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Success in Detroit shows school turnarounds can happen if given time and support

Success in Detroit shows school turnarounds can happen if given time and support

September 07, 2017

We’ve talked repeatedly about the flaws in accountability systems that assess only grade level proficiency and how inaccurate a measure they are in judging turnaround schools, where new management teams must turn around the entire culture, create a new learning environment, and introduce new competency-based learning techniques in the face of enormous gaps in children’s prior education.

Add to that the rush to judgment – the need that sometimes exists among charter authorizers to see immediate results or assume defeat and walk away – and these schools barely have a chance.

If a child is in the 5th grade, for example, and reading at a 2nd grade level, a proficiency test will show is that he’s “not proficient.”  If a new team is installed, implements a new system, begins turning the school around, and advances that child two grade levels in the first year, he will still be counted as “not proficient.”

These are the types of circumstances Matchbook has found itself in with every school we’ve managed. Students do not develop these significant educational deficits in one year and they cannot be expected to overcome them completely in one year.  Nevertheless, even a school with a troubled history of poor performance can make great progress in short periods of time.

Consider the elementary school Matchbook managed at Michigan Technical Academy in Detroit, which we took over after they’d consistently ranked in the bottom 5%.  In a rush to judgment after only one full school year, our charter authorizer decided to close the school, much to the dismay of the parents and students who had been benefitting from the improvements we had implemented. Michigan released its State Assessment results last week (M-STEP) and the results speak for themselves. 

Our elementary school was no longer in the bottom 5%.  In English Language Arts, our 3rd graders jumped from 9% to 32% proficient, 4th graders from 5% to 17% proficient and 5th graders from 0% to 15% proficient.  In Math, 3rd graders jumped from 11% to 31% proficient, 4th graders from 2% to 11% proficient and 5th graders from 0% to 2% proficient.   This elementary school had been on a long continual decline in both proficiency and its State ranking for several years, including having spent the 3 years prior to Matchbook Learning taking it over in the bottom 5%. 

While these proficiency scores are still far too low, by the measures of more enlightened school districts, these results might have earned the school an “A” rating, based on the clear and significant improvement – achieved over the course of only one full school year.  And yet, in Michigan, this school was closed.

We know school turnarounds take time – at least five years.  We also know competency-based approaches – meeting students where they are and developing individualized learning plans for them – are effective for closing the gaps and accelerating students who are significantly behind grade level. Time frames of two years or less for succeeding on absolute grade level proficiency tests are insufficient and, simply put, a recipe for failure.    

Of course, we need milestones to measure success and we need accountability, but we also need to give charter management organizations with experience in turnarounds the opportunity to innovate and build competency-based models that can benefit not only one school, but can be replicated in underperforming schools around the country. That means rethinking accountability systems that are designed to demonstrate their rigor by closing low performing school quickly. 

That’s exactly what’s happening in Indianapolis, where the public school system is trying to identify opportunities for innovative charter school operators to restart, reinvent and reinvigorate some of its low performing schools.  Potential operators are being vetted by a team of educational leaders and given the ability to prove themselves over several years, with the ultimate goal being proficiency, but with a recognition that it will build over time.

Matchbook is proud to be applying for a charter restart in Indianapolis because we share the belief that schools need the same thing our students need, individualized plans that meet them where they are and enable us to progress over time to the highest levels.