Tuesday, March 21, 2017

AV#159 - When “on the clock,” Innovation Status to the rescue! – On what basis?

Two–or three, four, or is it five?—roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one …

On March 9, 2017, as Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 became the first of five low-performing districts to make their presentations to the State Board of Education, we were reminded that the state has a limited number of options in how it responds to years of poor results. Over the next two months, as other districts and 12 schools report on their turnaround plans, I will be curious to see how they—and often the Colorado Department of Education, working with them to develop their plans—make the case for one of the options – “innovation.”

Reviewing the history of how three of our lowest-performing school districts (Pueblo, Aurora, and Adams 14) chose the Innovation Zone or Innovation School[i] as the path forward (or at least did at one point; Adams 14 has stepped back from a district-wide push in this direction), I find surprisingly broad support for this strategy—from superintendents, school boards, and state review teams.  Another View, as is often the case, provides a dissenting view. But I do not feel alone.  Two members of the State Board of Education, Angelika Schroeder and Steve Durham, have voiced their own doubts. Or, at least, a similar concern ….  (See section II, below, on Pueblo - EXCERPTS FROM FAILURE TO LAUNCH.)

I am eager to see how the seven-member state board votes on innovation proposals, based on the evidence to date.


What are the options for schools and districts?  Here is Chalkbeat Colorado’s summary of the choices available for “intervention”:

     So how is the state going to step in?                                            (Bold mine throughout this newsletter.)
The state has a menu of options for both schools and districts.
For a persistently struggling school, the state may direct the local school board to:
·         Close it.
·         Hand it over to a charter management organization.
·         Contract with a third party to help run the school.
·         Create an innovation plan that spells out strategies and waivers from school and state policy to boost student learning.
For districts, the state has all of the above options, but may also direct the local school board to:
  •  Merge with a nearby high-performing district (although this would require a ballot question — and this option is a very hard sell politically).       
  • Hire a third party to help manage all or some portion of the school district.
  • Apply for innovation status district-wide.*
There’s also an “other” option for school districts?
That part of the law is ambiguous. But state officials take it to mean some combination of the options.

*District Zone of Innovation:
Districts to design and implement innovative ideas and practices to better meet student needs.
Districts to obtain waivers from state and local policies and collective bargaining agreements that challenge their ability to execute their ideas and enable flexibilities.
Chalkbeat Colorado’s summary put the matter bluntly: “… time is up for the schools and districts. State officials are about to intervene in the hopes of setting them on the right course.”

Listening to over five hours of testimony on March 9 from Montezuma-Cortez and, later that day, from Julesberg, as well as substantial q and a with the state board, we were all reminded: getting this right will be hard.  No easy answers. 

This newsletter offers none.  I simply ask one question: on what basis is innovation being chosen as an effective turnaround strategy? Or, to rephrase, how is innovation setting districts “on the right course”?

       I.     Three districts line up around Innovation Zone or Innovation Plans

It is troubling when you see a district in trouble try a “reform” without evidence it has proven effective elsewhere …  followed by a second district, also in dire straits, try the same “reform”…  and then you hear that a third—might step down this blind alley….  As of 2015, here was their 5-year SPF rating.

                  Colorado School Performance Framework (SPF) Rating

Pueblo City Schools
Priority Improvement – year 1
Turnaround – year 2
Priority Improvement – year 3
Priority Improvement – year 4
Priority Improvement – year 5
Aurora Public Schools
Priority Improvement – year 1
Priority Improvement – year 2
Priority Improvement – year 3
Priority Improvement – year 4
Adams 14
Turnaround – year 1
Turnaround – year 2
Turnaround – year 3
Priority Improvement – year 4
Priority Improvement – year 5
For accreditation purposes, the state accredits districts in one of four categories.  Being placed in one of the bottom two categories moves the school a step forward on the “state’s accountability clock.”
               Priority Improvement

It is unclear why, as of 2015, Innovation Zones became the preferred option for several districts “on the Accountability Clock.”  But the pattern is clear.

Superintendents, review teams, state panels – go for it!
1.   Superintendents Dr. Maggie Lopez and Dr. Constance Jones in Pueblo; Dr. Rico Munn in Aurora; and Pat Sanchez in Adams 14 (three of whom, Lopez, Jones,. and Sanchez, have since resigned), played a leading role in this push. 

2.   After assessing the districts and what would make sense for their next step, both the State Review Panel and the Colorado Department of Education recommended or supported innovation plans.   

“A State Review Panel of Colorado educators conducted a document review of the Unified School Improvement Plans and completed a site visit at several schools included in the Pueblo Innovation Zone as well as a Pueblo City Schools District review. The panel recommended innovation school status for the district because of the steps the district has already put into place to create an Innovation Zone.”  (From Innovation Application to CDE from Pueblo City Schools -http://www.boarddocs.com/co/cde/Board.nsf/files/AD6LPF570809/$file/PCS%20I-zone_FINAL%205.6.16.pdf.)

“State Recommendations for Innovation - During the month of November 2015, a team from the CDE’s Federal Programs Unit conducted an onsite monitoring visit (of Aurora Central High School) to evaluate the implementation and outcomes of ACHS’ TIG (Tiered Intervention Grant).  (Afterwards) the CDE Office of School and District Performance issued a letter to complement the Office of Federal Program’s TIG review. The letter articulated State concerns and recommendations for ACHS to address in the Innovation Application. Specifically, the office noted that in order for CDE to support an Innovation Application for ACHS, it must build upon and go further than the original TIG plan addressing specific structures to improve student attendance, engagement, and achievement.” (Innovation Application to CDE from Aurora Central High-

Adams 14:
“The State Review Panel recommends Innovation Zone status for the Adams 14 School District, based on an analysis of compiled data and documentation, as well as a site visit conducted on May 6, 2015…. The SRP recommends that the district consider creating an Innovation Zone as a pilot program with several district-identified schools prior to creating an Innovation District, as there may not be adequate resources and capacity to move the entire district to the Innovation District level at the same time.”
(From the Unified Improvement Plan for 2015-16, Adams County 14 - https://cedar2.cde.state.co.us/documents/UIP2016/0030-0000.pdf.)

Next up?  Greeley?

Greeley-Evans District 6, too, is now thinking of Innovation Zone (See Addendum A) as the way:
(a) to improve and (maybe an even bigger reason; see opening sentence of the Greeley Tribune article)
(b) to get off the accountability clock (or, the more colloquial version, to get the state off their back).

Who’s next?

                  II.      And innovation is the preferred option because …

Perhaps these districts genuinely believe this is exactly what they need.  It also could be that—with CDE-related reviewers saying this is their best hope of improving (and, not incidentally, of avoiding sanctions by the state board), they feel it is safest to follow their advice.  I can imagine a district saying—those on the state board of education will have to appreciate that we did not resist or ignore what outsiders encouraged us to do.  Or: If you don’t like our proposal around the Innovation Zone, don’t blame us—it wasn’t our idea!

Whatever the cause, let’s review and see how we got here. In the process, I ask you to keep in mind a more specific version of my basic question: Why would any district think Pueblo or APS has set a good precedent? 

 Innovation Status – a brief history – from Pueblo to Aurora to … Adams 14?

An attempt to provide a relatively objective summary of events, with a few subjective asides (in italics) tossed in to express my doubts. 

#1 - Pueblo City Schools 

Pueblo was first, and thus will get the most attention here.

Q- Is this what other districts saw as the model?

Back in 2010, three middle schools: Pitts, Risley, and Roncalli – were among the six low-performing schools in Pueblo awarded the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG).  After those first two years, the schools’ rating on the state’s School Performance Framework (SPF) looked dismal.

2009-10 (before SIG grant)
2010-11 (year 1 of SIG Grant)
2011-12 (year 2)
Pitts Middle
Risley Middle
Roncalli Middle

    *(The state saw so little progress at Roncalli that it did not send the SIG funds for year three.)

Pueblo 60 no doubt felt disappointed at the SIG efforts.  In 2012 the Pueblo school board “approved the middle school realignment proposal, allowing each middle school to reinvent itself and develop a unique educational focus to facilitate improved achievement” (http://www.cde.state.co.us/choice/pittsinnovationplan). Each proposed significant change: Pitts Middle would become Pueblo Academy of the Arts; Risley would adopt the International Baccalaureate curriculum and be called the Risley International Academy of Innovation; and Roncalli would create a math and science focus and be named Roncalli STEM Academy.  The redesigns would begin in the 2013-14 school year.

Addendum B reveals the lack of evidence on academic improvement in most Innovation Schools in CDE’s annual report of March 2013. This data was available to both Pueblo and the state board. Note similar findings ever since.
 See also section III – ESSA and evidence.
April 2013  -  Pueblo 60 went to the state board the following spring, with applications from the three schools to be Innovation Schools.  In their application to the state, both Risley and Roncalli gave this rationale: “School autonomy is a critical tool for implementing a new school design that is focused on achievement for every student and is crafted by and for our unique community.”[ii]  Pitts Middle wrote: “Innovation status established the flexibility to go beyond the standard curriculum to provide extended learning opportunities in both academics and the arts.”[iii] 
Q - By that spring, did the Pueblo school board have any evidence (see box- right) that Innovation status had been a key factor in successful turnaround efforts in any other Colorado district?  Did the state board?

