Monday, March 09, 2015

Arguments for backfilling

Marco Petruzzi, CEO of Green Dot Schools, with more powerful arguments for backfilling:
I understand Petrilli's logic, but I, like Whitney, am not swayed by the argument.  He raises some important points, for sure.  I agree that autonomy is important and regulating backfilling might not be the best solution. And I agree that certain measures of school quality are incredibly flawed (I'm in particular on a "holy war" to ban the use of proficiency rates to measure the effectiveness of schools and school systems – there's some validity for their use in elementary, but they are useless and downright dangerous for students when we use them to evaluate middle schools and high schools).
But Petrilli's argument to stop comparing numbers (any numbers) because it's difficult to make comparisons and let's just get back to doing our work within our little bubbles is equally dangerous.  As an education reform movement, we owe it to the students and the overall education sector to test our educational philosophies and school models in as equal a set of conditions as the rest of the public system does, and with every type of student, no matter how needy and regardless of how engaged their parents are.  If we don't, in the long term our critics will turn out to be right.  We're just going to be a niche movement that doesn't provide solutions for the most wanting students and we'll just get really good at replicating good models that serve a subset of students very well, but not truly ALL students. 
That's why Green Dot got into turnarounds.  And guess what? It has not been easy, but it turned us into a much better school operator and pushed us to completely redesign our school models based on what we learned.  We've had to stretch ourselves in many directions, and live with the fact that as enrollment area schools we must admit students all year around, instead of dealing with a neat little "new class" every summer.  
At Locke HS we receive 10-15 new students a week every week, all the way until the last week of school.  And a large percentage of those students have severe IEPs and have been sent to us by schools that cannot deal with them.  And it is indeed disruptive to the culture and classroom structures that have been set up.  It is certainly difficult on the adults and often disruptive for other students.  But high transiency rates are endemic in poor communities and we need to learn to cope with the issues.  It has forced us to rethink dramatically how we onboard students into a new school; and how we create thorough but quick assessments to create the best possible class schedule for that student, not just fit him/her wherever there's room; and forced us to create a system of supports, including peer mentors to help the new students adapt. 
I would be lying to you if I told you we have figured it all out.  We just embrace the challenge, evaluate objectively what we do every year and try to adapt and do it better the next year.  But it is working:  we have learned things in turnarounds that in turn we have adopted in our independent (choice) schools and made those schools better and more inclusive.  And our students at turnarounds are doing well.  While the entry level of our students in our turnaround schools is in the bottom 1% of students in California (you wonder why I get upset when we're accused of cherry-picking!), we have good evidence that our student growth is very strong. At Locke, entering 9th graders are 10x more likely to attend college than in pre-Green Dot days.  But we have a lot of room to still improve.
My biggest fear for the reform movement is exactly that we keep our head down and keep doing what we are doing.  In the long term, if we don't stretch ourselves to take on the biggest challenges and just focus on continuously improving and repeating neatly controlled models, we will become one-trick ponies.  We'll feel good about our numbers, but we will have not tackled the most important issues that we face: quality options for ALL children.  At Green Dot, we have enthusiastically been following the amount of new folks in the charter movement that have embraced the challenge of turnarounds.  We need the best brains in the sector to focus on this gnarly problem.  We welcome the good company and we welcome the ability to have a larger community with which to share our collective lessons learned.

 Subscribe in a reader