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Re-Examining Wheeler E.S.: A Case Study in Turnarounds

The education blogsphere has done a good job picking apart the weaknesses in Michael Winerip's New York Times story about a persistently low-performing school in Vermont that had to replace its principal to qualify for federal school-improvement grant money, even though it seems most everyone thought Joyce Irvine was doing a great job.

The story highlights the potential weaknesses of a one-size-fits-all federal approach to turning around low-performing schools in states and districts. Replacing a principal, which is required in most cases by federal regulations, is not a sure-fire solution to turning around a school, especially in rural and other hard-to-staff areas where finding good leaders is already tough.

In reaction to the story, This Week in Education took note of an important fact missing from the story: Scores of students who recently arrive at a school don't count for No Child Left Behind "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) purposes. And Eduwonk offers more critique, including important details that test scores have actually gotten worse under this acclaimed principal.

The story includes all of these anecdotes about the great strides Wheeler Elementary School is making in the six years since Irvine became principal, from offering a dental clinic to teaching kids to play the violin to offering field trips for the school's staff to the Kennedy Center in Washington to learn more about the arts.

But can these kids read?

I think the story's omission of Wheeler Elementary's test scores deserves more attention, and I wanted to provide links to the Vermont Department of Education's AYP data for Wheeler so you could check out the scores for yourself. Of course, we could argue all day about the merits of using test scores, but for right now, NCLB and its AYP requirement is the law of the land.

It's important to note that schools qualify for turnaround aid, and must adopt one of four federally prescribed models (all of which generally, although with some exceptions, include replacing the principal) not for posting one year of low test scores, but for several years of them.

So let's look at the AYP-related indicators for Wheeler since Irvine was principal, from 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

In 2006, 31 percent of Wheeler's kids scored in the lowest achievement tier on reading tests. In 2010, 52 percent were in the group at the bottom. (2010 wasn't a blip either, as the group of kids scoring at the bottom has gradually grown.) If you take out English-language learners, who have more challenges to overcome in learning to read and then taking a test, 23 percent scored at the bottom in reading in 2006, 44 percent did so in 2010. The same trend is seen for non-disabled students. As eduwonk states, clearly scores are going in the wrong direction.

A March 11, 2010 Burlington Free Press story quoted Burlington schools superintendent Jeanne Collins talking about how the district started its plan to improve the school before the feds forced them to.

"We did not wait for the feds to tell us this," she said. "We've taken the steps to create a new school with a five-year plan to integrate the school more fully and give all the kids a better chance at passing or achieving the standard on [tests]."

So a big part of the district's plan to turn around Wheeler seems to hang on the school's conversion to an arts magnet. A Sept. 9, 2009 back-to-school article in the Burlington Free Press explained the school's conversion into an arts magnet:

"School officials hope the makeovers will attract more middle-income families to the two former neighborhood schools in the Old North End of Burlington, a high-poverty area."

The focus doesn't seem to be on improving the academics of the existing kids, but to bring more middle class families in. To be sure, concentrated poverty does not provide a good learning environment, but hanging a school's transformation on turning it into an arts magnet to attract middle class kids doesn't seem to be a well-rounded solution either. The goal of the federal school improvement program is to improve the school and student outcomes by improving instruction, not by changing the composition of the student body. Will test scores go up at the school once more middle class kids fill the classrooms? Probably. But will test scores go up for the individual kids who are low-income, ELLs, or disabled? That's the bigger question.

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