In reforming schools, quality of teaching often overlooked

Science teacher Jennifer Burman instructs her class at Edwin Markham Middle School, where test scores have markedly improved.
Science teacher Jennifer Burman instructs her class at Edwin Markham Middle School, where test scores have markedly improved.
(Christina House / For The Times)

Sitting in the library during a break, two veteran teachers at Edwin Markham Middle School rattled off the names of principals who had been sent to fix the chronically low-performing school in Watts.

There was Kimbell, Miller, Norris and Borges. Then came Mir-Rivera, Miyahara, Stroud, Sullivan. This year, Hernandez arrived — the ninth in 20 years.

Each came with a long list of remedies, they said, and most left after a few years with little to show for it.

For those two decades, Markham has been considered one of the worst middle schools in California, despite the best efforts of those principals and an army of well-intentioned reformers, including big-hearted volunteers, private foundations, corporate sponsors, the city attorney’s office and — most recently — the mayor of Los Angeles.

In the last seven years alone, they tried changing the curriculum, reducing class size, improving school safety, requiring school uniforms, opening after-school programs and spending a lot more money per pupil.

The one thing they didn’t do was improve the teaching — at least, not until last year, when layoffs swept out many of the school’s worst performers and test scores jumped, a Times analysis found.

Since 2003, Markham has had dozens of the district’s least effective instructors, as measured by the analysis of their students’ progress on standardized tests. Seventy percent of the school’s English and math teachers have ranked well below the Los Angeles Unified School District’s average in effectiveness. Fewer than 10 Markham teachers have been in the district’s top 20%, and most left the school within three years.

There are thousands of Markhams across the country, schools whose low test scores have triggered wave after wave of reform efforts over decades, mostly in vain.

“It’s not a lack of new initiatives, it’s too many initiatives, and no sense of what’s working,” said Robert Manwaring, a senior policy analyst at the Washington, D.C., think tank Education Sector who has studied turnaround efforts at Markham and other schools. “They don’t use data to inform those decisions — they use a gut feeling or get marching orders from higher up.”

The Obama administration is now making its own bid to fix failing schools, steering $3.5 billion to those that adopt one of four radical turnaround approaches. The options include shutting down, bringing in new management, dismissing most staff and administrators, or adopting specific reforms aimed at boosting teacher quality.

So far, more than 730 schools in 44 states have signed on, with most choosing to overhaul the staff or retool instruction. The bet is that similar efforts in the past did not go far enough and often ignored those key elements of success.

Markham, with $5.5 million in federal money over the next three years and the guidance of the mayor’s management team, is among nine schools in Los Angeles to take part.

For some teachers, like science teacher Tizoc Carrasco, it’s hard to get excited. The school, he said, has had a “restart every other year.”

His advice to President Obama: “Look into how you can create consistency at the schools. That’s the one thing I’ve never heard anybody talk about.”

Markham, a maze of brick bungalows in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of south Los Angeles, was not always considered a failing school.

Tucked away in a dusty storage area above a sixth-grade science classroom are several boxes of trophies from the 1980s that honored the school for its academic prowess.

By 1991, however, the school’s test scores had fallen far enough to inspire a turnaround effort. With the benefit of a state grant, staff members spent a year developing a plan for the school. But the second year of funding to make the changes never came through, recalled John Miller, who was principal from 1991 to 1997.

On his own, Miller tried a range of popular strategies: He broke the school into more manageable groups of teachers and students. He created time for teachers to plan lessons together. He opened a parents’ center and partnered with corporations and foundations that sent money and dozens of mentors to take the students on field trips and college visits.

“Let’s try whatever, and if two of the 10 programs worked, fine,” Miller recalled thinking.

None of it had much effect on the school’s test scores.

In 1997, the year Miller retired, L.A. Unified’s superintendent ranked Markham 28th on a list of the district’s worst 100 schools. The designation fueled new efforts to fix it.

The state steered thousands of dollars to develop an 11-point “research-based” plan for change, including teacher training and community involvement. The effort was scrapped several years later after it was deemed to have made little difference.

A second program in 1999 directed more money to the school, and doubled the number of reforms —including data analysis — but also was ultimately judged to be ineffective.

And so it went year after year: New state and federal programs with can-do names often brought more money and more ideas to the campus, but little actual improvement. Not that the ideas were all bad.

“Everyone comes here with good ideas and good concepts, but no one has stayed long enough to see any results,” said Sheila Woodley, a Markham teacher since 1986.

Why is it so hard to create lasting improvement at failing schools?

Most turnaround efforts target schools that rank in the bottom 5% to 10% on state achievement tests year after year.

Research has shown that these test results are largely a reflection of socio-economic status: Poor and minority students often start school well behind their wealthier white peers, and the disparities persist — or grow larger — in troubled schools.

“When Watts has the same things as Brentwood does, then you might have equal scores,” said veteran Markham English and social studies teacher Teresa Sidney.

Short of that, those students need to learn at least 1 1/2 years’ worth of material for every year of schooling to erase the achievement gap, experts say.

That rarely happens. A recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute study of 2,000 chronically low-performing schools in 10 states found that about 1% had reached their state’s average performance five years later. A Brookings Institution study found that two-thirds of California schools that were low-performing in 1989 were still low-performing two decades later.

There is no magic formula to change low-scoring schools into top performers, and change, when it does happen, is often incremental.

But many experts agree that past efforts have ignored the most important factor in a school’s performance: the quality of its teachers. Highly effective teachers routinely impart 1 1/2 or more years worth of material during the school year.

One way to find them is “value-added” analysis, a statistical method that estimates teacher effectiveness by looking at improvements each of their students makes on standardized tests. Because it measures students against their own track record, it largely controls for socio-economic differences.

For this story, The Times used value-added analysis to estimate how effective math and English teachers at Markham were in raising student scores compared to their peers across the district.

Value-added also can be a powerful diagnostic tool to figure out which changes are working in a school. It is part of several turnaround strategies put forth by the Obama administration, which were modeled after a handful of successful efforts across the country.

“Great teachers and great principals are at the heart of this work,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview. “You need to ID those folks and bring them in.”

One of the biggest challenges is getting the most effective teachers to take jobs in schools that are failing, as well as getting more out of the teachers already there.

Duncan and others cite the successes at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, where officials have used incentives — sometimes called “combat pay” — to lure effective educators to seven struggling campuses.

Principals whose campuses had among the highest test score gains were given a 10% bump in their salaries to transfer to the low-performing schools. They also were allowed to remove up to five of the struggling schools’ teachers and recruit replacements from a pool of instructors who also had proved effective. The teachers who transferred also received bonuses — worth about $20,000 over three years.

Over the last couple of years, students at most of the seven low-performing schools made strong progress, judging by their test scores.

“We didn’t look at it as some miracle program,” Supt. Peter Gorman said. “It’s about having your most effective teachers with your most challenged students.”

Among other changes, Nancy Hicks, the principal at Ranson Middle School in Charlotte, decided to recruit five math teachers because “that program was really struggling.” In the two years since, the school has significantly increased the number of students deemed proficient or above in math, from 39% in 2008 to 56% last year.

Also receiving attention for its striking gains is Maryville Middle School, south of Knoxville, Tenn.

On his own initiative, Principal Joel Giffin began using value-added data in the early 1990s to match teachers with the type of students with whom they had proved most effective in the past. For instance, teachers with a successful track record in raising the scores of remedial readers were assigned a classroom full of them, rather than to students with a wide assortment of abilities.

“Instead of randomly assigning kids, we’ll place them where they have a better opportunity to be successful,” said Giffin, who is now retired. Teachers liked it too, he said, because they were teaching to their strengths.

For a decade straight, Maryvillehad the greatest gains of any middle school in the state, with improvement far exceeding the national norm.

In Los Angeles, much-heralded turnaround efforts are under way at numerous campuses.

