we read it so you don't have to

Here’s what charter school advisers want to see change in Memphis

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
State Rep. G.A. Hardaway asks the State Board to reject the Shelby County board's decision to close three Memphis charter schools in May 2016.

The national charter group that Shelby County Schools is considering hiring already has evaluated the district on its charter sector management — and the results paint a picture of a district with deficient oversight.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers presented its findings to Tennessee’s largest district, home to about half of the state’s charter schools, in February. But the report — which praises the district’s efforts so far while also calling for significant changes — was not made publicly accessible.

Now, the Shelby County Schools board is set to vote Tuesday on a $152,000 grant from the Hyde Family Foundation to implement some of the group’s recommendations, which center on building systems to reward and replicate schools that boost students’ test scores. (Hyde also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

Here are five things NACSA concluded that Shelby County Schools isn’t doing well enough when it comes to charter schools.

Decisions about which schools should open don’t weigh academics enough.

Reviewing the last three years of new charter applications, NACSA found that district evaluators’ “evidence to substantiate ratings are sparse.” Evaluators focused more on whether the operators’ plans complied with state law than on whether they were likely to lead to high-performing schools. The critique is especially relevant given the latest round of charter appeals to the state, where the two national networks denied by the school board defended their academic record in Memphis.

Policies to guide charter school decision-making are inconsistent or nonexistent.

When it comes to existing charters wanting to expand, the state and Shelby County Schools do not have criteria on what makes a charter operator ready to add more schools. When problems arise in charter performance, the district’s policies are not clear whether the district or the charter operator should form a plan to correct them. And the district does not systematically track grievances, making it hard to use them consistently in deciding how to handle schools that are struggling. NACSA wants the district to develop all of these policies, which charter authorizers with strong records typically have.

There’s especially not enough academic oversight of charters.

Beyond state test scores, “the district has not established specific standards for performance,” the report said. Inconsistent standards have led to confusion among charter operators, coming to a head this spring when three charter schools challenged the district’s decision to revoke their right to operate. The district said the schools’ performance did not merit continued operation, but the charter operators argued that they had not agreed to any particular performance goals. NACSA wants Shelby County to prioritize following through on plans to create a “school performance framework” that lays out these expectations going forward.

The district treats all charter schools alike, regardless of how well they’re doing.

NACSA reports that charter operators under Shelby County Schools say they’re being given the autonomy that the charter movement promises is essential for better schools. But while it’s ideal to leave high-performing schools alone, other schools might need a tighter leash, the report says. The group calls for “a system of differentiated oversight that supports the district in implementing a more robust system of accountability without unduly constraining the autonomy of schools that are meeting and exceeding expectations.” Such a system could cause tensions within the charter sector and between schools and the district office.

The district’s charter schools office could be more effective.

NACSA praises the district office for what it does with its small staff — which it notes is “lean for a portfolio of its size.” But it also concludes that by taking an “all hands on deck” approach, the team experiences “a missed opportunity to strategically allocate resources to allow for deeper planning and a higher level of execution that can come with greater specialization.” By figuring out what each team member is responsible for, the report says, all of the work can be done better. The report also concludes that board members could help with charter school decision making, if only they got reliable information with enough time to consider it. That hasn’t happened, board members routinely complain, and the report seems to bear out their concerns.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: