Series: Giving Up on Geyer, a School That Couldn’t Be Fixed

May 30, 2006

Editors: Andrea Neal’s series on the state of the Indiana public school system can be run daily in series beginning June 1 or weekly in place of the Indiana Writers Group, which will resume July 5. Captioned color digital photos are available on request.

Giving Up on Geyer: A School That Couldn’t Be Fixed
First in a series
Indiana Writers Group column for June 1 and thereafter
770 words

By Andrea Neal

    FORT WAYNE, Ind. – It is the epitome of a struggling urban school. Almost all its students are poor. Eighty-two percent are minorities. Twenty percent struggle with English. Eighteen percent are in special ed.
    Its passage rate on the ISTEP test was 42.6 percent in 2005, compared to a statewide average of 72.9 percent.
    Fort Wayne’s Geyer Middle School -– proudly dubbed “home of the Blazers” — is just what Congress had in mind when it passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The 2001 law was supposed to increase accountability and raise achievement at the nation’s public schools.
    It didn’t work for Geyer, which will close its doors for good June 1. Next fall, its students will be sent to other middle schools in this city of 205,000. Over the summer, Geyer will be spiffed up, renamed and converted into a magnet Montessori program serving a different population.
    “We wanted to be proactive,” said School Board President Geoff Paddock of the decision to close Geyer. “We wanted to improve a neighborhood on the south side. We wanted to see what we could do ourselves before the government told us what to do.”
    The community explanation sounds sensible, but it can't mask the underlying admission: School officials couldn’t fix Geyer. Like a partner in a bad marriage, they opted to do away with the old model and start from scratch.
    Under NCLB, failing schools must improve dramatically or face sanctions, including the prospect of a takeover by the state. For four years in a row, Geyer failed to meet achievement targets.
    It’s not for lack of trying, said John Kline, director of school improvement systems for Fort Wayne Community Schools. “We’ve tried multiple different principals. Almost every principal made a little bit of gain, but it doesn’t hold. The task is complex … Test scores didn’t respond in a way that looked like they were accelerating fast enough to avoid the sanctions of NCLB.”
    NCLB was signed into law amidst both fear and fanfare. Its bipartisan supporters hoped that federal teeth and incentives would force struggling school systems to raise standards, expectations and test scores. Critics predicted that federal meddling would make things worse as schools lost flexibility over curriculum and testing. To some degree, the predictions of both have come true.
    According to a recent Center on Education Policy report, the percentage of students scoring at proficient levels or higher on standardized tests is rising, as hoped. “Evidence from our study suggests that increased learning accounts for some of the improvement in state test results,” the report stated.
    Yet the number of schools classified as failing is rising, too. NCLB requires that schools record achievement gains every year and among all subcategories of students: black, white, non-English speaking, even special education. By 2014, 100 percent of students are to be proficient in math and language arts.
     An unreachable goal? Maybe. Less than half – 49.3 percent – of Indiana schools met Adequate Yearly Progress targets in 2005, down considerably from 60 percent in 2004, 76 percent in 2003 and 77 percent in 2002. Geyer is clearly in the vanguard of what will be a long list of schools that face restructuring or state takeover.
    In Fort Wayne, school officials gave up on Geyer before the full range of sanctions could kick in. Liam Julian of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a school reform organization, said that’s a good thing if students end up at better schools.
     “What you have to do is bite the bullet, close that school down, find other ways to give those students more educational choice options,” Julian said. “If there is a school that has repeatedly failed to demonstrate progress, we think the students ought to have the opportunity to go to a better school.”
    Geyer’s students either applied to a new school through the district’s public school choice program or accepted automatic reassignment based on geographic factors. The biggest group will go to Miami Middle School, which has higher test scores than Geyer’s but like Geyer has spent four consecutive years on the failing schools list. All but one of Fort Wayne’s middle schools missed improvement goals for 2005. So, in essence, the children are leaving one underachieving school for another.
    That fact points to what may be the biggest challenge of No Child Left Behind: Figuring out how to quickly fix failing schools. If NCLB is to be a success, we can’t just give up on schools like Geyer. We must transform them.

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Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.
 

