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Turnaround Task Force, Part III: What researchers say about improving low-performing schools


With the creation of the New Hanover County Schools Turnaround Task Force, district officials and community members are debating how to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools. So, what do educational researchers say about which initiatives work best?

Find more from this series:

Buckets, not (silver) bullets

When it comes to improving low-performing schools, the best way forward is a mixture of approaches, according to Dr. Thurston Domina, who helps run UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education.

“So a lot of the conversation about educational policy and school improvement often zero in on one silver bullet or another; we're always looking for the ‘fix.’ And I think we know pretty clearly that this is not a matter of an easy fix,” Domina said.

Domina added that when the community is thinking about strategies to improve these highest-needs schools it should be a ‘yes and’ conversation.

He said that there are three ‘buckets’ of strategies the task force can study: the way in which they make student assignments (i.e. districting — or redistricting), implement community-based models, and the value placed on teaching and learning.

Student assignments, ‘redistricting,' ‘open enrollment’

For ‘redistricting’ or ‘reassigning students’, Domina said, “It changes the climate in schools; it makes staffing easier, it also makes the political climate around schools different because it makes all the schools everybody's responsibility. [...] Wake County was doing this kind of aggressively from 2000 to 2010, and then they hit a wall politically, and have been now for the last decade much more cautious about this and seen school segregation rise as a result.”

Domina said for the task force members addressing redistricting is “really hard politically, but I hope that folks are talking and thinking about how to make the schools in the district look more like one another.”

Dr. Lam Pham of NC State University’s College of Education agrees with Domina.

“Systemically if we can work towards schools that are more racially integrated, the research is very clear that higher integration into schools has benefits for students of all races,” Pham said.

For Domina, it’s about looking at the root issues that affect the ability to retain teachers and staff because those who work in these high-poverty schools have to deal with additional layers of student trauma, poverty, and food and housing insecurity. Basically, if the district has fewer of these schools, then it will have fewer staff members leaving.

“All this conversation sits in the context of intergenerational poverty and structural racism, and all the rest, and so it's understanding that what we're asking schools to do is to break these huge systemic processes that generate these outcomes,” Domina said.

And because this work is so difficult, Domina said to “give ourselves some grace, we have to recognize that these are bit by bit, piece by piece kind of coalition and community building efforts. They're not just like one and done, we're going to fix the schools sort of situations.”

Another strategy in terms of student assignments is the ways in which schools do open enrollments for magnets and year-round schools and specialty high school programs.

Domina said the district could open spots at the most advantaged schools, “so to not enforce boundaries, but instead to allow families from high need communities to opt into higher resource or more successful schools.”

And according to UNCW professor Dr. Robert Smith, the district could be looking into ways to reconfigure the magnet schools of Annie H. Snipes Academy of Arts and Design, International School at Gregory, and Rachel Freeman School of Engineering.

“My sense is that these schools are not doing what a magnet school is intended to do, which is to the whole idea of a magnet is that it draws students from outside of a [neighborhood]. [...] And so that may be worth looking at in terms of whether reinvigorated magnet school program could work to draw a better mix of students,” Smith said.

Community-based models

The district can also implement ‘community-based models’ to improve the schools, according to Domina. This approach, as opposed to busing-based redistricting, sends students to local schools — but adds staff and resources to help schools that would otherwise fall behind in a segregated system.

“The literature is supportive of those efforts; they do seem to work. They work by meeting students' and families’ needs; they work by breaking down barriers between families and schools. [...] But that is a high-resource strategy. It takes dedicated staff to build those relationships, to provide services that go above and beyond the kind of teaching and learning in the classroom, whether it's social work, helping to identify career opportunities, it's after-school programming, it's medical care in the school,” Domina said.

And with this community-model route, it will likely take more people to do it.

Can you improve schools without increasing staffing levels a lot? Yeah, probably. But it's a lot harder, [...] but you just can't do that on the cheap. You can't ask teachers to teach well, and, and, and, and. They're not nurses; they're not counselors. They're not social workers. They try hard to do all those things, but they have limits,” Domina said.

As for working with parents, Domina said that teachers and staff should have honest conversations with parents/guardians about what they want for their students. This eliminates working at cross purposes, further diminishing the possibility that families would be disaffected.

“And I think if we just find ways to talk and share and build trust, we can be pulling together rather than playing against one another,” Domina said.

Pham also said this community-based model can work — he’s seen it happen in Memphis, Tennessee.

“The principals would then recruit highly experienced teachers who knew the district very well — and who really understood the student populations that they were working with. So it was a local initiative that put schools into a network of low-performing schools within the district, and they got separate support, separate resources, and very targeted local support from both the district and school level,” Pham said.

And studies show these leaders (teachers and principals) in the building do make a significant difference. They’re number one and two, respectively, when it comes to student growth.

But like Domina, Pham reiterates that while teachers are responsible for academics, they can’t necessarily be responsible for all the additional needs of high-poverty schools.

"It's the idea that teachers can run a classroom and also support all of these very heavy social-emotional needs that students may or may not come with when they get to school,” Pham said.