May 2013 - The state board approved Innovation Status for all three schools.

In the fall of 2015, the three largest school districts in Colorado entering YEAR 5 on Priority Improvement on the state’s School Performance Framework were: Adams County 14, Pueblo City Schools, and Westminster 50. The largest district entering YEAR 4: Aurora Public Schools.
Over the next two years, 2013-14 and 2014-15, the schools operated as Innovation Schools

October 2015 -  Pueblo City Schools (see box: a district on year 5 on the accountability clock) hoped to expand this effort, seeking to add three schools and create an Innovation Zone for all six.

Q - Again, I ask, based on what evidence?

Before recounting what followed over the next year, take a look at the school’s SPF for 2013, prior to Innovation Status, and for the following year.

       Innovation status leads to renaming, to restructuring, and to – better results?
School Performance Framework - for year prior to, and after, year one on Innovation

Pueblo 60
2012-13  -  Before
2013-14  -  After
Pitts Middle –
now Pueblo Academy of Arts 
50.6% pts
Risley Middle –
now Risley International Academy of Innovation
 – year 4
41.6% pts
33% pts
Roncalli Middle –
Now called Roncalli STEM Academy
25.1% pts
25.1% pts

District ponders innovation zone - Would unite six schools under banner
The Pueblo Chieftain – Oct. 26, 2015  

   While it’s still too early to determine whether converting three low-performing middle schools into schools of innovation will turn around achievement in those buildings, Pueblo City Schools (D60) officials aren’t waiting for all the results.
   Based on the positive cultural changes already experienced at the Roncalli STEM Academy, Risley International School of Innovation and Pueblo Academy of Arts (formerly Pitts), district leaders are moving forward with a plan to make three additional schools of innovation at Irving, Minnequa and Ben Franklin elementary schools.

Too early?  Never mind. Charge ahead. Who needs evidence!  One wishes the media could have asked tougher questions on why all of this made sense.

               [The article continued:]
   D60 is one of two districts … seeking permission to set up innovation zones. The proposals are expected to go before the Colorado State Board of Education in the spring.
   Gina Gallegos (director of continuous improvement and innovation) said by creating an innovation zone, district officials are hoping they can leverage the zone for increased school improvement.
   “Just the term innovation, what does that mean? It means thinking differently and that’s what we’re doing, we’re thinking differently,” she said. “It can’t continue that our kids aren’t achieving at the levels that they need to.”

Innovation = thinking differently?  This is a turnaround strategy?   

“D60 plans for new innovation schools”
KAOO News 5 - Oct. 27, 2015

   Pueblo could be getting three new innovation schools next year. The recent success of D60's first innovation schools has inspired the district to expand the program.
   D60 has already created Pueblo Academy of Arts, Roncalli STEM Academy and Risley International Academy of Innovation out of formerly failing schools. Now the district is eyeing a bigger plan that will bring these and three other schools together to help Pueblo kids succeed.
   Irving, Minnequa and Franklin Elementary Schools are next on the list to become innovation schools in D60. Following the improvements made at Roncalli, Risley and what used to be Pitts Middle Schools, the district wants to address low test scores and student performance with a different approach.
   “More importantly, the student and staff culture at the three of the innovation schools has improved beyond expectation,” notes Gina Gallegos, D60's executive director of continuous improvement and innovation.

So much for making sure the evidence supports the “reform”

The following spring, as Pueblo proceeded with its plan to add three more innovation schools, an update from Chalkbeat Colorado’s raised several red flags.  At least two state board members were understandably wary. One might have read Nic Garcia’s “reality check” and thought: Phew! I trust this will prevent others from imagining innovation is a wise choice for our most troubled schools and districts.

      Freeing failing schools from bureaucracy hasn’t worked as hoped. So why is Colorado still doing it?
May 17, 2016 

   “I’m very wary of using innovation as a turnaround strategy,” said Robin Lake, executive director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank at the University of Washington. “If a school has gotten to the point of being in the lowest 5 percent, usually there is something going on that is very hard to repair.”
    Because so few chronically low-performing schools with innovation status have made meaningful improvement, some education reform activists, state officials and State Board of Education members are concerned the state is about to do more harm than good.
   “This is not OK,” said Angelika Schroeder, a state board member and Boulder Democrat who has raised questions for several months now about innovation status as a turnaround effort.
    “Sometimes autonomy and a chance to innovate can be a good thing for a school that needs a fresh start,” Lake said. “But the test should be, ‘Does the school have a convincing plan that will result in something for kids very soon?’ When you’re dealing with low-performing schools, that’s not the time you just start pulling ideas out of a hat.”
    State Board of Education Chairman Steve Durham said not all innovation plans are created equally. He said he might advocate for a change in the law to allow the State Board more authority to reign in poorly executed innovation plans. “I think districts are looking at them as panacea and they certainly are not,” he said.
   Three schools — Roncalli and Risley middle schools and the Pueblo Academy of Arts — already have innovation status and are among those that have failed to improve.

August 2016 - The state released test results for 2015-16—including the results for all three innovation schools.   Pueblo’s newly appointed superintendent, Charlotte Macaluso, had previously been named head of the innovation zone—after leading Risley during its first few years on innovation.  According to Chalkbeat Colorado:

   The most recent testing data for Risley paints a dire picture. Only 60 of the roughly 350 students at the school met or exceeded the state’s expectations on the inaugural PARCC English exam in 2015. Only 26 students met the state’s benchmarks on the math test the same year. The school has high poverty rates, with 96 percent of students qualifying for government-subsidized meals.
   While an independent review found Macaluso has boosted morale at the school, the school’s state rating has not risen.
   Three years ago, Risley won innovation status, which grants it freedom from some state and local policies. That move to boost achievement, however, has not proven successful.
   Before being named interim superintendent, Macaluso had been appointed executive director of the district’s new innovation zone, which would bring together Risley and five other schools in an even broader experiment. If approved by the State Board, the innovation zone would be the city’s most ambitious efforts yet to save its schools.

By September 1, 2016, anyone could look at the PARCC results at the three schools and compare 2015 and 2016 ELA and Math scores: 
·         8th grade scores in 2016 were better than in 2015, highlighted by a nice jump at Pueblo Academy from 18.8% proficient in English (2015) to 33% proficient (2016).  But that was the only case where over 15% of the 8th graders at any of three schools were proficient, in either English or math. 
·         English scores for 6th and 7th grades declined at Pueblo Academy of the Arts and at Risley International from 2015.
·         Math scores dropped badly at these two schools for 6th grade and were just slightly better for grade 7; still, less than 10% of the students were proficient: 9.1% at Pueblo Academy of the Arts; 8.8% at Risley. At Roncalli, even though all three grades “improved” their math results, less than 10% were proficient for each grade. (http://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/co/2016/09/01/find-your-schools-2016-parcc-english-and-math-results/)

I realize the Pueblo School Board, and then the Colorado State Board of Education, had more data than what I present here as they considered doubling down on the innovation plan.  But isn’t it true that press reports and district claims overstated the “improvement” and “success” at the first three schools?
(Two weeks later)
September 15, 2016  - The Colorado State Board of Education approved of Pueblo’s request to set up an innovation zone.  https://ww w.cde.state.co.us/communications/20160915sbenewsrelease

Pueblo D60’s six-school Innovation Zone approved by state 
By Jon Pompia, The Pueblo Chieftain, Sept. 16, 2016

   Pueblo City Schools (D60) saw its six-school Innovation Zone given the unanimous green light by the Colorado Department of Education Thursday.
   The Innovation Zone plan, which will see Irving, Benjamin Franklin and Minnequa elementary schools join Roncalli STEM Academy, Risley International School of Innovation and Pueblo Academy of Arts, is viewed by D60 leaders as a necessary piece toward increasing the district’s accountability standing before the state.
   Interim Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso, who led the presentation before state education officials in Denver, touted the positive impact innovation eventually will have throughout the district.
   “Roncalli has made improvements in all content areas in the last year, Pueblo Academy of Arts has more than tripled in enrollment over the last three years and Risley International Academy of Innovation was recently recognized as an International Baccalaureate World School,” Macaluso said.
   Upon the successful presentation of the Innovation Zone plan before the state, D60 Board of Education President Phyllis Sanchez added, “We are excited to have the support from the state as we implement our Innovation Zone, and we were pleased to have a 7-0 unanimous vote in our favor.” http://newsok.com/article/feed/1076455

OK, some good news at Roncalli.   And I realize that in January 2017, when CDE released its 2016 School Performance Framework, it lifted the ranking for both Roncalli STEM and Pueblo Academy of the Arts to Improvement—a big leap from being on Turnaround in 2014. 

