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What 'The Harlem Miracle' Really Teaches


Dear Deborah,

The columnists at The New York Times are deeply engaged in school reform these days. First Nicholas Kristof discovered that the key to high achievement is measuring student test score gains, then paying more to the teachers whose students gained the most. Then Thomas Friedman discovered that Teach for America was the key to national educational greatness, despite its small numbers.

Now David Brooks has discovered "The Harlem Miracle," which is a charter school called Harlem Promise Academy, run by the Harlem Children's Zone. Brooks says that this school has closed the achievement gap. If anyone missed the point, he writes bluntly, "Let me repeat that. It eliminated the black-white achievement gap." Brooks asks which city will now take up the challenge to do what this school has done.

This is quite an interesting column, and I highly recommend it. There are lessons for American education, but not necessarily the ones that Brooks points to.

Geoffrey Canada created the Harlem Children's Zone with the intention of saturating a very poor neighborhood with social services, including a charter school, which now has 600 children, from kindergarten to 8th grade. Paul Tough of The New York Times Magazine wrote a fascinating book, "Whatever It Takes," about the travails of the Zone, and especially its charter school. Canada's board, which includes some very wealthy financiers, wanted results, and they wanted them fast. They looked enviously at KIPP and wanted to match its scores. No matter how hard Canada tried, the first class that he admitted just couldn't do it. So after the scores were posted, he called in all the students in that grade, told them he was closing down the grade, and told them they had to find another school.

Apparently things got better, because the school now is getting the good test scores it wanted, which is why David Brooks (quoting a study by Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie) has hailed it as the "Harlem Miracle." Brooks says the school succeeds because it is a "no excuses" school that teaches middle-class values and stresses good behavior and discipline. The school teaches students "to look at the person who is talking, how to shake hands." Also, he attributes its success to the fact that the students go to school for 50 percent more time in the course of a year than the neighborhood public schools.

But let's take a closer look. Canada was interviewed by the CBS program "60 Minutes" about the school, which said that it has small classes and superb facilities, including state-of-the-art science laboratories, a beautiful cafeteria, and a first-class gymnasium. The HCZ raises some $36 million a year, so the school has the best of everything and plenty of money to hire extra teachers and to pay teachers to work longer days and weeks and summers.

And according to the Web site for the New York City schools, the students at the Harlem Promise Academy are somewhat different from those in the neighboring public schools. For one thing, only seven of the 600 students are Limited English Proficient, about 1 percent; that is way less than the district or city average. And, of course, the school can remove those who don't go with its program or who are disruptive, a special privilege granted to charter schools, which write their own rules.

The Harlem Promise Academy has used its deep pockets to reduce class size dramatically. Classes in K-6 are no more than 18 students, much smaller than in the neighboring public schools. Classes in the middle school range between 12 and 20, again much smaller than in the regular public schools.

And the results of the Academy are not quite as dramatic as Brooks has been led to believe. Aaron Pallas of Teachers College found that the gap persists on the school's scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Yet there can be no doubt that the school gets better scores than the neighboring public schools.

Brooks uses the Harlem Promise Academy as a way of illustrating the divide between the Klein-Sharpton Education Equality Project and the group called the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. EEP says that schools alone can close the achievement gap between children of different races, and between children of affluence and children of poverty; the answer, they say, is constant testing, merit pay, and charter schools. BBA says that schools alone are insufficient to overcome the burdens imposed by poverty and that poor kids need preschool, health services, and other supports. Brooks claims that the success of the Harlem Promise Academy suggests that the EEP "reformers" are right. This is odd because the whole premise of the Harlem Children's Zone is to surround children and families with exactly the resources that BBA advocates.

There are lessons to be learned from the success of the Harlem Promise Academy, but they are not the ones that Brooks cites. What are those lessons?

First, spend lots more money. Spend enough so that children in the regular public schools can be in classes no larger than those in the Harlem Promise Academy. Spend enough so that every public school has facilities that are state of the art, and every school has excellent laboratories and a first-class gymnasium.

Second, it is worth exploring why so many public schools in the big cities have been unable to establish a clear, fair, and functional discipline and behavior policy. Is it because of long-forgotten court orders? Have public schools become so wrapped up in procedural rights and processes that they can't provide an orderly environment for learning? Deborah, you recall as I do the claims made in the 1960s and 1970s that it was "white imperialism" to impose middle-class values on poor and minority children. Now there is a growing movement to do exactly that. My own view is that schools are by definition middle-class. If they are good schools, they teach the knowledge, skills, and behavior that one needs to function well in work, in higher education, and in life. So, there is a common-sense element to the "no excuses" mantra.