And these community models, according to Pham, come with varying levels of success. It depends on “how well it's planned, and how to integrate it into what educators doing within the school versus what other people are doing outside the school.”

New Hanover County Schools, along with Communities in Schools of (CIS) Cape Fear, have applied for a U.S. Department of Education grant to provide for full-service community schoolsprogram for Freeman and Holly Shelter.

Through this grant, these schools would get additional funding for teachers — and school families would receive some case management support, and potentially job training and wellness screenings.

To find out more about this program, WHQR reached out to CIS but they declined an interview.

Metrics used to evaluate highly-effective teachers

Since researchers say the best route to achieving student growth is having a quality teacher in a classroom, what does it mean to be a quality teacher?

While measures like faculty observation are also used, for the past two task force discussions the conversation has mainly focused on the teacher’s or principal’s Evaluation Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) score. It’s an algorithm that SAS created to measure the effectiveness of getting students to grow on end-of-year tests.

Domina said of the EVAAS measure, “it's got some fancy math that underlies it, so what that means is that captures one element of effective teaching, but not all of them.” He added, “If we don't hold that one measure, put it on a pedestal and think of it to the exclusion of all others, it's a fine part of the conversation. I would also think about things like teacher experience, board certification, teacher licensing, and participation in professional development.”

Pham agrees with Domina and said that administrators should be looking at several variables when determining whether a teacher is one of quality. He also added that student surveys could also be useful as one of the measures.

“We find that student surveys are highly correlated with things like EVAAS and observation scores. [...] I would never advocate for them being the only measure or even the primary measure, but I do think that having them as a part of a multi-measure of teacher effectiveness can be quite useful,” Pham said.

At one of the task force meetings, Faison labeled some teachers/principals as ‘blue’ ones — meaning they get students to ‘exceed expected growth’ on these tests. At the second meeting, elementary principals Aaron Livengood and Diego Lehocky said if it’s not a beginning teacher, they ask to review their EVAAS data when they’re looking to teach at their schools.

The scale to determine a principal's/teacher's effectiveness on student growth. This is based on SAS's EVAAS score.
The scale to determine a principal's/teacher's effectiveness on student growth. This is based on SAS's EVAAS score.

Some had an even stronger take on the importance of EVASS scores. In a recent principal needs assessment survey, one administrator from Freeman wrote, “Hire more experienced and proven teachers, while removing teachers who are not least +0.1 in EVAAS.”

Teacher and staff retention ideas

In terms of monetary compensation, academic researchers say that money is important, but it’s not everything for those who decide on a career in public service.

“Money may make a difference. On the other hand, people who choose to teach don't choose to teach because of the money. And so those two pieces have got to be weighed up,” Smith said.

For Pham, too, there’s not a clear answer from research on funding versus other non-funding factors like work conditions.

“I think those are both very important, and we can't ignore either one, and we probably should not be pitting them against each other. I think that's a sort of a false competition that detracts from what is the most effective route to improving low-performing schools,” Pham said.

Moreover, Pham said if the district only uses bonuses to help support teachers, research shows that the retention rates can drop once these run out.

“The only clear evidence I've seen is that if you offer these kinds of recruitment or retention bonuses, you need to keep offering them because when they are no longer offered, teachers tend to leave,” Pham said.

Overall cultural, political climate for education

Smith said turning around the district’s schools has to be part of an overall culture that cares about public education.

“If you have a state legislature that is not championing public schools, that is a critic of teachers, that does not give teachers respect as a profession, whether that's in terms of status, or whether that's in terms of pay. That's another key challenge that is going to limit the ability of turnover schools to hire outstanding teachers. Essentially, the supply of high-quality candidates choosing teaching as a profession is going to be limited, and that's the situation which we have been facing in the state for many years at this point,” Smith said.

Smith said he’s already seeing it firsthand at UNCW. They’ve only produced about two high school math teachers each year for the past five years. Last year, they didn't graduate any science teachers — this year, he said they did graduate two science high school teachers, but one was an international student.

He also takes issue with the proposed House Bill 823 — “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future” — this bill would effectively allow families to apply for “opportunity scholarships” to attend either a charter or private school.

Related: How do North Carolina’s school vouchers work? As expansion looms, here are answers (WUNC)

Conservatives have defended the legislation as being a more equitable redistribution of taxpayer money — but researchers like Smith worry about the effect that pulling students away from public schools will have on those schools' ability to recruit teachers.

“So that the overall statewide message in terms of public schools and teaching as a profession is not that positive, which clearly impacts the ability of a district to almost go against the grain in terms of sending out a much more positive sense of urgency about the importance and the need for high-quality teachers, and particularly in the low performing schools,” Smith said.

As for the task force, Smith questioned why there wasn’t an effort to have either teachers or principals as one of the permanent members, referring to the most recent North Carolina Working Conditions Survey in that 33% of the district’s administrators agreed with the statement: “There is an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.”

While principals aren’t official members, the task force has been inviting them to speak at these meetings — and they’re scheduling a principals’ roundtable for August.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR