Friday, August 03, 2007

Stability key to ensuring Johnston's improvement

I want to dispute this comment by the editors of the Austin American-Statesman: " the real story of Johnston — as well as the keys to its success — lies in the data behind the test scores. State officials are finally paying more attention to that."

First of all, the story of Johnston was known long before the test score data became apparent. Moreover, if the theory of action were true that knowing about data results in effective responses, then Johnston shouldn't have been allowed to reach this level of crisis to begin with. Moreover, the structured silences in the data speak loudly, namely, all the kids who have been lost or disappeared from the school over the years who do not find their way into the test score count because they've already dropped out--los invisibles.

Finally, and at least a part of this is suggested below, reform really needs to be comprehensive and involve serious and not token investment. This involves investing in young people's social and emotional health and well-being. Teacher quality issues, as mentioned, is key. What is not mentioned is a need to invest infrastructurally in the school and surrounding neighborhood in order to remedy the blighted, urban reality that children experience in that area of Austin everyday. Businesses need to invest there. EVERYTHING, from curriculum, instruction, technology, youth development, leadership, university-school and school-community partnerships need to be re-thought.


Stability key to ensuring Johnston's improvement

EDITORIAL BOARD, Austin American Statesman

Friday, August 03, 2007

It is easy to condemn Austin's Johnston High School, easy to write it off and easier to shut it down. Acting Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott might have won praise from some for a pass-or-perish approach.

Scott should instead be praised for drilling beneath the surface to determine that Johnston deserves time — at least another school year — to turn around failing performance. It is a more difficult road for Johnston and the families who rely on the school, but it is the right road.

This is the fourth straight year that Johnston High, in East Austin, failed to meet state standards on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exams. As a result, the school was again rated "academically unacceptable" on the 2007 state report card released this week.

As we have stated previously, the real story of Johnston — as well as the keys to its success — lies in the data behind the test scores. State officials are finally paying more attention to that.

It's encouraging that Scott pledged to help failing schools rise to meet state standards rather than washing his hands of their problems.

Schools such as Johnston, where nearly nine of 10 students are at risk of failing, should be judged as much on yearly progress as on basic test scores. When that is done, it's clear that Johnston earned the reprieve Scott granted this week.

Since 2003, Johnston students have shown improvement in all core subjects — math, science, social studies and English-language arts. In reading, for instance, overall passing rates increased by 38 percentage points from 2003 to 2006. But even when this year's decline is factored in, reading scores are up 28 percentage points over five years.

Another building block can be found in data that show what happens when students stay in school at Johnston for more than a year: Seventy-nine percent of students who entered as ninth-graders passed the English-language arts TAKS at the end of their 10th-grade year; and 52 percent of freshmen passed math as sophomores. But gains were greatest for students who stayed at Johnston for three years. Students have to be in school to learn and parents must assume a greater role in ensuring that their children go to school and stay in school.

Austin schools Superintendent Pat Forgione and his staff have put together a solid plan, called "First Things First," to address academic deficiencies and chronic absenteeism. We also commend state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, for getting involved with Johnston. He has requested that Forgione, Scott and Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes help in developing a campus improvement plan for Johnston. But no one should ignore perhaps the biggest challenge facing Johnston: recruiting and retaining experienced teachers.

Up to this year, Johnston basically turned over half its teaching staff every year. Those inexperienced teachers were replaced by other inexperienced teachers. This year, the school, under Principal Celina Estrada-Thomas, has held on to 80 percent of its teachers. That's a start. But Johnston never will get the quality and experienced teachers it needs to do the tough job of educating at-risk students until Forgione, the district and the state are willing to pay for experienced teachers. The district is offering $1,000 stipends to teachers who work at Johnston and eight other schools with high needs.

The job is tougher at such schools, where teachers must be instructors, counselors, advisers and after-school tutors, not to mention truancy monitors. The amount is too stingy to lure good teachers from more comfortable positions in higher-performing schools. If we pay them, they will come — but they won't come for that money, and we don't blame them.

Finally, Forgione and Scott are being unrealistic if they think they can turn around Johnston in a year. Instead, they should look for more modest academic gains, improvements in attendance, stability in leadership and teaching staff, and yearly progress from students.


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