School Improvement Theater, Chapter 2

Blackwell had the second-worst performance among the twelve Richmond schools that flunked accreditation for a third year running and applied for “reconstituted” status.  Blackwell missed accreditation in Reading, Math, and Science.  Blackwell also had the 17th lowest pass rate of 1715 Virginia schools.

Before we turn to the Blackwell application [Item F], here is a summary of the school’s performance:

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Notes:

  • The “All” entries refer to the tests on the selected subject.  In the graph above, it indicates reading at all the elementary grades tested, i.e., 3-5.
  • These data are pass rates, not the inflated accreditation rates.

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Blackwell has been a focus school since 2014.  Fat lot of good that did.

The regulation at 8VAC20-131-315.C tells us:

[A] local school board may choose to reconstitute a school rated Accreditation Denied and apply to the Board of Education for a rating of Partially Accredited: Reconstituted School. The application shall outline specific responses that address all areas of deficiency that resulted in the Accreditation Denied rating . . .

Blackwell’s application can be found in the agenda for the Sept. 22, 2016 meeting of the Board of Education.  It provides some basic data:

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The VDOE database contradicts the Free/Reduced number; it reports an economically disadvantaged total of 77%.  Given that students receiving Free/Reduced Meals are included in the ED count, we can be sure that one of these numbers is wrong.

See the note below regarding that 77% (or, perhaps, 100%).

The application also provides some Virginia Studies scores that do not appear in the database:

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As we saw earlier, 97% of the Blackwell teachers were rated “proficient” and only one (2.6%) “needs improvement” in 2016. 

This school produced the third worst overall elementary school pass rate in Richmond (which had the lowest overall rate in Virginia) but the Principal (former Principal, thankfully) reports that all but one of the teachers did just fine, thank you.

The application proposes reconstruction in the areas of Governance, Instructional Program, Staff, and Student Population.

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Yet the application discusses only two of these: Instructional Program and Staff.

Instructional Program:  As was the case at Woodville, Blackwell has been using the Benchmark Literacy and Envision Math programs.  They now will implement both “with fidelity.”

They don’t tell us what “fidelity” means in this context.  Given that Woodville proposes exactly the same new “practice,” with exactly the same lack of specificity, this looks to be VDOE jargon, not any kind of proposal for actual improvement.

Staff:  The Principal has retired and will be replaced.  An Assistant Principal also has left and will be replaced.

Family Engagement:  They will have PTA participation, a monthly calendar of parental involvement, and, every nine weeks, “Literacy and Mathematics Night.”  There is no mention of how they will entice parents into these activities.

That’s all, folks!  They will replace the departed Principal and Assistant; they will have some opportunities for parental participation; they will do more of what they did when failing, but now with “fidelity.”  No change in Governance; no change in Student Population: Never mind that they checked both of those boxes on the form.

The application does not tell us how this continuation of failed teaching and teachers will improve education at the school; it fails to mention accountability, either in the past or — crucial if this were a serious exercise — going forward.

The “Rationale” predicts, with no discussion of basis, gains of 18% in English, 17% in math, and 26% in science over the three-year reconstitution period.  They say “[i]t is hoped that the school will reach full accreditation over the three year period.”

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The table also shows an 9 point overall history gain not mentioned in the “Rationale.”  The “Reconstitution Information” section of the application is silent as to both history and science so it seems that Blackwell expects the new principal and assistant (or maybe magic?) to produce both that history gain and the 26 point science gain listed in this Trajectory.

In contrast to Woodville, Blackwell proposes to achieve accreditation within the three year period.  Unfortunately, the school predicts this progress without any analysis and without proposing to do anything significant to interrupt its record of failure and without installing any accountability for its past or future performance.  As well, the application neglects to include improvements it promises in the Governance and Student Population areas.

In marked contrast to Woodville, the writing in this application is tolerable.  It is larded with bureaucratese and it is submerged in the passive voice, but it is capable of being understood, insofar as it actually says anything.

In short: This is an exercise in hope, not rigor. 

Nonetheless,

The general level of fecklessness in this application (as with the astounding level in the Woodville application) is troublesome, of course.  But the involvement of VDOE and Board of Education in this school improvement theater raises an ugly pair of alternatives: Either the state education bureaucracy doesn’t care about the awful performance of these schools or it doesn’t know how to improve that performance. 

Perhaps we’ll learn more when the Board of Education votes on these applications in October.

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Poverty Note: The 100% (more likely, 77%) poverty rate at Blackwell certainly is high.  We know that academic performance decreases with increasing poverty.  But poverty does not tell the whole story:

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Blackwell is the red circle.  Notice the schools with similar or more poverty and much better performance, notably

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Surely poverty makes the job more challenging at Blackwell.  But poverty is not the explanation for Blackwell’s unacceptable performance.