Did Consortium sugarcoat their turnaround findings?

An editorial by Catalyst publisher Linda Lenz in this morning’s Sun-Times throws more fuel on the firestorm over the Consortium on Chicago School Research’s latest report on Chicago Public Schools turnarounds, which has become one of the Consortium’s most controversial.

As the Tribune reported, the study’s co-author, Elaine Allensworth, said the report was released early because of rumors circulating about its findings. A final study will be released in a few weeks. The report was to have been co-issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, but the federal agency did not sign off on it due to concerns that it might suggest the study was intended to answer more complex questions than was judged to be possible with the available data. “People might take the wrong conclusions from the report,” said IES official Rebecca Maynard.

Keep in mind that the IES is now headed by John Easton, former head of the Consortium.

But federal unease with the report didn’t stop CPS from trying to put a positive spin on the data in the lead-up to a February 22 Board of Education vote on 10 more turnarounds.

“As AUSL grows and scales up, we see gains that are very significant,” said Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso to the Tribune.

But Lenz’s editorial implies that the Consortium may have been pressured to throw a more positive light on its findings because the research group depends on CPS for the data it needs to carry out its projects.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time. Back when Paul Vallas was CPS CEO and the Consortium was studying the effects of his ban on social promotion, lead researcher Melissa Roderick actually claimed early on that the “threat of retention” – that is, non-retained students seeing other students held back – was a good motivator.

Of course, later reports found that retention was a dismal failure and harmed students instead of helping them.

In any case, education researchers were not impressed, according to Catalyst:

“0.07 is a pretty small effect,” said Dan McCaffrey, a statistician at the Rand Corporation, a not-for-profit research and analysis organization. “It doesn’t mean that it is not meaningful, but it is small.” McCaffrey also criticized the study’s inclusion of schools that underwent drastically different interventions. The schools that were closed and re-opened as charters and magnets got virtually all-new students, who were higher-performing when they enrolled than the students who were in the school previously, according to information in the study.

“Shifting students and changing labels is not a legitimate way to improve a school,” said McCaffrey.

Various other sources found these additional negative effects of turnarounds in the Consortium report:

From Catalyst:

  • A student shift, though much smaller, could be at play in some turnarounds. At Morton and Howe —the two highest-performing AUSL turnaround schools—students at the schools in the fall of the first year of the turnaround had significantly higher reading performance than students from the prior, according to the Consortium. These two schools also experienced enrollment increases, which seems to suggest that better-performing students were attracted to or recruited to attend.
  • At turnaround schools, the number of black teachers plummeted, while the number of white, less experienced teachers increased.
  • The study provides only a little evidence that the upheaval and financial investment in turnarounds is worth the substantial cost, estimated to be at least $20 million in the coming school year. That does not include millions more in capital spending on building renovations at these schools.

From Rod Estvan, commenting on the Catalyst article:

  • The ten AUSL elementary schools in the study had a 6.5% decline in enrollment of special education students from 2006 to 2010. This decline in the total special education enrollment of these ten AUSL elementary schools is not consistent with the district wide special education enrollment figures during the same time period, which was a very minor increase of 45 students on a district wide basis or .09%.
  • Morton Academy had the largest decline in special education enrollment, 33.3%.
  • The 10 AUSL schools also had an overall enrollment decline of 14.9% between 2006 and 2010. The district wide decline during the same time period was 3.9%.

From the Chicago News Cooperative:

  • While all reform models have been implemented with additional money, turnaround efforts require the largest investment from the district. For example, AUSL elementary schools receive $1.5 million more than their neighborhood counterparts during the first five years of turnaround and an additional $420 per pupil each year. For high schools, AUSL receives $2.4 million more than their neighborhood counterparts over the course of five years and an additional $500 per pupil each year.

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.