But I don't think that our schools need to be boot camps to teach courtesy, civility, respect for others, self-discipline, and other virtues necessary for democratic life. If all schools did that and had the same resources as Harlem Promise Academy, there would be many miracles.



So what is the spending per student at the Harlem Promise Academy?

It seems to me we can divide the advantages of this school into three categories. There is money, time, and discretionary authority. Do the students really have 50% more school time per year that the rest of the country? That's a lot. It ought to buy a lot of progress. By "discretionary authority" I simply mean the freedom to do what is right and needed in spite of opposition. The authority to enforce discipline and to expel disruptive students would be very important here.

" . . excellent laboratories and a first-class gymnasium . . ." seem utterly irrelevant to me, and those things fall under the category of "money". A good teacher can focus minds on subject matter in settings that fall short of "state of the art". Poor teachers don't even try to focus minds on subject matter.

Money is important. If it is the key to educational improvement we need to know it. But it seems extremely unlikely to me.

Brian: Seems to me if there's one thing we should be able to conclude with relative certainty from that last . . . oh, 50 years or so of ed reform, it's that there is no "'the' key to educational improvement". Teaching and learning are complex, and schools are very complex and exist in highly varied complex social and political settings. Money, by itself, is of course not "the" key. But it should also be pretty clear that neither will we achieve significant, widespread improvement without it.

But (another 'but'), as you indirectly point out, what we spend the money on is what's going to really matter.

Whenever I hear people say that money doesn't matter, I am reminded of a line from Sophie Tucker, a once-famous singer, who said, "I've been rich and I've been poor, and take it from me, honey, rich is better."

If you have a choice to send your child to a school with great facilities and small classes (no larger than 18) and state-of-the-art science laboratories, or one that is bare-bones and operates in a century-old building where the plumbing is unpredictable and the average class size is 32, which would you chooose?

Which do you think is likely to get better results, on a variety of measures?

We know from the Kansas City experience, where the courts required the state to add $2 billion to the schools' budget for everything that money is not the be-all and end-all answer.

But it doesn't hurt to have more of the things that only money can buy.


A key thing that I worry about in a comparison like this one is selection bias.

Were they just so careful in selecting the prospective students that it accounts for a large proportion of whatever increase in achievement was observed? I am sure that the other things (money, time, etc.) helped too, but what we really want to know is how much of the observed effect is attributable to which part of the intervention.

The fact that only 1% of the students are LEP seems to suggest that the student body was not very similar to that in other nearby schools.

This is, by the way, a generic concern of mine. I have not spent any time looking into this school. But the single datum that Diane included does concern me.

Government Bureaucrat,

You are right to be concerned about selection bias.
I was annoyed this morning to read the letters to the editor in the New York Times in response to Brooks' column, with everyone agreeing that the school is indeed a miracle.
The readers of this blog are far too intelligent to swallow a story like this without asking tough questions. Too bad David Brooks didn't.

It's not remotely a miracle. The miracle is that schools like mine, at 250% capacity, with kids studying in closets and trailers and bowling alley-shaped rooms that open to fragrant dumpsters may as well not exist to the media, which is too busy fawning all over Mayor Mike and his "reforms."

Most city kids do not get that treatment. Where's the "accountability" for that?

I don't know if this speaks to the financial resources (undisclosed) or simply to the fact that there is something different between the experience of kids at Harlem Promise Academy and similarly situated kids educated in other buildings. The study, Diane, does account for selection bias in comparing students who applied and got in (through the lottery) with students who applied and did not get in. One would assume that there would be an equivalent representation of English Language Learners in both groups. One might suggest that the greater percentage of English Language Learners in other schools was detrimental to the kids who didn't get in--but one ought not conclude that the comparison group was not equivalent in English speaking ability.

