Empowerment Schools, which include the remedial programs Corrective Reading and Corrective Math. Many teachers have complained that the scripted curricula stifle their ability to respond to individual student needs and do not demand or encourage any higher-order thinking.

Ackerman, however, staunchly defends those curricula and says she has heard from many parents and teachers that students are making real gains in learning basic reading and math skills that had eluded them before. She intends to use them in her Promise Academies.

At the same time, if a school said that its mission or goal was primarily to improve scores on the state tests, the PSSA, it got bad marks from the reviewers for not having an academic vision. For instance, Mann’s review said, “the narrow focus on improving test scores [prevents] a more holistic approach to enriching the learning experience of students and teaching with rigor.”

In one school, reviewers said not only were there no clear instructional or academic goals, but that they observed teachers and other staff yelling at students. At Smedley – all red with just one yellow – the principal is on medical leave and “it was not clear who was providing instructional oversight.”

The focus on school turnarounds has been promoted by the Obama administration, which has made it a centerpiece of its educational policy, and its four favored models all involve replacing the principal; three involve replacing at least half the teachers.

Frederick Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the national focus on turnaround can set up “false choices….that you’re either dabbling around the edges or doing some kind of turnaround,” meaning that people who do not favor full turnaround can be seen as not wishing to see any change.

“I think we’ve made [turnaround] this sound much easier than it actually is,” said Hess. “There’s very little evidence we know how to do it well. All we have in education is a handful of scattered examples.”

Replacing teachers, a key part of turnaround, has become a flashpoint of debate. At all the Philadelphia schools, whether Promise Academies or Renaissance Schools, all the teachers will be force transferred. At the Promise Academies and any Renaissance School whose provider decided to work within the system, no more than 50 percent can be rehired.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, lambasted Ackerman’s Renaissance Schools announcement, saying that she is continuing a “failed experiment” in turning over nine schools to outside managers – most of which will probably be converted to charter schools.

The PFT contract signed in January made allowances for that possibility, and agreed that in “turnaround” schools that would remain in the District, no more than 50 percent of the teachers could remain.

Jordan accused the District of moving towards “dismantling” public education and “making a mockery of collaborative labor-management relations.”