spring breakthrough

Spring break at school? New research says it helps middle schoolers catch up

PHOTO: Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Students transition to gym class from Zoe Pierce's sixth grade science class at the Impact School in Springfield, Massachusetts in January 2017. Working with state officials, Springfield education leaders have crafted a first-of-its-kind plan for a Massachusetts school system, spinning off the middle schools into what effectively is their own miniature school system.

It has spread across Massachusetts as a school turnaround strategy: bring students into school over spring break for hours and hours of extra instruction.

That could be a recipe for unhappy kids. But recent research in Lawrence and now Springfield, two Massachusetts towns under pressure to improve their schools, suggests that students don’t mind spending those weeks in school — and they really benefit from it.

In Springfield, students who participated were much more likely to score proficient on state exams later that year. They were less likely to be suspended afterwards, too.

“This is a minimally disruptive strategy for helping struggling students catch up,” said Beth Schueler of the University of Virginia, who studied the program. “You don’t have to fire or find a large pool of new teachers.”

It’s the latest research pointing to the benefits of intensive small group tutoring. But the Springfield program wasn’t open to all: Students were invited based on whether they were seen as likely to benefit and to behave, raising questions about whether the model helps the kids who need it most.

What are these vacation academies?

Schueler’s study focuses on nine low-achieving middle schools in Springfield, all part of a partnership between the state, local teachers union, and district formed to head off a state takeover. The spring break program (known as “empowerment academies”) started in 2016, during the partnership’s first year, in a bid to boost test scores.

Springfield’s April vacation academy focused on math — particularly on the academic standards that frequently come up on state exams, the researchers noted. Classes were small, with about one teacher for every 10 students. It amounted to an additional 25 hours of math instruction, or approximately an extra month worth of exponents and equations.

The idea was extra math help, yes, but also designed to be appealing for students. Schools feature award assemblies and special theme days, like crazy hair days or superhero and villain dress-up days.

“It’s not just boot camp,” said Chris Gabrieli, the head of a nonprofit that helped implement the city’s turnaround approach. “If this was miserable for kids, it would never work the second year.”

The model was pioneered by Jeff Riley, now the Massachusetts commissioner of education, as principal of a Boston middle school. He took the idea to Lawrence as the head of that district’s state takeover.

Who got to attend?

Students were chosen for the program based on who was seen as likely to benefit and behave. That meant leaders avoided students with attendance or behavior issues, an approach used at the school where Riley piloted the model, too.

In Springfield, once the school decided which students were eligible, leaders allowed Schueler to randomly assign some the opportunity to attend or not in order to study the program. (Some students who didn’t win a spot attended anyway, and some students who won a spot didn’t attend, something the study accounted for.)

Ultimately, the students who went to vacation academy were different than the student population as a whole — only 10 percent had a disability, compared to 22 percent of all sixth- and seventh-graders in the district. Attendees were also somewhat more likely to be girls, but were equally likely to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Teachers applied to work over the break, and got bonuses — $2,500 in Springfield — for doing so.

How does the program affect students?

In terms of test scores, students on the cusp of clearing the state’s proficiency bar saw the biggest gains.

Students at school over spring break were much more likely to score proficient on the state math test: about 35 percent did compared to 25 percent of similar students who didn’t attend, according to Schueler’s study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy.

Their average test scores were higher than those of students who didn’t attend the academy, though that boost wasn’t statistically significant.

Students were also less likely to be suspended after the vacation academy. While about 10 percent of control students were suspended once or more, less than 7 percent of students who went to the academy were.

The academy also may have helped students’ grades, with averages in both math in reading improving slightly, though that was not statistically significant.

How a student benefited may be connected to which version of the program he or she attended. In some academy programs, students had one teacher all day; in others they rotated among teachers who worked on different standards. Students in the first group saw bigger declines in suspensions; students in the second group saw larger test-score gains.

“It could be that the additional time … provided by the stability of a single teacher allowed for the development of more deep and positive teacher-student relationships,” Schueler wrote. “It is also possible that the program changed educator perceptions of participating students in a way that decreased their likelihood to turn to exclusionary discipline for those children.”

Should other districts adopt this model?

This kind of intensive academic help has been shown to work over and over again. A previous study found test score improvements from the same vacation academy model in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and programs that provide individualized tutoring throughout the year have produced even bigger gains in Boston, Chicago and Houston.

But these programs have faced difficulty growing because they come with a hefty price tag — sometimes upwards of a few thousand dollars per student. The Springfield program costs about $600 per student, which is lower because its student-teacher ratio is higher.

Tutoring, Schueler said, “has a high upfront cost that I think deters many districts from pursuing this as a key strategy. These vacation academies are potentially a more scalable approach.”

It still might be a worthwhile investment for districts. But they will have to contend with the fact that the model doesn’t include certain students — particularly those with behavior and attendance problems, who could be in the most academic trouble.

“This is not an intervention aimed at helping every single kid of every type,” said Gabrieli.

Of students who didn’t participate in the program, Schueler said, “We don’t know, if they actually ended up coming, if we would see the same effects.”

Are Children Learning

Second study shows Indianapolis charter students fare better on tests

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The second study in a week shows strong test scores for students at Indianapolis charter schools, bolstering the claims of advocates in a city where school choice continues to expand.

Indianapolis elementary students who attend mayor-sponsored charter schools beginning in kindergarten — and remain in the same schools — make bigger improvements on state tests than their peers in traditional schools across the city, according to the latest study.

The study contributes to emerging research that suggest that charter schools that are well managed and have good instruction can be successful, said co-author Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the IUPUI School of Education.

The results of the study indicate Indianapolis charter school students are doing better than they would’ve done if they hadn’t enrolled in charter schools, Murphy said.

“This does not appear to have happened by chance,” he said. “I believe that the school experiences and the instructional teachers of those schools they are enrolled in are actually a big part of the results that we are seeing,”

The educational landscape in Indianapolis is defined by school choice. About 18,000 students who live in Marion County attend charter schools, and thousands more transfer to nearby districts or attend private schools with vouchers, according to state data. In recent years, the state’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has also become a national model for partnerships with charter schools. That makes understanding school performance essential for parents — but unpacking whether schools actually help boost student achievement can be particularly thorny for researchers.

With this study, Murphy said he and co-author Sandi Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University Bloomington, hope to disentangle one factor that makes studying charter schools difficult: the dips in test scores that students often experience after transferring to new schools. Murphy’s research focuses on students who began in charter schools in kindergarten and compares them to similar students in traditional public schools in Indianapolis.

“It’s time to move beyond the debate about whether or not charter schools are effective and start talking about, when they are effective, why, and for whom?” Murphy said, adding that successful approaches can be used in other settings.

The study focuses solely on students who attend charter schools authorized by the mayor’s office. For the control group, the study included township districts as well as Indianapolis Public Schools. The researchers plan to present their results to the education committee of the Indianapolis City-County Council and the 2019 Conference on Academic Research in Education.

The findings add to a growing body of research on Indianapolis charter schools. Last week, the Stanford-based group CREDO released a report that found that students at charter schools had test score gains that mirrored the state average, while Indianapolis Public Schools students made smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state. Another recent study found that when students moved to charter schools their test scores held steady.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas.