The Indianapolis Star is running a compelling series about Arlington Woods Elementary School on the east side of Indianapolis, where an initiative called Project Restore has produced impressive gains in student performance, especially in math.
The series began Feb. 13 and continued Feb. 16 and Feb. 20; additional installments are scheduled Wednesday and next Sunday. Columnist Matthew Tully, who wrote the stories, and photographer Danese Kenon apparently had extraordinary access to the school’s teachers and students.
According to the Star, Arlington Woods has used high expectations for students, frequent testing and a relentless focus on learning to turn around what had been a low-performing urban school. More than 85 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; most are African-American.
The emphasis on high expectations and frequent tests (“formative assessments” in educator jargon) is widely accepted, and it’s likely a reporter could find a similar approach at many Indiana schools. But the success at Arlington Woods makes a great counter-story – a “man-bites-dog” tale – to the conventional narrative that Indianapolis Public Schools are mired in a culture of failure.
It’s worth noting that this turn-around was apparently accomplished by educators who were at the school. It didn’t require busting the union, instituting merit pay, firing teachers, relying on market-driven parent choice or bringing in a turn-around expert trained by Marian University.
Two teachers took the lead in designing Project Restore and brought the rest of the school on board. “In a vote with the union staff, teachers agreed 34-2 to embrace the plan, even though it would lead to more work,” Tully reported on the first day of the series.
Describing the celebration that took place when Arlington Woods made Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act for 2010, the Star says that “roughly 73 percent of students passed both the math and English ISTEP tests, an increase of 22 percentage points.” This isn’t true, however. About 48 percent of Arlington Woods students passed both the math and English ISTEP tests in 2010.
The 73-percent figure is the school’s improvement figure under Indiana’s Public Law 221 accountability program, said Lauren Auld, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. It’s a combined pass rate for ISTEP math and English tests, but limited to students who attended the school for at least 126 days in 2009-2010 and who took the tests in both 2009 and 2010.
Another way to look at Arlington Woods’ success is through the Indiana Growth Model, the measure of test-score improvement that the state plans to use for accountability purposes. In math, the 2010 average growth-model score for the school’s students was at the 73rd percentile for the state – pretty darned good. But its score for English/language arts was barely above the state average.
“There are no miracles in education, and this school of about 550 students has a long way to go,” Tully concedes in the opening story. But it’s great to see the state’s largest newspaper, and the paper’s most influential columnist, devoting this much effort to showing a public school doing things right.