(Next in the series: The phrase "scientifically based research" <
http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/pg107.html> is found 111 times in the text of the No Child Left Behind Act. Could scientifically based research have saved Geyer?)

Failing Schools Require Radical Change
Second in a series
Indiana Writers Group column for June 2 and thereafter
700 words

By Andrea Neal

    FORT WAYNE, Ind. – The most promising part of the No Child Left Behind Act is language requiring schools to use research-based practices. Yet it's the least embraced by the educational establishment.
    The phrase “scientifically based research” appears 111 times in NCLB, a sign of   Congress’s commitment to doing things differently. When schools land on the federal failure list, they are supposed to respond with immediate changes implementing “scientifically based” instructional strategies
    In practice, it’s not so easy. One look at Geyer Middle School in Fort Wayne helps explain why.
    Federal law required Geyer, on the ropes after several years of low test scores, to devise a school improvement plan detailing how students would achieve mastery of tested skills.
    Under the plan, 73 percent of Geyer’s students were to meet Indiana state standards in language arts by the fall of 2008; 72 percent were to meet state standards in math. It was a lofty goal considering that, in 2005, only 33 percent passed the language arts portion of ISTEP and only 47 percent passed the math test.
    If the testing goals were ambitious, the improvement plan reflected the status quo. Its action steps largely repeated language found in the school corporation’s curriculum manuals. Nothing in the plan called for a dramatic change in content or teaching technique. Although the plan described Fort Wayne’s literacy and math programs as research-based, there was no data to support that claim.
    In the Fort Wayne Community School Corp., as in many school districts across the country, schools follow a uniform curriculum model and sequence of instruction that's been hammered out by administrators and teachers and aligned with state academic standards. Textbooks are chosen from state-approved lists. There’s no science behind any of it.
    Fort Wayne Community Schools Curriculum Services Director Schauna L. Findlay, Ph.D., expresses a common frustration with NCLB when she challenges the notion of scientifically proven instructional programs. There is "no literacy based program that meets the definition" of science, she says.
    It’s true that, at the middle school level, little research has been done to verify the effectiveness of language arts programs. To date, the bulk of studies have focused on elementary school instruction in reading and kindergarten-to-12th grade programs in math.
    But even where the science is clear – as in the debate between phonics and whole language at the primary grades — educators resist the idea that there’s a preferred way of teaching reading. For whatever reason, the education field has been slow to accept that teaching methods and material can be empirically evaluated.
    Sue Heath, research editor for Wrightslaw, an advocacy organization for special education issues, says it’s a multi-layered problem.
    “Few if any teachers colleges in the United States are training teachers in even one research-based method of reading instruction …The problem is that school districts do not require the training as a condition of employment. States do not require the training as a condition of certification. Teachers colleges do not require the training as a condition of graduation.”
    Fortunately, NCLB has inspired a wave of academic research aimed at identifying best practices. The What Works Clearinghouse was established in 2002 by the U.S. Department of Education to collect and distribute scientific evidence. Its website, www.whatworks.ed.gov, already has posted analyses of middle school math programs. Middle school language arts programs will be added soon.
    Liam Julian, with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said programs with track records could be used now. “There is evidence to support several approaches to teaching middle school students who are poor readers.” He cites the LANGUAGE! curriculum, published by Sopris West Educational Services; and direct instruction programs, such as Corrective Reading, published by SRA.
    Mary Lowery, acting principal at Geyer Middle School, implemented a reading remediation program this year called Voyager Passport that has gotten good reviews from other school districts around the country. It appears to meet the federal definition of “scientifically based.” But any gains made because of it were too late to show up on September ISTEP scores.
    This much is clear: If failing schools want to do more than nudge test scores up slightly, they will need to make more radical changes in curriculum and teaching methods. They need the flexibility to deviate from school corporation curriculum guidelines. Doing more of the same won’t cut it.

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Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.

(Next in the series: Mary Lowery had the right ideas for fixing the problems at Geyer Middle School. But time wasn’t on her side. And neither was ISTEP).

