The Miami Herald reported recently that former superintendent Rudy Crew’s “$100 million investment in Miami-Dade County’s lowest performing public schools failed to boost student achievement, according to the school district’s final report on the program.”
“The School Improvement Zone” focused on eight low-performing high schools and their feeder schools for a total of 39 schools. The effort extended the school day by one hour and the school year by 10 days and required 150 minutes of reading instruction each day. On paper, the Zone effort appears to have focused on the right things, such as improving reading instruction and giving kids and teachers extra time for learning (a la promising schools such as KIPP).
Yet, three years and $100 million later, the district had little to show for its effort. According to a 166-page internal report from the district’s program evaluation office, annual academic growth rates for 8th graders attending Zone schools was actually lower than students in comparison “control” group schools.
So, what exactly happened?
To be fair, some of the Zone schools, especially elementary schools, did improve student achievement, just not markedly over comparison schools. And it’s important to note that schools in the comparison or “control” group weren’t sitting idly by; many were focused on improving reading instruction through the federal Reading First program. In effect, the most significant (and costly) difference between the Zone schools and others in the district was the additional time added to the school day and calendar.
Why didn’t the extra time help?
For starters, some students played hooky. The evaluation report notes “excessive absences” (even more than might be expected for the end of school) among students in Zone schools during the added days. It also notes that some students—especially those who were high achieving, felt like their required 10 extra days of school was punishment for a crime they did not commit.
One might also ask whether 60 minutes a day is really enough extra time to offer struggling students the support they need when other schools, such as K.I.P.P., provide as much as 60 percent more instructional time over traditional public schools (staying open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, every other Saturday morning, and for three additional weeks in the summer).
The anemic results of the Miami Zone schools may offer a cautionary tale for those, like President Obama and Arne Duncan, who have advocated for longer school days and calendars. While more instruction may sound like a good idea, U.S. schools already appear to offer students more instructional time than many other higher-performing nations. Moreover, lengthening the school calendar by half measures—tacking on an extra hour a day and some poorly attended days in the summer—is probably insufficient to provide struggling students the extra support they need to succeed.
To top it off, such changes—or any large-scale change, for that matter—are likely doomed to failure if they do not address school culture. Consider these data from Miami:
- 34 percent of teachers in Zone schools said “staff morale is high” versus 55 percent in control schools
- 43 percent of parents of children in Zone schools think their “school maintains high academic standards” versus 62 percent in control schools
- 56 percent of students in Zone schools said “this school is safe” versus 70 percent in control schools
In the conclusion of their report, evaluators noted that low morale among staff in Zone schools likely contributed to the effort’s “lack of efficacy.” Attempting to reform struggling schools without changing their culture is like trying to lose weight simply by buying a new track suit and joining a new gym; it may be an important first step, but only as effective as the changes in values, beliefs, and behaviors that must accompany it.