by Lisa Haver
January 9, 2017
After attending several focus group meetings at six of the eleven schools designated by the Hite administration as Priority Schools, after reviewing Cambridge Education’s contract with the district, and after closely reviewing the Cambridge final reports on the eleven schools, there is no other conclusion for us to come to: the Cambridge reports cannot be considered reliable on any level, including anecdotally.
In every one of the eleven reports, Cambridge states that teachers do not use data to inform their lessons. This is a surprising criticism from a company that has produced a report so lacking in data that its findings are meaningless. They have come to conclusions based on random comments from various members of the school community without specifying how people were contacted or how many they spoke to, whether in person, in focus groups, or by canvassing.
Although the district’s contract with Cambridge Education states that “classroom observations are the cornerstone” of their School Quality Review, the reports don’t state how many classrooms they visited in each school, which subject was taught in observed classes, how long the visits lasted, or what criteria was used to come to their conclusions.
The resolution passed by the SRC which approved its contract with Cambridge states: “The vendor’s purpose in the School Quality Report is to provide additional on the ground data to inform which strategic investments would be most likely to drive sustained school improvement.” However, the reports do not include any additional data, only that which is available through the district itself. Cambridge has been paid $200,000 by the district for conducting the SQR.
The purpose of Cambridge’s report, as presented in the initial focus group meetings and the district’s October press release, was to determine which of five options would improve eleven neighborhood schools: Blankenburg, McDaniel, Heston, Hartranft and Marshall elementary schools; Harding Middle School; Bartram, Benjamin Franklin, Overbrook, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, and Fels high schools. The five options, according to the district’s October press release, include:
- Entering the school into the District’s Turnaround Network
- Merging the school with an existing high-quality program
- Engaging a contract partner
- Initiating an evidence-based plan for academic improvement
- Restarting the school
However, there was no discussion of those options at any of the focus group meetings after the first one, unless a member of the audience (who would have to have been present at the first meeting) asked about them. During one meeting at Ben Franklin, in fact, neither Cambridge nor district representatives would answer questions about the five options when asked by APPS members in attendance.
There is a significant lack of verifiable information in the reports. None is given for at any of the schools about:
- Student/teacher ratio
- Student/adult ratio
- Student/counselor ratio
- Whether the school still has teacher vacancies or how many
- Whether the school has been sent sufficient substitutes
- Except for one school, whether there are classes over the contractual limit
- Whether there is a full-time librarian in a functioning library
- Whether there is an accommodation room for students having behavior issues during class
No numbers given are given for:
- How many stakeholders attended each of the focus meetings
- How many students were interviewed or attended focus groups
- How many teachers were interviewed or attended focus groups
- Whether any stakeholders were contacted through phone or neighborhood canvassing as promised in the contract
With the exception of one meeting at Harding, two at Hartranft, and most of those at KHSA, focus meetings that APPS members attended were sparsely attended. Many were held on weekday mornings.
At one meeting at Ben Franklin and one at Harding, the only members of the public present were APPS members. Cambridge has not come close to satisfying the terms of the contract for contacting members of the community or bringing them out to the focus group meetings.
Although the Cambridge contract states that classroom visits are “the cornerstone activity in determining the factors that support and limit student learning” [bold in document], vital information on those visits is missing. The contract allows for 10 classroom visits over two days, but the reports do not confirm that. Cambridge representatives stated definitively at several focus group meetings that classroom visits would only last for 15 minutes. It is not possible for Cambridge representatives to come to the conclusions they did about the teaching and learning in these schools after having visited a very limited number of classrooms for 15 minutes each over a 2-day period. The reports :
- Do not specify how many classrooms Cambridge visited in each school
- Do not indicate grade level of the class
- Do not state what subject was being taught in any of the classrooms
- Do not specify whether the observers came in at beginning or end or middle of the lesson
- Do not specify whether class was a single- or double-period
- Do not specify whether visits were to 10 different teachers in 10 different classes or were repeat visits to same teacher’s class, or whether they observed same group of students in different classes
- Do not specify whether class was a regular class, a Special Education class, an English Language Learner class, or an inclusion class
- Do not specify whether observed classrooms were selected by Cambridge, the principal or other district staff
Other indications that the methodology used by Cambridge did not result in a valid study:
- No templates of any survey or focus group questionnaire are provided
- No form or questionnaire was distributed to attendees of public focus groups APPS attended; no such form is included in the contract
- Although the Cambridge contract states “stakeholder surveys are incredibly important”, no surveys were distributed at any of the focus groups APPS attended, and only at two schools were any community surveys returned (both fewer than 10 respondents)
- Although the contract specifies that focus groups will consist of “whole group and small group sessions in each focus group”, none of the meetings APPS attended were conducted in this manner, probably because of low turnout
- There is no indication of who selected students or teachers or parents for those focus groups, or how many groups there were
- None of the reports specify which tasks were performed by E4E, if any.