Finding School Models That Work
Third in a series
Indiana Writers Group column for June 3 and thereafter
780 words

By Andrea Neal

    FORT WAYNE, Ind. – Administrators in Fort Wayne Community Schools wanted to make sure Geyer Middle School students enjoyed a positive, productive final year. So they lured no-nonsense Principal Mary Lowery out of retirement and asked her to do her best.
    Her formula for leading a failing school? "We re-teach. We remediate. For those children that don't need remediation, we enrich."
    Walk through the halls and you'd see anything but the stereotype of classroom chaos. Students wore uniforms — navy shirts and khaki pants – and carried assignment books. Lowery called children by name. Classrooms were small, interactive and orderly. Teachers set goals together and studied test scores. Rules were clear and consequences for rule-breakers firm.
    Lowery believes that, with time, she could have gotten Geyer off the federal government’s list of failing schools. But time wasn't on her side, and neither was ISTEP. Because ISTEP testing takes place in the fall, there's no way of judging the impact of Lowery's tenure.
     Well before Lowery arrived, Fort Wayne school officials had decided to close Geyer and replace it with a Montessori magnet program serving a different population. Geyer’s last day was June 1; its students have been reassigned to other middle schools.
    Towles Intermediate School will replace Geyer when school resumes in August. Superintendent Wendy Robinson said the district hopes to build on the success of the district’s Montessori elementary program, which has a waiting list and some of the highest test scores in the system.
    Closing Geyer is an admission of failure; expanding Montessori is an experiment worth trying. There’s little research documenting Montessori outcomes in public school settings, especially in high poverty areas. Typically, Montessori schools serve students of higher socioeconomic status with parents committed to the Montessori method, which stresses child-centered learning and hands-on activities.
    Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White, whose son went to Geyer, said the Montessori model “works very well” in inner city Indianapolis. Rousseau McClellan School – a kindergarten to Grade 8 Montessori – has met federal Adequate Yearly Progress goals four years running and has some of the highest ISTEP scores in Marion County. McClellan’s children aren’t nearly as poor as Geyer’s, but they’re not affluent. Its student body is 66 percent minority and 49 percent on free or reduced price lunch.
    A recent study compared high school achievement in Milwaukee Public Schools of students who completed Montessori education through fifth grade with those who went through traditional classes. Although the study found no significant difference in English and social studies scores or grade point averages, “students who had participated in the Montessori program significantly outperformed the peer control group on math/science scores.”
    Montessori is a system designed to begin in the primary grades before children learn to read. In districts such as Fort Wayne, where all but one middle school missed federal achievement goals, other models may offer more immediate hope for struggling students.
    Fort Wayne never considered reopening Geyer as a charter school or hiring a private or non-profit business to take over the building, Robinson said. But the concept has worked well in other communities.
    There’s no better example than KIPP Academy, a middle school model launched in 1994 in Texas by Teach for America alumni David Levin and Michael Feinberg.
    In 1995, Levin moved to New York and founded KIPP Academy in the impoverished South Bronx. In 2000 it became a New York City Department of Education charter school, a form of public school exempt from many state and local regulations. This year, for the ninth consecutive year, KIPP was the highest performing public middle school in the Bronx in reading scores, math scores and attendance.
    Chief elements of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) philosophy are: a longer school day, remedial classes on Saturdays, constant communication with parents, 90-minute blocks for reading and math, and weekly tests and quizzes to monitor students' progress and identify areas of weakness.
    A non-profit organization helps train teachers and implement the KIPP model in interested communities. There are currently 38 KIPP schools in the United States serving close to 20,000 students, including one that opened in Indianapolis in 2004-05.
     KIPP Indianapolis, 93 percent poor and 95 percent black, has just under 80 students in fifth and sixth grades and will expand to include seventh and eighth grades by 2007-08. During its inaugural year, 26.7 passed ISTEP. Forty-three percent passed the 2005 test, a remarkable gain in a single year, although still far below federal requirements.
    Like any other public school, KIPP is subject to the demands of No Child Left Behind and is committed to meeting them. If NCLB does nothing else, it will create a rich database of test scores that will identify the most successful models for transforming bad schools.

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Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.

(Next in the series: If Indiana's teachers are “highly qualified,” as the state contends, why are 51 percent of our public schools failing?)