However, note that in previous years the state’s School Performance Framework usually put schools earning below 47% points on Priority Improvement.  The new guideline lowers that bar to below 42% points.  Roncalli earned 46.1% points in 2016 and Pueblo Academy, 43.3% points; as a result, both gained a much higher ranking.  Look again at the 2016 PARCC scores, above … These schools are now on Improvement? Really?

#2 - Aurora Public Schools

Summer 2015 to Winter 2016

By the summer of 2015, Aurora Public Schools was developing a plan similar to that of Pueblo City Schools.  A plan, from all I can gather, the central office hoped would work, before finding out if the schools would come on board.  In-depth planning at several of the schools did not appear to begin until more than half-way through the fall semester in 2015. 

The APS applications in the winter and spring of 2016 included this rationale—and tired verbiage. (Why, I wonder, do we think every idea is better for having a “theory of change”?)

   Across the nation, school district reform strategies have taken various forms. A common theme among these myriad of reform strategies is the need to identify a comprehensive approach that draws upon national best practices while also addressing the local educational context. To serve the Aurora community, Aurora Public Schools implemented a series of strategies identified collectively as “CORE.” CORE stands for Communities Organized to Reach Excellence.
   ACTION Zones are one of these strategies, and the goal is to create an innovative community of practice. The theory of change that guides this work is that by focusing on implementing shared strategies in schools to address their root causes while affording them additional autonomies over people, time, money, and program, we can change the culture and capacity of the schools to accelerate student achievement. Further, when leaders, teachers and learners are connected to strong communities of practice, they are able to identify and build upon successes to rapidly improve the entire school community.

#3 - Adams 14 School District

Early in 2016, Adams 14’s Superintendent Pat Sanchez appeared to be moving his district in a similar direction.  A presentation was made to district employees in February: “Innovation  Update” (2/19/16) - http://files.adams14.org/files/16/Resources/InnovationPlanning_Feb2016_PPT.pdf.  Meetings of Adams 14’s board of education in April, May, and June included more updates on an innovation plan.  But then Sanchez was gone. In October, new Superintendent Javier Abrego gave an update to the board on the innovation plan.

Later last fall, the state education department “rejected Adams County School District 14’s attempt to avoid state sanctions for continued poor academic performance” (from article, here).  But innovation plans—according to press reports—were still on.

Adams 14 will retain low rating, setting district up for state sanctions
By Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat Colorado, Dec. 13, 2016

   The decision is a significant blow for Adams 14 because the district is one of five in the state that are facing state sanctions for earning low ratings on the state’s evaluations for five years. The state has a small number of options to deal with the low-performing districts, including closing schools, merging districts or turning over management to a third party.
   Adams 14 officials have said they are working on drafting an innovation plan requesting waivers and flexibilities from the state to try new approaches to improving student achievement. If the state approves an innovation plan, that could serve as it sanction—giving Adams 14 more time to show signs of improvement before more drastic steps. (http://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/co/2016/12/13/adams-14-will-retain-low-rating-setting-the-district-up-for-state-sanctions/)

I attended the Adams 14 school board meeting on Feb. 14 and learned then that the district would only seek innovation status for its high school.  The other schools, Superintendent Abrego explained, would be part of a larger Turnaround Plan. A few days later Dr. Abrego and district leaders gave me reasons for the change in thinking.  Maybe putting in place innovation for the district’s major high school program will be challenge enough.  But we must ask: can we find an equally low-performing high school that has made dramatic improvement by gaining Innovation Status?  Surely not Aurora Central High….

Adams 14 will soon present its proposal to the state board of education. 

                                                  III.     ESSA and evidence

I am sure the State Board, CDE, districts, superintendents, state review panels, etc., are well aware that the new federal law, ESSA, speaks time and again of the need for … evidence

1.       “Making Evidence Locally”
Thomas J. Kane, Education Next, Spring 2017
“The term ‘evidence-based’ appears 63 times across the various titles and programs of ESSA….
However, the evidence requirements will amount to nothing without state leadership. The law leaves it to the states to decide how much they want to build an evidence base and nudge districts toward choosing more effective strategies. No doubt, many states will turn the ‘evidence-based’ requirement into an empty compliance exercise, describing evidence-based requirements so broadly that districts will find it easy to fit any intervention plan within them.”

2.         “Website to Offer Assessments of Education Programs Nationwide” (1/19/17)

Robert Slavin, Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, called “the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 … ‘a potentially monumental achievement’ for giving states the flexibility to use research in guiding programmatic and policy decisions. ‘The only way education is going to get better is when pre-K-12 schools use evidence-based programs that have shown to be effective in improving learning outcomes for students.’” http://education.jhu.edu/inthemedia/newsroom/articles/01_18_17_Website%20to%20Offer%20Assessments%20of%20Education%20Programs%20Nationwide

3.       “How to Find Evidence-Based Fixes for Schools That Fall Behind” (9/28/16)
The new federal flexibility in dealing with struggling schools comes with some strings in picking approaches proven to have value
By Sarah D. Sparks, Education Week

    “The Every Student Succeeds Act gives states and districts significant flexibility in how they turn around struggling schools, as long as the local approaches are backed by evidence….
    “In separate guidance, the Education Department explained that districts and states should work to use the most rigorous evidence available, with intervention studies that not only meet high methodological quality, but also reflect similar students and school types as those where the intervention would be used.”

4.   From DRAFT created by CDE for the School Improvement and Support Spoke Committee (8/16)

Summary of ESSA References for School Support and Improvement (Sec. 1111. State Plans, as amended in Sec. 1005)
Improvement Plan - Schools develop and implement plan in partnership with stakeholders (including school leaders, teachers and parents). Plan must
(1) be informed by student performance for identified disaggregated student group(s) against state‐ determined long‐term goals, and
(2) include evidence based interventions.  At CDE’s website on ESSA: http://www.cde.state.co.us/fedprograms/essa_sisreferencessummary

5.       Comparison - NCLB and ESSA (written in 2015 after the passage of ESSA)

Comparison of the No Child Left Behind Act to the Every Student Succeeds Act – published by ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development)

School Improvement - ESSA
Requires districts to develop evidence-based strategies for school improvement—in partnership with parents and school staff—that include all accountability indicators; requires districts to identify resource inequities. http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/policy/ESEA_NCLB_ComparisonChart_2015.pdf

IV.    Innovation as a sensible strategy for turnarounds: two final thoughts
I have to ask: are the blind leading the blind?  ESSA speaks of three levels of evidence—strong, moderate, and promising.  Who can argue in March of 2017 that using an Innovation Zone to move a group of chronically low-performing schools, or giving Innovation to a single school in need of turnaround, has provided strong, moderate, or even promising evidence of success?  Why encourage any district or school to jump on this bandwagon—if it is not showing real benefits?

Comment #1 here is downright cynical.  A work of fiction.  But plausible? 
Comment #2 introduces an entirely new argument … so I merely toss it out. Does it ring true to anyone?

1.   The skeptic’s version of all this.  Call it the unpublished confessions of a superintendent:

   OK, we admit it, we do not know how to turn around low-performing schools.  But seeking Innovation Status will seem au courant, with all this buzz about decentralizing and empowering individual schools.  Heck, at least we don’t give up our control the way we would if we allowed these schools to take the charter route.  Denver Public Schools has gone crazy—50 charters!—that’s nuts. We don’t want our schools to have that much freedom.  Control still matters, even if we’re not allowed to say that out loud. 
   Listen, we know we’re in trouble, that damn accountability clock is ticking and we don’t have a lot of good ideas.  We’re not at all sure these schools, which have floundered for years, will suddenly get their act together now that they have this new freedom we say they’re getting.  But it’s a risk we’re willing to take.   And the state board seems to buy it.  Maybe if it gives us more time to figure this out, without the hammer coming down on us ….

2.    An admission from the district: we’re part of the problem.  But it is not enough.

   Can we acknowledge a certain irony when we see a district advocating for Innovation Schools and Innovation Zones?  Implicit in deciding schools need more freedom from the barriers imposed by the district itself—central office regulations, the contract with the teachers’ union, the inertia of a bureaucracy that impedes more than it supports dramatic change—is to acknowledge: we get in the way.  The schools’ struggles are partly our fault. They should have more control.  For too long we tried to assume we could “manage” dozens of buildings (Aurora: 60 schools; Pueblo City: 30) from headquarters.  We can’t. Or, at least, we don’t seem to do it well.  
   A recent study of the Obama Administration initiative, Investing in Innovation, noted how ill-prepared many states and districts are “to develop and study their own school improvement and other interventions.”  Patrick Lester, director of the Social Innovation Research Center, commented: “For the most part, school districts were out of their depth” (See Addendum C).
   Districts that come to see they are often “out of their depth,” that are humbled by their failures, or their lack of capacity to turn around its schools, are taking a step forward.  Much healthier than the wounded pride, or the defiance, that snaps: we know what’s best, leave us alone.
   And the schools themselves might agree that, yes, the darned district has been in the way.  They might rejoice in their new freedom.  But given their recent years of low performance, what fundamental change is taking place in the schools that gives them the leadership, faculty, staff, and resources capable of a major “restart” needed to bring about dramatic improvement? 
   It has a touch of the dejected doctor saying to the sick patient—Listen, I don’t seem to be helping. You’re better off on your own.  Good luck!