What interests me is that the non-selected kids would still have access to the enriched neighborhood resources (family support, health care, whatnot) available in the zone. This again centers a spotlight on what is going on in the Promise Academy vs the other public schools. I looked up the NYC Charter website, which provides the rules and regs that cover charter schools. It is true, the charters are not bound by the discipline policy of NYC Schools (and I don't know what it consists of--but I will wager that it has some pretty clear indications of things that kids can get suspended or expelled for), but they are required to have in place a system of due process with regard to suspension and expulsion. Students with disabilities have the same IDEA protections as in the regular schools. And there are a whole long list of things that cannot be asked in the application process, to ensure against cherry-picking. I am not saying it cannot/doesn't happen. But I suspect that things are not all that far different from what my kids have experienced in regular public schools. And there are all kinds of ways to make a kid go away. My guess, from drop-out stats, as blurry as they are, is the NYC public schools are just about as good at it as anywhere else--some would say even better.

This is all just to suggest that we may have a much more apples to apples comparison than most folks would like to admit. While Brooks is not totally right in declaring the achievment gap to be closed, as Aaron Pallas points out, it is significant that they have gotten equivalent numbers of different kinds of kids over the minimum proficiency mark. In other words, they are able to make good on a guaranteed minimum level of learning across the board--which I think is pretty important. Granted, this shouldn't be the end of the story, rather the beginning. But in the face of the many who have been declaring such a thing to be a statistical impossibility, I think it is a valid cause for celebration.

I don't think we are anywhere close to reaching any conclusion about which elements, or package of elements can account for this. I would rather believe that it isn't about some loosely defined bunch of "middle class values," or learning how to focus attention on a speaker (is this a middle class value?). First off, if I were recruiting folks who might know how to create order out of a chaotic and ill-behaved group of kids, I wouldn't be drawn to middle class America. I would be recruiting from folks I have known who grew up understanding that you say ma'am and sir when speaking to elders, and that adults need to know how to command respect. But setting that aside, my favorite hunch about what is going on in Harlem Promise, or KIPP, or in a number of charters in Massachussetts that are outperforming similar schools in their districts, is that the adults have decided to accept responsibility for what goes on. There may or may not be something about the charter structure that allows for this (because certainly there are plenty of charters that are not performing miracles or anything close to miracles). Certainly the verbiage of "no excuses" says something. It helps to have deep pockets, if indeed they do have deep pockets. But first, you have to know what it is that you need. What exactly is the next step to ensuring that this group of kids is learning--and how do we go about getting it--deep pockets or no?

I remember the movie Paper Clips a few years ago. A principal in Iowa (I believe) wanted her students to have a diversity experience--in spite of their own white bread heritage. They started learning about the Holocaust, and set out to collect one paper clip for every person killed. Through determination (not deep pockets) they were able to do so--receiving donations from just about everywhere, as well as attracting a number of elderly survivors who travelled from New York to share stories with the children. But the really amazing thing was that she was also somehow able to acquire a train car--one that had actually transported people to death camps, and have it moved from whatever place it was decaying and lost in Europe, and it became a sort of a museum for display of the paper clips. Just an example of what a determined public school principal (without deep pockets) can pull off when there is clarity about what she was about and what she needed to get her kids there.


I too read the Brooks' column with much skepticism. But I'd also agree with Brian - money isn't everything.

You stated in your observation, "The school can remove those who don't go with its program or who are disruptive, a special privilege granted to charter schools, which write their own rules." State-of-the-art science laboratories, a beautiful cafeteria, and a first-class gymnasium - awesome. Adults able to remove disruptive students - priceless.

Before you two wrap it up for the summer I would like to read a column from each of you on how you think Obama/America could reduce/eliminate the achievement gap.

Diane wrote, "Classes in K-6 are no more than 18 students, much smaller than in the neighboring public schools. Classes in the middle school range between 12 and 20, again much smaller than in the regular public schools."

Eureka, we've now struck gold! Now that an “innovation” at a charter school has proven a significant piece of what is needed, let us not delay with instituting this important discovery at every struggling, urban school.

Low class size permits the students to receive more attention from the teachers; of course, the elite, private schools figured this out long ago. Ratios like this can facilitate the transfer of everything, including middle class values.

Now that it’s been proven that small class size definitely works for students, Arne Duncan needs to immediately set a similar ratio as the required universal norm for struggling public schools. Such a measure will definitely help with reducing the rampant teacher turnover, too. Two birds with one stone!

Only one more miracle will be needed – that of convincing the American public that it’s really the right thing to do, and that it's time for them to cough up the big bucks.

Mr. Brooks, you’d better get started on that task.

Spend enough so that every public school has facilities that are state of the art, and every school has excellent laboratories and a first-class gymnasium.

That's absurd. There's no evidence that spending money that way ever improves academic achievement, nor is there any such evidence that the facilities have anything to do with HCZ's success.