One has to question the uniformity of conclusions across schools, whether elementary, middle or high school. Reports on all schools state that teachers do not use data effectively to plan lessons or inform instruction. That teachers do not differentiate lessons. That lessons are not rigorous. That teachers have low expectations. In addition, conclusions are given without any specific information. For example, the Bartram report states that “teachers’ planning and instructional routines are not yet of a quality that demonstrates adequate use of assessment data, deep understanding and alignment to the PA Core Standards, and knowledge of the learning needs of individual and groups of students. As a result, not all students are able to make the progress that they are capable of making.” It is not possible to state this with any authority after a two-day visit and a handful of 15-minute classroom visits. Also, there is no indication that Cambridge had access to or reviewed teachers’ lesson plans. The Blankenburg report says that “…grade-level meetings do not function as professional learning communities…”, but nowhere in the report do they confirm they sat in on any of these meetings. That report also states that “low expectations are manifested in the lack of opportunities for students to work in depth on projects….that require students to apply a wide range of skills, understand multiple concepts and solve challenging problems.” Obviously, any observer would have to follow the progress of a class over weeks or months to state this as a fact.
The allegation that teachers don’t effectively use data reflects an ignorance of which data is available in the district, how it can benefit students, or who is responsible for improving test scores. Are some schools using benchmark data? How can teachers differentiate lessons based on each student’s PSSA scores? As APPS members pointed out at one Bartram meeting, Keystone exams taken by high school students were found by the state to be too flawed to be used as a graduate requirement. The district has not provided the Project Based Assessment as required for students who do not pass the first or second of three attempts. Nor has the district provided the required remediation classes during the school day.
The Hartranft report, under “Positive Practices that Support Learning, states that
“…the school leaders and teachers utilize data to plan lessons and track student progress against a range of key indicators, keep color-coded class lists for literacy and math and track student progress monthly…” But under “Factors that Limit Learning”, the report says, in direct contradiction, that “…data is not effectively used to improve instruction.”
Some of the reports do acknowledge the problems over which the principal and staff have no control, although they are not cited as specific factors that limit learning. “As a result of public school closures over the past five years,” the Blankenburg report states, “the school population now includes students and families from outside their catchment area…[T]he enrollment changes frequently due to the constant movement of students in and out of the area. The school serves students from six homeless shelters in the area.” However, the report fails to mention that the school had no counselor for the previous two years. There is little recognition in most reports that the 100% poverty rates in all schools, except for Fels with a 78% rate, is a consistent factor which limits students’ ability to learn.
Some reports allude to lack of support and resources from district leadership, but, again, only as background. Bartram’s principal, for example, is the school’s sixth principal in four years. McDaniel has to share staff—one nurse, one counselor, one security guard— between two buildings that are four blocks apart.
Although not mentioned in the report, Harding was hit hard by the substitute debacle last year. The school received no subs until December, so most teachers had over 50 class coverages. Over 30 teachers resigned, took early retirement or transferred from the school in the past two years. Harding was a receiving school for 7th and 8th graders from Carnell Middle School after that school was closed by the SRC. How would an internal turnaround or placement in the Turnaround Network, which would almost certainly result in most faculty forced out, benefit Harding’s students or its community?
Focus meetings at Kensington Health Sciences Academy had the largest turnout of any of those APPS attended. Parents, teachers, students and community members have expressed anger and frustration that KHSA was targeted, especially since it has already been designated a Community School by the district and the Mayor’s Office of Education. The Cambridge report recognized the “passionate” and “respectful “ teachers, leaders and staff; the strong CTE program; and the numerous networks of support around the health academies, including partnerships with businesses, universities and community organizations. While acknowledging that many students come to the school below grade level, Cambridge’s solution is not to build on the strengths of strong teacher engagement but to focus on “…correcting student data with instructional decisions and helping students take ownership in their data”. Not mentioned in the report is the fact that the district has yet to fill two teacher vacancies.
The overriding question is: what does any of the information in the reports have to do with the decision to overhaul the school through one of the five options? The parents and community members at the focus groups were asked what they thought the strengths and weaknesses of the schools are. The district and Cambridge representatives told us that they were going to take their findings back to the district, but that they were not making a recommendation, as they usually do in these types of SQRs. It will be up to Dr. Hite to make a recommendation. Again, it was not made clear, or even stated at some meetings, that the recommendation would be one of the five options. Forcing teachers out through an internal turnaround will only create more trauma for students Blankenburg students. Making McDaniel a “contract school” won’t solve the logistical problems which parents want addressed. Placing Harding in the Turnaround Network, possibly forcing teachers out, would only exacerbate the situation which led to faculty resignations and early retirements so that over half the faculty has been there fewer than two years.
The Hite administration’s diversion of inventing a new category every year in which to place certain schools, based on outdated and unreliable test scores, is getting old. Parents, teachers and community members know what Philadelphia’s schools need: restoration of support staff, including nurses and counselors, to pre-doomsday budget levels (the district says it actually has a surplus); smaller class size; functioning libraries with certified school librarians; appointed teachers in every classroom; adequate books and supplies. In short, true stability and equity for all schools. Dr. Hite needs to make a true commitment to stability and equity for all schools in all neighborhoods.
Dr. Hite said at the beginning of this process that he would make his recommendations for the Priority Schools, based on the Cambridge reports, in February. SRC votes are not required for most internal turnarounds, but an SRC vote would be required for hiring a company to restructure any school as a “contract school”.
Below is the link for the Cambridge Education reports on all 11 schools. See “School Quality Review” on the far right for the final reports.