    Few districts, and as best I can tell, few states, know how to turn around their low-performing schools.  We would do well to admit it.  This may feel like an admission of failure.  Perhaps.  One might also see it as the beginning of wisdom. 
    Let’s not pretend we have good answers to this dilemma.  Granting our most troubled districts and schools Innovation Status certainly isn’t one of them.

Addendum A

“Greeley-Evans District 6 pursuing innovation plan for two struggling schools” (Jan. 2017)

   Greeley-Evans School District 6 leaders on Monday pushed forward a plan to transform two struggling schools in order to avoid state sanctions.
   But the plans, to transform the schools into "innovation schools," will require state support in the face of different state recommendations for the two schools….
   The state provides a number of options for schools that have reached that threshold, including school closure, private management and transforming the schools into charter schools.
   Outside consultants, including those paid by the state, have recommended a mix of those options for Franklin and Prairie Heights each of the past two years. What they haven't recommended is transforming those schools into so-called "innovation schools."
   It's a legitimate option, according to state rules. And it's precisely the option District 6 administrators would like to pursue, in spite of previous recommendations.
   … the plan will be sent to the Colorado Department of Education and District 6 officials will go before the State Board of Education — perhaps as early as mid-March — to sell the proposal. That part may prove more difficult….
   (Superintendent Deirdre) Pilch told board members she and district staff would have to be persuasive, particularly in two areas: First, they'll have to persuade the board their model will change the trajectory of the schools. Second, they'll have to persuade the board the model is doable without waiving the district's master contract with teachers.
   It's an important point, because most innovation schools — like charter schools — in Colorado collect a variety of state waivers in order to operate what's supposed to be a completely different educational model. Typically, a master contract waiver means innovation schools get a bit more flexibility in setting salaries, as well as hiring decisions and other items.

See also the earlier article, “Extensive’ changes coming for poor-performing schools in Greeley-Evans School District 6,” from October 2016  

Addendum B 

CDE’s annual reports on Innovation Schools – Evidence of success?
What CDE’s annual reports have been saying for years about the Academic Performance of Colorado Innovation Schools

The Colorado Department of Education has produced six annual reports on Innovation Schools.
Annual Reports

I include a few excerpts, mostly on the academic performance of the Innovation schools.

The 2010, 2022, and 2012 annual reports were largely focused on the Denver innovation schools that were the first to gain this status.  The 2012 report offered no overview, just this on 11 schools:

How Have Innovation Schools Performed in Student Achievement?
In math and writing, eight innovation schools have seen some improvement in the number of students scoring proficient or advanced compared to their scores prior to implementing their innovations. However, in reading, five schools have yet to show any increase and other schools have seen their scores across all subjects decline each year since becoming an innovation school (e.g., MLK Early College, Wasson HS). http://www.boarddocs.com/co/cde/Board.nsf/files/8T3N565D8F9D/$file/Annual%20Report%20on%20Status%20of%20Innovation%20Schools%202012.%20final.pdf

The 2013, 2015, 2016 annual reports each had a section (much like the 2013 version, here) that asked about academic achievement.  Note how similar the results have proven to be.

Section 6: Academic Performance of Innovation Schools
“One of the purposes of the Innovation Act was to improve educational performance. The Act sought to hold public schools that receive greater autonomy under this article accountable for student academic achievement ….” (Annual Report, 2013)

From annual reports on the Colorado Innovation Schools Act
March 2013*
March 2015*
March 2016*
Innovation schools are performing well below the state averages. In part, this is because Innovation Status is being used as a turnaround strategy In Denver, which has the most innovation schools of any direct so far, so it will be interesting to see if these performance rates increase over time, as the turnaround strategies are further implemented. However, when one looks at the innovation schools that have been operating for 3 or more years, the proficiency rates have remained largely the same or declined in most cases. (p. 15)
… In most cases, innovation schools are performing well below the state averages. In part, this is because Innovation Status is being used as a turnaround strategy, so it will be interesting to see if these performance rates increase over time, as the turnaround strategies are further implemented. However, when one looks at the innovation schools that have been operating for 3 or more years, the proficiency rates have remained largely the same or declined in most cases. (p. 12)
These trends in scores point to the fact that each of the schools and districts with Innovation status do not show a consistent pattern of performance, meaning that there is no noticeable increase or decrease in results as a result of these schools or zones having waivers under the Innovation Act. Therefore, it is not clear at this time whether designation as an innovation school or innovation zone has any discernable impact on student academic performance. (p. 16)

What else did the most recent CDE report tell us?