Fremont High School in South Los Angeles made its teachers reapply for their jobs and fewer than half were rehired. Management of 30 other schools was put up for bid last year, and the majority of successful bids were submitted by teacher groups. And in 2007, a nonprofit controlled by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took over management of several of L.A. Unified’s lowest-performing schools, betting new leadership could change their course.

None of these efforts, however, has been guided by value-added analysis. The district has long had the necessary data but only this year announced plans to analyze it.

Nevertheless, some educators at struggling schools have, without much fanfare or credit, reviewed test score data they do have to guide decisions leading to significant improvements, if not full-scale turnarounds.

When Veronica Aragon was appointed principal at Wilmington Middle School in 2006, she pushed the staff to look more closely at scores. She began a voluntary program of posting students’ results during grade-level meetings.

“It was a little uncomfortable at first, but that level of transparency really helped,” said Scott Paek, a math coach at the school. “We were able to see where we needed to improve and see how we could help each other.”

Since 2006, the percentage of students proficient in math went from 21% to 32%, while in English it climbed from 19% to 31%.

Because the district hasn’t used value-added, it seems to have taken little notice of some of its own success stories.

Park Avenue Elementary, a long-struggling school in Cudahy, had among the highest growth in math of any of the 470 elementary schools analyzed by The Times.

The key, according to school officials, was teaching the teachers.

The school hired veteran math coach Judy Sugimoto, who found a group of instructors eager to improve.

“They were teaching the old-fashioned way,” Sugimoto said. “There wasn’t much emphasis on helping students understand the logic.”

Sugimoto began encouraging instructors to use different methods or make better use of existing tools. Teachers had all been given blocks and other props to help students visualize more complex equations, but “they were in the closet, gathering dust,” fourth-grade teacher Maria Corona said.

Now, Corona regularly uses the blocks. During a recent lesson, Corona’s 24 students spread a series of squares and rods before them, dividing them into equal piles as they tried to divide 643 by five.

“What’s the problem here?” she asked one boy whose piles had an uneven number of blocks.

The boy rearranged his piles, and Corona gave him a quick smile. “Good,” she said.

The approach might not have worked at another campus, or with another coach. Sugimoto gave credit to the Park Avenue teachers.

“They were open to making a change,” she said. “Not everyone wants to do that.”

At Markham, a majority of teachers and parents was willing to gamble on one more change. They voted in 2007 to bring the school under the management of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

Even so, many teachers left because “they were tired of the changes,” said Woodley, the teacher who has been there since 1986.

She was tired too. But she decided to stay after getting a promise from the new principal, Tim Sullivan, that he would stay at the school for at least five years, she said.

Sullivan’s first year was focused on restoring order, and test scores actually fell. That summer the school suffered what appeared to be another grievous blow: More than half of the teachers were laid off, based on their low seniority, and many were replaced by more experienced instructors from around the district.

Undaunted, Sullivan and his largely new team of teachers tried many of the reforms that had been attempted before at Markham: reopening the parents’ center, breaking the school into smaller learning groups and continuing intensive teacher training.

This time, the results were different: Markham had the fastest rate of student progress among district middle schools last year, The Times’ analysis found.

Apparently, the layoffs had an upside. Many of the replacement teachers Sullivan picked from the district’s hiring pool proved more effective than their predecessors.

Twenty-one teachers who were laid off in 2009 ranked, on average, in the bottom fifth among district teachers in raising students’ English scores and in the bottom third in boosting math scores. They were replaced by teachers whose effectiveness was close to average in both subjects.

In addition, many of the low-performing teachers who survived the layoffs got significantly better, jumping to near average effectiveness compared to their peers districtwide.

Markham had not been “turned around.” Its students still were significantly behind their peers statewide. But if they could repeat last year’s gains for several years running, they had a chance of catching up.

Last summer, however, layoffs came again. Sullivan had had enough, and left to join a charter organization.

His replacement, Paul Hernandez, took over in September. As the partnership’s reforms proceed, including plans to try value-added analysis, he has run into skepticism in the hallways.

His first week on the job, he said, “two or three teachers asked me, how long are you guys going to be here?”

Times staff writer Doug Smith also contributed to this report.