Formula for Success: Hire the Best Teachers
Fourth in a series
Andrea Neal column for June 4 and thereafter
780 words

By Andrea Neal

    FORT WAYNE, Ind. — According to the Indiana Department of Education, more than 95 percent of Indiana’s teachers are highly qualified under terms of the No Child Left Behind Act. A full 100 percent receive the highest quality professional development each year.
    Which begs the question: If Indiana's teachers are so good, why are 51 percent of our public schools failing?
    Few educational assumptions have been tested and documented as clearly as the link between teacher effectiveness and student achievement. That’s why Congress made improving teacher quality a priority of NCLB.
    The Indiana Department of Education labels teachers “highly qualified” as long as they are licensed in their teaching area, hold a bachelor's degree and have demonstrated competence in one of several ways, such as passing an exam.
    But being qualified isn’t the same thing as being good. In Indiana, schools can’t evaluate teachers based on test scores, the primary factor used by the federal government in deciding if a school is failing.
    Improving teacher quality stands out “for its potential to close the gap in academic achievement between students from traditionally poor, non-white, and/or urban backgrounds and their better-off peers,” says the Center for Public Education, a joint initiative of the National School Boards Association and National School Boards Foundation.
    Just throwing money at poor schools hasn’t made a dent in the problem. Since 1965, the government has spent more than $340 billion on Title 1, the federal program that supplements state and local funding of schools that serve predominantly poor populations.
    Geyer Middle School in Fort Wayne clearly illustrates the achievement gap. The southside school, with an 82 percent minority student body and 89 percent of students on free or reduced price lunch, has an ISTEP passage rate of 42.6 percent, compared to the state average of 72.9 percent.
     In the same school corporation, Shawnee Middle School is 33 percent minority and 43 percent on free or reduced price lunch. Its ISTEP pass rate: 71 percent. On the other demographic extreme is Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Valparaiso, 90 percent white and 79 percent paid lunch. Its ISTEP passage rate is 85 percent.
    The work of Drs. William L. Sanders and June C. Rivers at the University of Tennessee has been especially influential in tying test scores to teacher effectiveness – and in showing why schools like Geyer need superior teachers. Among the findings:
            • Teacher quality more heavily influences student performance than does race, class or school. Disadvantaged students benefit more from good teachers than do advantaged students.
            • Achievement gains from having a high-quality teacher could be almost three times greater for African-American students than for white students, even when comparing students with the same prior school achievement.
            • The benefits of teacher quality are cumulative.  Fifth-grade math students in Tennessee who had three consecutive highly effective teachers scored between 52 and 54 percentile points ahead of students who had three consecutive “least effective” teachers.
    So how should Indiana address the fact that better teachers gravitate to more affluent school corporations? Two proposals have worked in other places: Merit pay to reward teachers with a track record of rising test scores and “combat pay” to lure the best teachers to underachieving schools.
    An example is Mobile County (Ala.) Public Schools, which offers a bonus of $4,000 for teachers to work in one of the district’s five lowest performing schools. One principal reported that the signing bonus “allowed me to attract top teachers.” Also in Mobile, teachers can earn up to $4,000 in end-of-year bonuses for meeting school and individual performance goals.
    That couldn’t happen at Geyer Middle School or anywhere else in Indiana. Collective bargaining agreements negotiated by unions prevent pay differentials for anything other than degree level and years of experience.
     During the 2006 legislative session, Senate Bill 82, proposed by Sen. Teresa Lubbers, R-Indianapolis, would have allowed ISTEP scores to be used as one criterion in evaluating the performance of teachers. The bill went nowhere.
    If Indiana wants to improve the quality of its teacher corps, three things need to happen: 1. The state should develop a pool of funds for “combat pay” to move the best teachers into communities with the highest rate of failing schools.  2. The legislature must change collective bargaining laws so school districts can pay teachers differently based on their subject area, performance in the classroom or their willingness to teach in disadvantaged areas. 3. The legislature must allow test scores to be used in judging teacher performance.
    It makes no sense to hold schools accountable for 100 percent of their students passing ISTEP if it’s impossible to hold teachers accountable.

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Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.