If you have a choice to send your child to a school with great facilities and small classes (no larger than 18) and state-of-the-art science laboratories, or one that is bare-bones and operates in a century-old building where the plumbing is unpredictable and the average class size is 32, which would you chooose?

This is a stupid way (no offense) of thinking about schooling.

Holding all else equal -- including teachers, curriculum, and student body -- I suppose I'd go for the expensive building, although I actually might not (I'm of the old-fashioned view that it might be better for my kids NOT to be coddled with expensive things all the time).

In the real world, however, the expensive building might correlate with good teachers and a peer group focused on academics, so I'd definitely choose the expensive building in that scenario.

But what if, in a particular case, the older building was full of good teachers and a student body who loved academics, while the expensive building was full of students on drugs and teachers just trying to hold on until retirement? Absolutely no question, I'd pick the old building in a heartbeat.

Academics are more important than buildings -- almost infinitely so.

You folks have no idea what sort of trashy conditions "Children First" imposes on regular public schools. No idea whatsoever.

Schools as boot camps? Of course, there is a place for such schools. Boot camps (such as the Marine boot camp) are successful because they are regimented and they control the enviornment. Also to some extent they are self-selecting as well because NO ONE HAS to enlist in the Marines. If you do enlist you must have some pride or motivation in doing so. But schools should teach courtesy, punctuality, civility, respect for others -especially the right of others to learn. It is the student who makes animal noises or who is constantly disrupting the class which make teaching very difficult and for some people unbearable. Many teachers under impossible stress, withouth any support from the administration just give up.

One thing all bad public schools have in common is that they are engines of retention. They are always retaining students so as to not lose the ADA. Many parents complain that schools only care about ADA and attendance money not standards. At one local school, which had a very successful AP program, the AP program is being discontinued so that the school can pay more attention to 'state benchmarks'. The reality was that the AP curriculum was different and the AP students did not do as well as the school hoped on the state tests. So now they teach all those students to the lower standard state test. And the AP program is wiped out; probably for ever in this financial enviornment.

My idea of education also has been that you BEGIN with 'educaccion' which means good manners, civility, respect and good habits; then "instruccion" (formal education or schooling is possible). If students do not develop good study habits early then the reality is they will eventually self-destruct either in High School or in college.

I am glad the Harlem Promise Academy is doing well. Any school anywhere that does a good job helping kids should be recognized and applauded. If Catholic schools do well perhaps we should allow them to do more of what they do and provide incentives for parents to choose these schools. It is idiotic really that we allow many of our most successful schools close merely because of out dated ideas about separation of church and state. Those laws were passed by bigots in the 19th century and yet liberals are the first to praise them now. But they wouldn't send their kids to public schools and they of course choose the schools and neighborhoods for THEIR children.
As our problems are new we should think anew. Refusing to act reasonably because of an idelogical straighjacet is not very intelligent -it is merely dogmatic. We need to act pragmatically to help the children now. More of the same and more of low-value schools may prove to be a tragic waste of time and money.

to be boot camps to teach courtesy, civility, respect for others, self-discipline, and other virtues necessary for democratic life. If all schools did that and had the same resources as Harlem Promise Academy, there would be many miracles

John Doe,
You sound like one of those economists who assure teachers that money doesn't matter, nor does class size.
It really is not fair to suggest that Harlem Promise Academy should be compared to neighboring public schools that do not have the same resources. No experiment would be considered meaningful if one school is laden with lots of money and the comparison group had larger classes and meager resources.
In what world would that be considered a fair comparison?

John Doe - So all the money companies spend on fancy furnishings in their offices and commons areas and attempts at making the workplace a clean, positive, appealing environment to work in is just money down a rathole!? No wonder business has gotten us into this mess ... we've been "coddling" them and allowing them to pass their unnecessary cost of overhead on to us all these years in increased prices for their products! Hang the studies that show that productivity goes up as working conditions improve ... doesn't mean anything!

So let's not allow any company getting bailout money to keep their current offices and "ambience". Their buildings should be sold and the money given back to the taxpayers and they should be required to acquire offices in buildings no better than the worst schools. Why are we coddling them?

Results are more important than buildings, so why is any company wasting money on "ambience"?

Are so many people really missing the point(s)???????

I have studied the Harlem Promise Academy. The issue is not about results and whether, or not, they equate to a successful school. Improving student achievement is NO mystery.

The reality is that no one, including the President, has the guts to deliver a message of sugar-free TRUTH about the achievement gap. Continuing to call it "a gap" only perpetuates its existence.

What matters is for those who are on the wrong side of "the gap" to recognize it, own it, and then DO something about it. They are truly the only ones with the power to be "agents of change."

The real issue is how much attention this school has received by the Ed. Secretary and the President. They have either missed the forest for the trees or, they are playing "dumb."

To use the school as a demonstration of what can happen when the citizens of a community, once more, take up their constitutional responsibilities.... you bet.

However, to paint the school as the antidote for the "current state of public school affairs" at the behest of your buddies in high places, with mountains of campaign dough and the power to deliver lots of votes..... well..... it smells like the same old, political fish.

Make no mistake, President Obama certainly knows how to win votes. He is a public relations phenom. He even knows how to win an election via loopholes. There are limits to everyone's ethics I guess.

It does not require a college degree to understand that the Harlem "Promise" is NOTHING resembling an "apples to apples" comparison. For the President to heap praise upon this school amidst national media coverage WIHOUT full disclosure is disingenuous, misleading, and on a clear day amounts to nothing more than campaign rhetoric.

He MUST be aware of the very distinct information absent from the charter school media playbook. He certainly understands the concept of propaganda.

Let's see him pick a Supreme Court that will, for a change, hold Johnny's PARENTS accountable for those 20 missed days in a semester. THEY violated their son's rights... not the school's staff. Lets pick a Supreme Court that will uphold human rights. If a parent applies for free/reduced lunch, they should be sent to PB & J Boot Camp !
Sending a child to school hungry is abuse.
The President will not take any such actions though... many of these citizens belong to his base of electoral support. They have cell phones, but cannot afford to make their kids' lunches.

No charter school can claim to do a BETTER job than a traditional public school unless it accepts only those students who DO NOT apply AND, after a few YEARS, is able to tout significant learning gains.

By the way, the "failing," traditional, neighborhood, public school is a crumbling testament to the failure of EVERY PERSON in the community. Ultimately, it is their responsibility to ensure that it DOES NOT "fail." They are, afterall, the stakeholders.

You sound like one of those economists who assure teachers that money doesn't matter, nor does class size.

And you sound like one of the many people who don't have the analytical training to come up with an econometric refutation, and who just sneer at those economists instead.

The quality of a building doesn't make very much difference at all to the quality of someone's education. There's absolutely no evidence or reason to think that it does. All you need for a wonderful education is a good teacher and a willing student, and a log for them both to sit on. That gets you 90% of the way, and anything else is just gravy.

Rory, thanks for bringing to this thread a little bit of sense, and something to sink our teeth into.

Bickering over the statistical control qualities of Harlem-as-example does not well suit us here. I read these columns and I think, "Wow. Were this group engineers, we'd still be looking at the Roman Aqueduct saying, 'sure, it can carry water in Italy, but just try it in England which is surrounded by ocean. Pier 12 under mile 44 isn't near as stable as you claim it, this transporting water thing is a fluke and we should always stick to the village well.'"

Yet, Rory, the truth of your claim about parents is clear enough.

I'm just finishing McWhorter's Winning the Race. While a bit wordy, his slaying of so many myths about the achievement gap, and his naming of the culprit as 'therapeutic alienation' (while cumbersome) works.

So we have this meme pervasive in the population that a) urban problems are unfixable or b) urban education and urban families have no work to do themselves, all will be well when the government sends more money.

The response of youth to this meme is to drop out, father multiple children without wedlock, go to the polls and reliably vote for bigger government, and otherwise assume things probably won't get better soon.

With age, they get a bit smarter, but by then the opportunities may be gone.

There is a 'boot camp' for parents. We call it public schooling (in conjunction with religious education). The former cannot do its job if the 16-18 year olds don't show up; on the other hand it also doesn't do its job if it shows no support and respect for the latter.

In these forums, our main objective should be to change the meme of 'we can't do it' to 'we can do it'.

Our message to urban youth should be, you must finish school, no matter how ugly or hard, and you must keep your pants on til you have a real career with a real future.

I don't hear that message often in these discussions. I hear instead, 'its not your fault, the taxpayers don't send you enough money.'

I'm all for sending money when it makes sense. I'd certainly rather see %50 billion go to schools and clinics than to the UAW.

