Turnaround Report Questioned

It didn't seem like a super big deal to me but others seem to think otherwise and who knows maybe they're right.  Last week, the Consortium's report on turnaround efforts of various kinds came out, which generated a slew of moderately positive coverage about the results: Study: CPS has some success turning around grammar schools, not high schools Sun Times, School Reform Efforts Show Mixed Results in Study CNC, Progress seen at city 'turnaround' schools Tribune, Turnaround study shows only small gains Catalyst, and Study: Drastic school reforms produce some positive results WBEZ.

But now Catalyst Publisher Linda Lenz -- a longtime admirer of the Consortium's work -- has penned a Sun Times commentary raising some troubling questions about the way the Consortium report was fashioned and raising the perennial issue of the Consortium's dependence on CPS for student data. And Seth Lavin's weekly roundup says it's troubling that the report was shared with CPS long before the public got it (and that the presentation of its data may have been overstated by the Consortium and/or CPS): "CPS, which proposed the turnarounds, and the Board, which approves them, seemed to have seen the report or at least internalized its findings. The public—which is supposed to be at this moment discussing the turnaround proposals—couldn’t have it."

Has anyone taken a close enough look at the study to match the data, the findings, and how they were presented?  That seems to be the main issue here.  Meantime, I'm putting out calls to the Consortium and CPS, among others, to find out what they have to say.

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  • Tribune editorial page supports CPS turnarounds, cites @uchicagouei study http://ow.ly/91MfH

  • I was surprised at how small the effect sizes were for all of the turnaround interventions studied by CCSR (almost all are under .15, even after several years). The impact of all of the interventions on student achievement would be labeled "small" by typical research benchmarks. Given the resources poured into the schools, I expected more improvement.

    With the high cost of the CPS turnaround model, including community disruption and labor strife, I wonder if a cost-benefit analysis wouldn't show that CPS should change its approach to severely underperforming schools. Rather than focus on mass firings and outsourcing, perhaps CPS should only fire the intransigent teachers and leadership in these schools. Then CPS could focus its resources on working with the remaining staff in a meaningful way to improve the five essential areas for success that CCSR has identified in its better research (e.g., effective leaders, collaborative teachers, strong family and community ties, ambitious instruction, and safe and orderly learning climate.)

    Also, where is the full report? If the entire report isn't ready for publication and review, the summary's release is premature. The timing of the release seems to be aimed at shifting public debate on the turnarounds currently under consideration. CCSR is at risk of becoming a PR organ of CPS and the mayor.

  • Your comments are well said. The cost-benefit analysis, I agree, is the crux of the matter. The total costs should include: salary, benefits, pension - compared against the same costs with the turnaround model. The operational advantages of firing teachers and leadership seems to be with the turnaround.

    If the process was more transparent, and if community liaisons provided the legwork to engage and prepare the affected communities, it looks as if the cost-benefit analysis favors the turnaround model, given these latest data on instructional benefits.

    The intransigent component, I think, is a major component. Let's say the unions self-police, and help weed out teachers and leadership who are not up to snuff, then I think the scales start to level out. But the pensions, that's a chunk of change that has to be dealt with, and which has to be part of the cost discussion. Otherwise, my cost intuition tells me that charters are the more cost-efficient use of education dollars (public and private funding).

  • In reply to anonymous:

    Agreed that charters are a more cost-efficient use of education dollars; the more heavily they rely heavily on private funding the better. The cost of health benefits is way lower plus high teacher turnover keeps overall payroll down. The lack of career educators means there will be few, if any, pension payouts down the road. There is a steady and increasing supply of teach-for-two-years TFA grads available each fall. The lack of special education education students and English language learners keeps costs down, too. (Thank goodness charters are not required to educate everyone! That is way too expensive.) Not offering much beyond core academic test prep means savings on elective course offerings and teachers and the dearth of extracurricular activities is a big money-saver, too.

  • In reply to anonymous:

    I don't share your intuitive sense that charters (or CPS turnarounds) are more cost-efficient from a public policy perspective. I do agree that a total accounting is in order, and objective research on the effects of interventions needed.

    While the cost of a younger worker is less in terms of salary and employee benefits, the effectiveness of a younger worker may also be less. Examining the benefit per dollar spent is the value of a cost-benefit analysis. Simply focusing on reducing the gross costs -- in your example, employee salary, benefit and pension costs -- while ignoring the student benefit side of the formula, is a misapplication of CBA as a public policy tool.

    I agree we need a complete accounting. This accounting would certainly show a reduction in pension costs when union teachers are replaced by non-union teachers. However, the analysis would also need to show the costs of social security and medicare for new non-union teachers, as well as the unfunded portions of their future social security and medicare payments, which are longterm taxpayer costs faced at the federal level, similar to the pension issue at the state level. Also, young teachers inevitably become old teachers. Unless we establish a policy of churning teachers to minimize human resources costs, we are stuck in the longterm with labor costs.

    Equally important as reducing costs is finding improvement strategies that are more effective. Implementing marginally effective strategies and working to reduce worker benefits doesn't seem to me a winning strategy as a government or society. Instead, if we find significantly more effective strategies we will be able to reach our educational goals without further eroding the benefits of middle-class workers.

  • If the Consortium's report last year did not show a decade of flat growth with district reform, and if the most recent Consortium's report did show dramatic or technically significant growth with turnarounds, then I would be optimistic about reform efforts, and then we would be having a different discussion about public policy.

    However, growth was flat for a decade, and turnarounds seem no better. This puts into question whether present efforts at reform are going to be any better than past ones.

    I would guess that present reforms are going to be no better than past ones (I hope I am wrong). If this trend continues, then the cost part of the equation should be driving policy. The school configuration having the lowest possible cost per performance should be used.

    Innovation should be done at the small science level - at a few schools, instead of the district's Central Office big science approach (Is CO really necessary?). Schools could learn from other schools instead of learning from CO.

    We should not throw good money after bad when it comes to our children.

  • A major problem with relying on the private sector for funding is donor fatigue. Companies, when profitable, can be generous, but market fluctuations can change winners into losers quickly and the pipeline of cash to schools will quickly be turned off. Also, it is vogue to donate to schools. When charter schools stop being fashionable, contributions will cease.

  • The Consortium receives money from the Chicago Public Schools to do their reports!

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