(Next in the series: Across Indiana, officials offer mixed reviews of NCLB and whether it's helped or hurt their local school systems. But all agree – in theory – that schools must be accountable for student learning.)

The Pros and Cons of No Child Left Behind
Last in a series
Indiana Writers Group column for June 5 and thereafter
730 words

By Andrea Neal

    FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Mary Lowery came to Geyer Middle School with a mandate: to close with as much sensitivity as possible a failing school. Yet she harbors no bitterness toward the law that sealed Geyer’s fate.
    "I don't tent to look at things as a negative," she says. "It is a mandate. This is what we have to do. It's accountability. It's holding all districts and schools accountable for the students' learning."
    After four years on the No Child Left Behind failing school list, the Fort Wayne middle school closed for good on June 1. Administrators say the school had been on the district’s radar screen for years; that NCLB merely hastened its demise.
    Under NCLB, public schools face escalating consequences each year they miss achievement goals. Title 1 schools face sanctions first: parents get to switch their children to other public schools and obtain tutoring and remedial services. By year four, schools must take steps to reopen as charter schools, replace principals and staff, contract for private management or allow a state takeover.
    At least three Indiana schools have closed as a result of NCLB; state education officials have yet to assume management of a failing school.
    Don’t count on that happening on any large scale, says Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White. “They don’t have the capacity or the expertise to get that done.”
    If testing trends continue, however, dozens of schools will qualify for state control. Fewer than half of Indiana schools met the federal government’s Adequate Yearly Progress standards in 2005, part of a continuous downward trend since the law took effect. Every year, more students are required to meet proficiency standards. By 2014, 100 percent of students are to show mastery on standardized tests. No group is exempt, including those who speak little English and those with special education challenges.
    Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the law establishes an unreachable target for schools.  “They’re all going to fail. It’s just a matter of time.”
    White agrees. “Eventually in Indiana we will evolve to the point of very few if any schools making AYP.” The only exceptions, he said, would be schools that are small, affluent and homogeneous.
    Many school-related advocacy groups are lobbying Congress for changes to the AYP requirements and for more money to fund remedial programs. Yet few are calling for repeal of the law, which has focused a spotlight on the nation’s educational system and, in the view of many experts, already boosted achievement.
    Marlin B. Creasy, superintendent of Muncie Community Schools, said one of the greatest benefits is that schools can’t satisfy the law’s requirements just by having high overall test scores. “School districts can no longer find comfort in the district or the individual school excelling, unless every sub-category is also showing marked improvement. NCLB rightfully focused attention on the achievement gaps that exists within our schools.  I believe it has forced school districts to seek academic improvement for every child.”
    But the law goes too far, he said, by penalizing schools if a single group of students fails to meet AYP. Anther “glaring weakness,” he said, “is the lack of focus on continuous academic improvement for the individual child. The year-to-year snapshot does not follow the child.  I am more interested in continuous improvement.”
    The Center on Education Policy, an independent education advocacy group, has studied the effects of NCLB closely and offers a similarly mixed review.
    On the plus side, “NCLB is changing teaching and instruction. There is a better use of test data and alignment of curriculum and instruction to standards.” Chief weaknesses include “inadequate state and federal funding to cover costs related to increased testing, data collection and technical assistance to schools in need of improvement.”
    If NCLB is to succeed, it will be because states take seriously their constitutional responsibility for public education. The Indiana Department of Education doesn’t need to run schools, but it should insist that chronically failing schools convert into charters based on models that work, like KIPP Academy. It should make sure families trapped in bad schools are given a wide range of alternatives. It should seek changes in collective bargaining so merit pay and signing bonuses can be offered to lure the best teachers into the worst schools. Where research exists to suggest superior curriculum or instructional methods, the state should endorse those strategies.
    Money itself does not make better schools. Federal intrusion does not make better schools. Forty years of Title 1, and a widening achievement gap, are testament to that.

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Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.

   
Legal Disclaimer: The Indiana Policy Review Foundation is a nonprofit education foundation focused on state and municipal issues. It is free of outside control by any individual, organization or group. It exists solely to conduct and distribute research on Indiana issues. Nothing written here is to be construed as reflecting the views of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the legislature or to further any political campaign.
 
 
 
 
  



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