Monday, February 23, 2009

Research - some things that didn't work

Reposted from here, in case it gets archived.

IPS says 3 reforms didn't make the grade

Facing low graduation rates, declining enrollment and poor test scores, Indianapolis Public Schools unleashed a blitzkrieg of reforms, from dress codes and alternative schools to new magnet programs and reshaped high schools.

But three years later, the district is dropping several of those highly touted programs -- ones that never jelled or cost too much with too little to show for the effort -- while leaving in place many more that it says are working.

The programs to be ended were launched with high hopes but clashed with harsh realities:

» Carving out smaller groups of students at each high school was expected to boost test scores. Research now says the approach doesn't work.

» Teaching boys and girls in separate classes is believed to eliminate distractions. But only 100 students signed up.

» Teaching struggling students for an extra 25 days a year was supposed to help them catch up. But hundreds skipped out, and IPS had to pay the staff for added workdays.

Superintendent Eugene White had promoted all three of the initiatives as essential for student learning or for offering choices to parents. Now, he says they just didn't work out.

Although those programs are being scaled back, most of his changes remain in place. White said the other efforts are beginning to pay off, but the district must adapt to what's working and what isn't.

"The transition and what we're trying to do to transform the district is in place," he said, "but we reserve the right to make any changes we need to make the program better."

So far, White has seen significant gains in test scores at elementary schools, but at some high schools, fewer than 1 in 5 students can pass state tests, and fewer than half the students who enter as freshmen graduate four years later.

And the district's enrollment has dropped by more than 1,000 students per year for the past five years.

Thinking small

The small-schools initiative, which carved each high school campus into four or five smaller groups of students, started before White arrived and was fueled by money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Each small school had its own principal and faculty, and students rarely had classes with children from other schools. But the result at some of the schools was larger classes, and test scores didn't improve.

In a recent public letter, Bill Gates said he had stopped funding small schools in IPS and elsewhere nationwide because research showed that that change alone wasn't helping students learn better.

At Tech and Manual high schools, students still are assigned to small-school groupings, but the district no longer requires it and is no longer confident in the philosophy behind it.

Teachers union President Al Wolting, a former Broad Ripple High School teacher, said teachers generally had assumed the small schools concept eventually would go away, and some are glad to be returning to the old model.

"There are a few small schools that they have not been able to develop camaraderie, and those haven't been able to do well," he said. "Maybe it's the personalities; maybe it's the academic deans. Sometimes you just have to shuffle personnel and get a better mix."
Separating boys and girls

White suggested the boys and girls academies when he became superintendent.

The district touted the schools as having fewer distractions and more focus on college preparation. White had seen other districts where such schools had worked well.

The parents who chose to send their students there were enthusiastic about the option -- but only about 100 students enrolled, and the district said that's not enough to make the program run.

White, who describes that as his pet project, said that in the end, it just didn't work out.

A national crusader for single-sex schools and classes, though, said he suspects IPS gave up too quickly and could have done better in setting up the program.

"I hate to criticize the superintendent, but I know this program was launched on a few weeks' notice in the summer, and there was no time for appropriate training," said Dr. Leonard Sax, director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

When schools train their staffs in the research behind tailoring education to just boys or girls and share the philosophy with parents, single-gender schools tend to be popular, Sax said.

"It's a shame this is closing down," he said. "The problem when these programs fail is that they are very rarely, if ever, resuscitated."
More days in class

The most controversial of the three measures was the decision to require students at the district's lowest-performing schools to spend 205 days in school rather than the 180 days for most Indiana students.

White said the extra days presented the best chance for struggling students to get ahead, but the district was spending money without much benefit. Many of those students didn't show up during the extra days.

The district cited research showing that children living in poverty gained by having more time in class and a shorter summer break.

Some parents chose to transfer their children to other schools rather than have them spend time at school during the summer. And two of the schools, Marshall Community High School and Donnan Middle School, struggled to get students back in their seats in July.

Jamie Roy sent her daughter to class at Marshall on the assigned extra days but wasn't happy about it. She would have been more supportive, she said, if the district had planned special activities or extra learning on those days, but she hasn't seen that.

"I think it's just a waste, it really is," Roy said. "They've got them 20 extra days, and there's no extra things for the 20 days -- it's just like another day."

School Board President Mary E. Busch said the district found the year-round school, the small schools and the boys and girls academies to have weak parental support and is focusing on other programs that get better results.

She cited the district's new magnet programs, strict dress code and alternative schools as successes.

"There is some absolute proof that we are going in the right direction," Busch said. "We just didn't get the parental support on some of those issues."

Districts trying to fix systemic issues will have to adjust programs as they go, said Joshua Smith, director of the Center for Urban and Multicultural Education at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

The most significant difference for the district, Smith said, will be dramatically cutting back on the small-schools initiative. He said it is essential for the district to find other ways to address the same problems.

"If nothing's done with the high schools, there's no way they're going to reverse the trends with the graduation rates," he said.
• Call Star reporter Andy Gammill at (317) 444-6494.

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