Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Cornerstone Contrition & Cornerstone Test Results

Sometimes people read my blog and offer critical input - they'll comment on the post, they'll shoot me an email, they'll find me on twitter (just kidding, no one's found me on twitter).  I try to respond.  But sometimes I don't understand the comments.  As background, here's where I've written about Cornerstone in the past:  here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Over the weekend, someone commented on this post about Cornerstone's hiring of an accounting firm to look at its policies.  The comment is:  "Look at the school's results..."

Since the post was about the lack of transparency in Cornerstone's investigation of the serious allegation made against Cornerstone teachers and administrators, I wondered to myself if Cornerstone was continuing its PR practice of letting information trickling out about the results of the investigation.  Nope, the trickle has dried up.

Well, kind of.  Cornerstone Prep has begun its tour of contrition.  Here's the article titled "Principal Admits Cornerstone Made Mistakes; Wants Focus to Return to Kids".  Weird.  I thought the discussion was about the kids, and specifically, how Cornerstone Prep teachers and administrators treated them.  Let's not follow the red herrings that these complaints are about white teachers teaching black kids, or that this is just about a name change.  This has always been about the unfortunate combination of Cornerstone school policies and inexperienced teachers, and what that looks like in terms of classroom management and schoolwide discipline.

In this very generous "but I'm one of you" article, Cornerstone Principal Lisa Settle acknowledges three errors by Cornerstone and the remedies taken:  (1) the school did not do enough to contact parents and neighbors in spring and summer 2012 after the takeover announcement was made, but before school opened; (2) teachers no longer confiscate students' shoes; and (3) a new liberal bathroom break policy.  And possibly a fourth:  (4) the college and university pennants displayed around the school now include some historically black colleges and universities.

So I'm not sure what the commenter might mean when when he or she says look at the results in the context of a post on the investigation.  Now that Cornerstone has made some changes - which may include some expansion of the Board - we'll have to see what the results of those changes might be.  We can hope that it will mean that the children of Cornerstone experience an education where they feel valued just as much as kids in East Memphis and the suburbs, and that the "no excuses" bootcamp approach falls by the wayside.  But to call these changes in policy "results" would be premature.

Perhaps the commenter was attempting to direct my attention to Cornerstone Prep's press release on Saturday.  The second administration (of three each year) of the MAP test was completed in January, and the results are back.  I've mentioned the MAP test before in the context of teacher boycotts of the test in the Pacific Northwest.

The MAP test has been rolling out subject areas and grade levels for at least the last decade.  It's an expensive test, and the company that sells the test makes money based on the number of children taking the test and the training sessions for school and district staff.  The ASD has elected, without any oversight by any elected officials (except the governor), to buy the "subscriptions" necessary to administer this test - a test that most districts in the state cannot afford even if they want to use it, and a test that is not required by the state.  Some ASD charter schools have also elected to administer additional standardized tests during the course of the school year.  This is all in addition to the annual TCAP tests.  The amount of instructional time lost to the administrations of the various non-TCAP tests, in addition to the costs associated with the various standardized tests, may be a fertile area for some legislative oversight.  [clearing throat]

But back to our intrepid commenter.  I think he or she would want us to know that Cornerstone Prepsters scored very well on the most recent administration of the MAP test.

But first let's take a look at how Cornerstone has let us know about its MAP results.  Here's a screen capture from Cornerstone's press release on its website.  Here's a different screen capture from Cornerstone's homepage.  There are, of course, the smiling, happy children, who look just thrilled to have received the good news about their test results.  I notice that the kids are holding signs.  Signs with the logo of the school and statements about the test results.  The logo is in color.  Just on my quick internet search of cheap sign companies, it looks to me like the cost for two 2 foot by 3 or 4 foot vinyl signs, with color, with a customer-supplied logo run in the $150-$300 range (depending on vendor) plus shipping.  Someone on staff would have had to place the order, so at least some salary-based expenditure should also be counted.  Then there was the lost instructional time taken to gather the two separate groups of children to hold the signs.  Then there was the photographer, maybe a staffer with an iPhone, or maybe an actual photographer who just happened to be on site that day.  Or maybe a staffer was assigned the task to arrange for the photographer to be there.  Then the invoices would eventually come in, and would have to be processed, and a check would have to be cut.  I figure the full cost had to be somewhere north of $500.  For a couple of photographs.  It was a particularly nice touch, given the "difficulties" surrounding Cornerstone's administration of the takeover of Lester Elementary, to congratulate the parents before the Prepsters on one of the signs.  And exceptional touch with putting the "donate" button right next to the picture.  That's some good PR work working in tandem with the donor development department.

But we know the ASD doesn't skimp on self-promotion.  Here's a picture of students at Corning Achievement Elementary School standing in front of a stage with curtains.  On the curtains framing the stage across the top, you might notice the letters CAES.  As part of the ASD's takeover of Corning Elementary School, somehow the ASD found the funds to order new curtains with the letters of the ASD-version of the name of the school.  No quick internet search to find out how much that cost.  Gosh, and the measuring and ordering process by an ASD-paid staffer, then the installation, probably by professionals.  Perhaps our state legislators could find out, in some sort of itemized fashion, how much the ASD spent (you know, of our hard-earned tax dollars) on this decidedly non-instructional aspect of taking over schools.  [again, clearing throat]

So let's assume that Cornerstone's purchase of its signs was not with tax dollars.  Another possible source of funds would be Cornerstone's devoted philanthropic pool with non-taxable 501(c)(3) dollars.  No big deal.  Nothing to see here.  That's the price of self-promotion.

"But the scores!" our sage commenter doth protest!

The scores are good.  The company that sells the MAP test has priced itself out of really being a national test - as of 2010, researchers the U.S. Department of Education said that more than 10% of districts nationwide bought the test.  Compared to the other districts that bought this test, "Cornerstone Prep students outpaced the growth of 69 percent of the students in the national norm in Kindergarten and first grade and 98 percent of all students in grades two and three on the national test."  This is good.  The kids are making progress - needed progress. 

The substantially higher scores from the second and third graders are to be expected versus the scores of the kindergarteners and first graders.  Cornerstone and the ASD know that only Cornerstone's third graders will be tested this year.  It should be no surprise that they are the subject of ramped-up preparation.

However, Cornerstone, and for that matter, the ASD, have not issued the other data that would have come with the MAP test results.  We don't yet know how the students are progressing towards being on grade level.  The results released by Cornerstone only reflect the rate of growth of these students.  But we would hope to see the highest rates of growth by the children who are furthest behind.  If everyone makes one year's worth of growth in an academic year, but some kids start behind, those kids who are behind will never catch up - not even to grade level.  In order for the kids who are behind to catch up, they have to make more progress than the kids who only need to achieve one year's growth to stay on grade level.  So yes, the percentiles look good to me.  It's not really safe to assume that these tests actually measure what they purport to measure, but at minimum, the results released by Cornerstone do indicate some good progress for the kids Cornerstone is teaching.

In order for Cornerstone to meet the minimum requirements of the job that it signed up to do - to move Lester from the bottom 5% to the top 25% statewide in five years - it has to make that kind of progress.  It has to do better (not just grow faster, but do better) than 75% of the other districts statewide in order for the ASD to leapfrog over those districts - some of which are doing just fine - to land in the top quarter.  We'll see what the 3rd graders' TCAP results look like next summer to see if Cornerstone's celebration of meeting some part of the minimum requirements of its contract was appropriate and if the money spent on signs and the publication of photos of children holding those signs was an appropriate expenditure.

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