While we're waiting, though, lets try to be a bit less bitter when schools actually show progress. And lets take every opportunity to remind teachers that a mission with 'economy of force' can still make improvements most weeks of the year.

John Doe,
I believe you refer to a famous expression in the nineteenth century that the only thing needed to get a great education is to have Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. Right. Such were the good old days.
But do you really think it is fair to hold up a school as a model that every school district can copy without acknowledging that the school in question has additional funding in the millions, class sizes that range from 12-20 students, and first-rate facilities? Do you really think it is fair to compare that school to public schools with classes double that size, no additional resources for teachers and facilities?
If you think it is fair, then let's agree to disagree. We do have a certain expectation of civility on this blog, and I hope you can refrain from calling me stupid because I don't agree with you.

I don't say that you are stupid; you are manifestly not. What I did say I said that the question posed was stupid, for the obvious reason that if I'm being asked to choose where my kid goes to school, it will be a million times more important to look at the teachers, curriculum, and peers, than at the shininess of the building. Expensive buildings have never been shown to have anything whatsoever to do with the quality of education.

Class size is a different (and much more sensible) point to make.

I am curious about something. It seems to me that the Harlem Children's Zone has succeeded to some degree because of the social supports recommended by the Broader, Bolder Approach people. If I understand it correctly, the children of HCZ are provided with infant education (Baby College) health care, preschool, small classes, extended day, social workers, psychologists and so forth. And yet David Brooks claimed in his column that the success of the HCZ schools are proof that schools alone can close the achievement gap. Do you think David Brooks is unaware of the social supports available to these children? Is he just ignoring this information? I am perplexed by this but I have noticed that many journalists support the "schools alone" movement to the point of dishonesty. Are these journalists being influenced by billionaires who are trying to reshape our schools? Something is not right but I'm not sure what it is.

Diane, did you actually VISIT the school? It sounds like you did.

I also find this hard to believe:
"And, of course, the school can remove those who don't go with its program or who are disruptive, a special privilege granted to charter schools, which write their own rules."

Really? In Oregon I do not believe that is possible as someone could easily prove that your charter, publicly funded, is excluding. Wouldn't that fall under federal law?

I don't know, I really question your whole entire article. Maybe you should take off your rose colored glasses.

I recall (although not to well, forgive me) the story of the Superlative Horse. It is a Chinese folktale about a wealthy powerful someone or other, who was putting his house in order and getting ready to appoint the next caretaker of his stable of prize horses. There was an obvious choice--someone who was among the elite of the household. There was another choice--recommended by some seer. The other choice would have been otherwise overlooked, being a mere stable boy, or some such.

The wealthy guy, perplexed by the conflicting advice, sent the two out into the world to each bring back a horse. A race would then determine which could be selected. This done, the shoo-in, eager to show off, began to quiz the stable boy regarding his selection in front of their employer. He could not correctly identify the gender, color, or other obvious points identifying his horse.

Needless to say, his horse won, handily. He was not able to answer the questions, because these were all inconsequential items in the selection of the horse. He was more in tune with qualities that truly made for a "superlative horse."

It seems that we are similarly caught up in education. We focus endlessly on qualities that don't appear (on examination) to be crucial in determining the quality of learning within a school. Is it a charter, private or public? Are the classes big or small? Is the building old or new? Is it supported by folks with money or folks without? Truth be told, one could find successful schools within each of these categories. Maybe we are looking at the wrong things?

Michigan State has just released a piece of research looking at mathematics curriculum in a number of schools, making comparisons between and among states, as well as internationally. It makes a tie to the concept of "opportunity to learn." It turns out that there is a pretty substantial variation in the curriculum that is intended to be taught in mathematics--even within states, where the presence of state standards might be presumed to have made curricula more equivalent. And, of course, variation again when compared to high performing countries internationally. http://www.promse.msu.edu/

This study strikes me as being important because it moves a step closer to looking "inside the black box." From this study we still don't know what is actually being taught--but we do know that it varies by geography, and in ways that deviate from countries that are doing better than we are. Maybe we could give some of the inconsequentials a rest for a while, and pay attention to what and how we are teaching.

Hi All.... a new report from ETS is worth taking a close look at.

Parsing the Achievement Gap II-


Seems that there are some common things we maybe able to reach some agreement on.


First, the non-school factors:

The Home and School Connection
• Parent participation – White students’ parents are more likely to attend a school event or to volunteer at school. The gap in parents volunteering in schools remained unchanged; the gap in parents attending school events narrowed.

