Calling North Carolina’s school turnaround work “among the most ambitious in the nation,” Vanderbilt University researcher Gary Henry told members of the State Board of Education on Thursday that he’s found significant positive effects resulting from the state’s federally-funded efforts to boost the performance of some of its lowest performing schools between the 2011 and 2015.
Henry said his evaluation of North Carolina’s school turnaround efforts (known as TALAS, or Turning Around North Carolina’s Lowest-Achieving Schools) finds that most of the 118 low-performing schools that have been targeted saw quick improvements in student proficiency on state exams —2,156 students were proficient who wouldn’t have been otherwise, said Henry.
But Henry cautioned that the gains these schools have seen can’t be sustained without considerable help from the state going forward.
“Help will be required for the foreseeable future in part because of the nature of the teacher workforce…there’s such a high degree of turnover,” said Henry, who noted that 25 percent of the teacher workforce in low-performing schools comprises teachers who are within their first five years of teaching.
State support will also be needed because federal funds to support school turnarounds are drying up, leaving the Department of Public Instruction with just over a third of the staff they once had to help low-performing schools improve.
Yet despite the fact that the latest research shows state-driven efforts to help struggling schools is working, state lawmakers are turning their attention to a controversial plan to allow charter school operators to take over the state’s low-performing schools.
What is TALAS?
In 2010, North Carolina received one of twelve federal Race to the Top grants worth $400 million, which was in part intended to support the ‘TALAS’ turnaround efforts for some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Nearly all of the funds associated with that grant have been spent.
TALAS targets the bottom 5 percent of elementary, middle and high schools, all of which have performance composites below 60% (based on 2009-10 data). The performance composite score for a school is the proportion of students’ scores on state end-of course and end-of-grade assessments that are at or above proficiency, according to the Department of Public Instruction’s website.
Comprehensive needs assessments, school improvement planning, instructional and leadership coaching and professional development are some of the supports used to help transform a low-achieving school into a high performer.
Henry’s findings indicate that low-performing schools saw positive changes in reading and literacy at the middle school level, and significantly positive changes in math and science in elementary and middle schools thanks to TALAS efforts.
Henry noted that it’s likely the state, along with Vanderbilt, the RAND Corporation and UNC will receive a federal grant from the Institute for Education Sciences that would allow that consortium to continue evaluating the TALAS school turnaround model for the next five years.
What’s unclear, however, is the degree to which the state can and will continue to support TALAS efforts so that there’s something to evaluate.
With Race to the Top funds drying up, the central office devoted to school turnarounds has been cut considerably. Only 55 staff remain to support low performing schools, down from 145 staff that were funded in part by federal Race to the Top funds, according to DPI.
Shifting the solution to charter operators?
Other school reform initiatives targeted toward turning around low performing schools, said Henry, have taken four or more years to see positive outcomes.
Henry specifically cited the achievement school district (ASD) model that Tennessee is using, which allows private charter school operators to take over public schools, fire the teachers and principals, and use their own school management approaches to try to bring students’ academic proficiency rates up into the top quartile of the state’s public schools.
The ASD model is controversial, has seen mixed results, and is a model being considered behind closed doors by North Carolina’s own lawmakers right now thanks to lobbying efforts by a wealthy Oregonian businessman.
“You alluded to the approach that Tennessee is using,” said State Board of Education member Eric Davis, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education member who works for Wells Fargo and is a graduate of West Point, during Henry’s Thursday presentation.
“I had an opportunity to share with Representative [Rob] Bryan some of the ideas that came from your last report,” said Davis of Henry’s August report on TALAS efforts. “I hope that our approach will be a much more collaborative one with school districts.”
Rep. Bryan is the driving force behind S95, the ASD bill that is currently being shaped and shepherded away from the public eye on Jones Street. Drafts of the legislation have been circulating among lawmakers, lobbyists and other stakeholders, but the proposal hasn’t been formally filed.
The legislation would create an achievement school district headed by a superintendent hand picked by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. The ASD superintendent would be able to fire all teachers and staff and enter into five year contracts with private charter school management companies to handle the schools’ operations, all in a bid to catapult low performing schools from the bottom five percent up into the top echelon of the state’s high performing schools.
As the legislative session comes closer (?) to an end, Rep. Bryan continues to work on drafts of the legislation that would allow charter school operators to take over low-performing schools—but it’s not clear when, or if, that bill will be heard in a committee.
Meanwhile, the state continues its own efforts to improve low-performing schools—and with good results.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]