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Ladd: Don’t take my report as an endorsement of achievement school zones

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Duke University Professor of Public Policy Helen Ladd

Take this month’s report on the not-so-good numbers of the Turning Around N.C.’s Lowest Achieving Schools program, or TALAS, as a “disappointment,” says one of the report’s co-authors, Duke University Professor of Public Policy Helen Ladd.

Take it as an indictment of how the “low-performing” designation can impact a school’s ability to retain teachers and affluent families. Take it as evidence that the state’s low-income families need more support.

But don’t take the report as support for the launch of achievement school districts in North Carolina, says Ladd.

“There are some people in the state who aren’t happy with my paper,” Ladd says. “But I’m not a fan of achievement school districts.”

Ladd’s report, released this month by a DC-based education research center, arrives as lawmakers are considering a method called achievement school districts which would pull chronically low-performing schools into one district, regardless of geography, piloted by charter operators rather than local school boards.

Members of the legislature’s Select Committee on Achievement School Districts are expected to consider a new draft of that legislation Wednesday.

Supporters say it could break the cycle of chronically struggling schools. But opponents point out the GOP-championed reform has delivered poor results in states like Tennessee, on top of similarly middling numbers in Louisiana and Michigan.

Critics have also suggested that the state simply needs to invest more in its current turnaround methods, a portion of which involves leveraging federal funds for TALAS in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s public schools.

TALAS sends additional support to such schools, including professional development for teachers and administrators.

Ladd’s report, which she co-authored with Northwestern University’s Jennifer Heissel, found however that, at least as far as TALAS goes, the state’s results are not encouraging in elementary and middle schools.

From that paper’s abstract:

Using a regression discontinuity design, we find that turnaround led to a drop in average school-level math and reading passing rates and an increased concentration of low-income students in treated schools. We use teacher survey data to examine how teacher activities changed. Treated schools brought in new principals and increased the time teachers devoted to professional development. The program also increased administrative burdens and distracted teachers, potentially reducing time available for instruction. Teacher turnover increased after the first full year of implementation. Overall, we find little success for North Carolina’s efforts to turn around low performing schools under its federally funded Race to the Top grant.

But on Tuesday, Ladd told Policy Watch that, regardless of the findings for TALAS, education advocates should not interpret the report as support for reforms like achievement school districts.

“I don’t want to pull them out into special achievement zones that cut across geographic zones,” said Ladd. “I just don’t think that makes sense to me.”

Likewise, Ladd said education leaders should not dismiss the state’s other school turnaround efforts, reasserting that the report focused solely on TALAS.

Ladd, an expert on the effects of poverty in schools, said turnaround reforms should focus on community interventions, teacher support and hiring school advocates such as counselors who could help low-income children access various services.

“If kids come to schools hungry or can’t see the blackboard (and can’t afford glasses), somehow they have to overcome those barriers,” she said. “How do you learn? You’re just told you’re dumb.”

Ladd added that she believes the controversial “low-performing” designation of grading schools drives away teachers and students from middle- and upper-class homes, only exacerbating high concentrations of impoverished children in some schools.

Most education experts agree that such high concentrations are a bane for school performance, even as such “segregated” schools continue to pile up in North Carolina’s largest districts.

Ladd also suggested that TALAS was limited by the finite life-cycle of its federal grants, indicating school turnaround efforts should be sustained over time.

“Just make sure they have glasses and they’re not having toothaches,” said Ladd. “A lot are facing tremendous stress at home. And if the schools don’t have systems in place to address those issues to make sure the kids and families get the services they need, I don’t think it makes sense to just put all the pressure on the teachers and principals.”

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