The MOST UP-TO-DATE CDE report, from March 2016, offers these specific findings that I assume the State Board of Education and CDE–here in the spring of 2017—will review.  Can one find any evidence that innovation appears a viable strategy to turnaround any low-performing school or district?  In the light of the anticipated proposal from Adams City Schools, pay special attention to the findings on achievement at the high schools.

From CDE’s Innovation Report – submitted to the Governor and to the House and Senate Education Committees, March 2016

Academic Performance
Analysis of Mean Scale Score Percentiles for Elementary, Middle, and High School

13 of the 18 innovation high schools … have a mean scale score of 10% or lower, which means these schools are performing better than only 10% of all high schools in the state in the area of Reading. Vista Ridge High School, in Falcon 49 and Holyoke Sr. High School, in Holyoke School District are the only innovation high schools showing a consistent increase in percentile scores in Reading over the past 3 years. (p. 15)

Table 8 shows percentile ranks for Colorado’s innovation high schools. 12 of the 16 schools have had a percentile rank below the 10th percentile consistently over the past 3 years. Vista Ridge High School in Falcon 49 was the only high school to hit the 50th percentile meaning that it performs higher in the area of Writing than 50% of the other high schools in the state. Holyoke Senior High School, followed by Kit Carson Junior-Senior High School came in second and third with percentile ranks below 40% in 2015. (p. 16)

While 14 out of 28 innovation elementary schools reported in Appendix D, Table 9, have a percentile rating below the 50th percentile, 8 of those 14 fall below the 20th percentile and have for the past 3 years in math. 14 of the innovation middle schools reported in Table 10, have had a percentile rank below the 20th percentile over the past 3 years. 13 of the 18 innovation high schools … have had a percentile rank below the 20th percentile over the past 3 years in the area of math. Vista Ridge High School in Falcon 49 is the only innovation high school to earn a percentile rank over 50% in the past two years. (p. 16)

The text ended with this prophetic paragraph.

Part 4: Legislative Updates
Colorado has seen steady growth in the number of innovation schools and innovation zones across the state, especially in Denver Public Schools. Interest in innovation status continues to grow across the state. The two newest areas of interest are rural districts exploring possible benefits of innovation status, and districts considering the innovation design process as a means of turnaround for schools approaching the end of the five year accountability clock (as per SB 09-163). … As the Innovation Act embarks on its 8th year of implementation, it would be helpful to investigate the implementation strategies used in launching proposed innovations to determine which strategies and innovations have been successfulhttps://www.cde.state.co.us/choice/2016-innovation-schools-annual-report

Addendum C

School Innovation Study Flags Issues for Districts
Districts need help evaluating their efforts
By Sarah D. Sparks, Education Week, January 24, 2017

   The federal Investing in Innovation program helped build evidence of the effectiveness of new interventions, but also highlighted how much local education groups need support from regional and national experts to build successful ones.
   That is the takeaway from an evaluation of the program, known as i3, that was released last week by the Social Innovation Research Center, a nonprofit think tank supported by the national venture-philanthropy fund New Profit.
   The findings raise concerns about states' and districts' ability to develop and study their own school improvement and other interventions under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new federal law gives districts much more flexibility to implement school improvement and other interventions but requires them to meet evidence standards modeled after those of i3.
   "With all these things happening under ESSA with new evidence definitions, if you are going to just throw that out there and hope the locals will do it with no assistance, you are dreaming," said Patrick Lester, the director of the Social Innovation Research Center. "These [i3 grantees] are in the top 3 percent of [i3] applicants, they are supposed to be the cream of the crop, the elite of school districts, ... and we see what the results look like: For the most part, school districts were out of their depth."
   The Obama administration launched the $1.4 billion i3 program in 2009 … (and) is the only one of the massive federal competitive grants to be codified in the Every Student Succeeds Act, as the revamped Education Innovation and Research program. Both iterations of the grants are intended to support the developing, testing, and scaling-up of effective interventions for school improvement, early-childhood education, dropout prevention, and other education areas.

[i]“For every innovation application that is approved, that school will receive Innovation Status and be designated an Innovation School.”  “Schools may also seek joint designation as an Innovation School Zone which must be made up of two or more schools within a district that share a common interest.  (Bold mine) http://www.cde.state.co.us/choice/2016-innovation-schools-annual-report.
[ii] Innovation School Application to CDE for Risley Middle - http://www.cde.state.co.us/choice/risleyinnovationplan.
[iii] Innovation School Application to CDE for Pitts Middle - http://www.cde.state.co.us/choice/pittsinnovationplan.