Greater Greater Education

Should we fix schools by fixing poverty or fixing teaching? How about trying both? (Part 2)

Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit that aims to improve schools by addressing the effects of poverty both inside and outside the classroom, is working with 5 DCPS schools this year. The goal is a calmer environment where learning can take place, and so far the results look promising.


Photo by Brian Hatton

In the first part of this post, we looked at how Turnaround for Children (TFC) partners with a school for 3 to 5 years, bringing in a team that helps coordinate social services for kids who need them and providing the staff with techniques that create order, foster social skills, and promote learning for the school population as a whole. (Disclosure: I have contributed financially to TFC.)

At Walker-Jones Education Campus, a high-poverty school near North Capitol Street in Ward 6, TFC is in its first year of a partnership. Michael Moss is the 13th principal in the past 10 years, and when he arrived the school had about 450 suspensions per year, the highest rate for any DCPS school below the high school level.

On one recent school day, the TFC instructional coach at Walker-Jones, Charlie Crabtree, led a small group of teachers through a new classroom technique: Students are given cards with questions and answers about whatever material the class is studying. They then find partners to quiz, trade their cards, and find more partners.

If a student's partner doesn't get the correct answer right away, she provides some coaching and then some praise. The exercise gets students to interact with each other in positive ways, something that doesn't always come naturally to them, and reinforces their self-esteem. At the same time, it provides a way for students to review what they've been learning.

Principal Moss says his teachers have embraced TFC techniques, even though the program requires them to attend meetings that intrude on their planning time. And while he says the difference that TFC has made is "nothing you can quantify" and more of just "an overall feel in the building," he also says that suspensions have gone down to perhaps 50 so far this year. "And we haven't had a fight in weeks," he says.

Those results seem fairly typical. A 2009 study of 5 TFC middle schools in New York found that incidents reported to the police decreased by 51% and suspensions by 32%. Overall, the schools had become calmer, happier places, the study said.

Academic achievement

As that calm is established, teachers can shift their focus from classroom management to actual teaching. While TFC's effects on academic achievement haven't been dramatic so far, the organization says that the DC schools it has been in for over a year have generally outpaced their peers in gains on standardized tests.

At Wheatley Education Campus in Trinidad, where TFC has been working for 3 years, proficiency rates on DC's standardized tests still hover in the thirties. But student achievement is growing faster than the DCPS average for similar students, by 18 additional percentage points in math and 5 in reading. It's hard to say, though, how much of that change is due to TFC, since Wheatley partners with several other programs.

Principal Scott Cartland says that TFC has been particularly helpful in ensuring that students get counseling and mental health services if they need them. Cartland was already several years into a turnaround effort when TFC began working at Wheatley, and he says it would have been even more helpful to have had the organization as a partner from the beginning.

TFC and Cantor, he says, "have a very smart lens" through which to view the problems of a high-poverty school. "They know that there are certain things that will happen, that are predictable," he says. "And that there are predictable things you can do to make it better."

What are the caveats about TFC? The organization has learned from experience that it's crucial to have a strong school leader who, like Moss and Cartland, is enthusiastic about the program. In addition, there's money: partnering with TFC costs about $320,000 per year, per school.

While much of that cost is covered by philanthropy, school districts are asked to contribute as well. This year DCPS is covering only about 6% of the costs, but that proportion has been greater in the past and is likely to rise again.

Could a school achieve the same results if it got a fraction of that money and was able to hire its own additional staff to do what TFC does? Principal Cartland at Wheatley says probably not. He compares bringing TFC into a school to what a business does when it hires a management consultant.

"You need someone who is outside the day-to-day grind," he says. "When you're in the middle of it, you're often too overwhelmed" to come up with solutions.

TFC is now launching a new strategy to extend its reach: working with school districts to bring its methods to more schools and insulate itself from disruptions (two of the DCPS schools the organization was in last year fell victim to the wave of school closings). TFC recently created the position of Director of District Engagement, and that person is currently working with DCPS to expand the organization's methods to high-poverty schools throughout the school system.

Clearly there are advantages to that path, and having school districts take on the work themselves should reduce the cost. But if the TFC approach is embedded within a district bureaucracy, will schools lose the advantage of having that outside consultant's eye that Cartland said has been so helpful at Wheatley?

Time will tell. The jury is also still out on whether the TFC schools in DC will fully achieve the desired outcomesand sustain them after TFC leaves. But given the slow pace of progress at DCPS's lowest-performing schools and the promising results TFC has achieved so far, this is one experiment that seems worth pursuing.

Natalie Wexler is a board member at DC Scholars Public Charter School and a volunteer tutor in a DC Public School. She also serves on the board of The Writing Revolution, an organization that brings the teaching of analytical writing to underserved schools. She has been a lawyer, a historian, and a journalist, and is the author of three novels. 

Comments

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Good information. Please keep us posted on the data.

I also hope the metrics by which TFC measures success aren't just limited to standardized test score increases. I strongly believe in the value of testing, but reductions in suspensions, fights, and police reports have value in themselves. Social skills matter. The ability to get along with people matters. Sometimes you have good students who make it all the way through these schools, and they are still practically unemployable because of their inability to take direction, manage their emotions, and handle difficult interactions without escalating them.

By the way, just curious. As a member of the DC Scholars Public Charter School board, why/how do you think they are able to achieve the results they do without TFC?

by PG2SE on Feb 28, 2014 1:07 pm • linkreport

PG2SE - I think much of what TFC does is similar to what many high-performing charter schools do on their own. I'm thinking in particular about developing consistent vocabulary and expectations for behavior management, along the lines of the "Give me 5" signal for quiet.

I think what many charters may be less good at is connecting students to mental health or social services when they need them, although I think they try -- they don't often have the resources that TFC can muster in that regard. But some charters may also have fewer students who are in need of those services -- not because they screen them out, but because fewer families in really difficult circumstances may be applying.

by Natalie Wexler on Feb 28, 2014 3:22 pm • linkreport

It sounds like much of what TFC does can indeed be brought in house with enough training, if high-performing charters are doing that already. I also imagine mental health and social services are not provided directly by TFC but by referral to outside agencies. Do you know if the providers are private agencies, gov't agencies, or a mix of both?

by PG2SE on Feb 28, 2014 3:56 pm • linkreport

PG2SE - On mental health and social services, you are correct that TFC doesn't provide them directly. My understanding is that TFC works with the school social worker to provide counseling and mental health services through the school if possible, and if that's not sufficient they refer the child to a private outside provider (in DC, it's Hillcrest, as I mentioned in the post). The cost is usually covered by Medicaid, so the government is involved to that extent. Also, TFC's model is to stay in a school for only 3 to 5 years, at which point the idea is that the school will have internalized the model and be able to implement it on its own.

by Natalie Wexler on Mar 2, 2014 12:42 pm • linkreport

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