Before and Beyond School
• Frequent changing of schools – Minority students are more likely to change schools frequently, although there has been improvement. There was little change in the gap.

• Low birth weight – The percentage of Black infants born with low birth weight is higher than that for White and Hispanic infants. The rate of low birth weight increased among all groups.

• Environmental damage – Minority and low-income children were more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards.

Exposure to lead – The gaps were unchanged but levels of exposure were down.
Exposure to mercury – There were gaps in exposure to mercury, but no trend data were available.

• Hunger and nutrition – Minority and low-income children were more likely to be food insecure. The White-Black gap was unchanged; the White-Hispanic gap narrowed.

• Talking and reading to babies and young children –.Minority and low-income children were less likely to be read to daily. The gaps were unchanged.

• Excessive television watching – Minority and lower-SES children watch more television. The gap was unchanged between White and Black students; the gap widened among students whose parents have different education levels.

• Parent-pupil ratio – Minority students were less likely to live with two parents. The gaps were unchanged.

• Summer achievement gain/loss – Minority and low-SES students grow less academically over the summer. Trend data were unavailable.

Finally, most of the "School Factors" in the report are inconvenient supplements to the standard fare of low standards and bad teachers served up by the mainstream. Here they are:

• Teacher preparation – Minority and low-income students are less likely to be taught by certified teachers and more likely to be taught by math teachers with neither a major nor minor in mathematics. The gap in students having teachers prepared in the subjects they teach widened between White and Hispanic students and remained about the same for the other populations.
• Teacher experience – Minority and low-income students are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers. These gaps have not changed.
• Teacher absence and turnover – Minority and low-income students are more likely to attend schools with high levels of teacher absence and teacher turnover. There was little change in the gaps.
• Class size – Teachers in high-minority schools are more likely to have large classes. The gap has widened between high-minority and low-minority schools.
• Availability of instructional technology – Minority and low-income students have less access to technology in school, although there is improvement in access across the board, and the gap has narrowed.
• Fear and safety at school – Minority students are more likely to report issues of fear and safety at school. The gaps widened for students reporting the presence of street gangs and fights in school, and remained unchanged for students reporting feeling fearful in school.

check it out....mike


Thanks for mentioning ETS’ Parsing the Achievement Gap. As I will post tomorrow on thisweekineducation.com their report does a great job of showing the interaction of those factors that you cite. For instance, teachers with greater numbers of challenging students tend to also have larger class sizes.

I’ve been meaning to make a comment about the thrust of the discussion here, over the last few weeks. A key theme has been the misuse of evidence by editorial boards and other supporters of data-driven “reform.” Granted, Brooks, Friedman et al are op ed writers, but still there is a double standard. Friedman cites some humonguous number (I forget exactly) of “engineers” that the Indian educational system supposedly produces. Would the Times editors allow him to be so uncurious about his facts if he was editorializing on the number of atomic bombs possessed by India? Would they allow him to quote just anyone in foreign policies circles or would he be expected to check his sources? Similarly, if it wasn’t NAEP numbers, but statement (for instance) about the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, would the Times want its writers to check for scientific accuracy?

Similarly, nobody would confuse the excellent reporting of Washington Post and Ed Week reporters with the trash reported by the New York Post. So why do the editorials of the NY Post and the Washington Post sound interchangable? Could it be that the press has bigger fish to fry than education, and they pay more attention to the concerns of billionaires than the conclusions of scholars? Are the NY Times editorial positions on Klein et al vs. unions more the result of a careful reading of evidence, or more the result of their conflict with the Boston Globe’s unions? Are editors more interested in the nuances of evidence of charters, or the developers desires to gentrify neighborhoods?

Regardless, I came late to the research of tradition social science on education by academics and by journalists, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. But, I’ve been consistently impressed with traditional educational researchers and writers. To me, today’s reports measure up to the excellence of Richard Rothstein, to cite just one example. Think of the professors emeriti of Ed Schools and their wisdom. Their predictions on NCLB have held up well. What is it that newcomers and consultants like McKinsey have to offer that the old-fashioned scholars and professionals did not offer?

No, I did not visit the Harlem Promise Academy charter school. I was responding to David Brooks' article in the New York Times. I am willing to bet that he didn't visit it either.
You seem to think that my facts are all wrong. Which ones? That the school has 600 students? That it has small class sizes? That it has 7 students who are "limited English proficient"? All of that information is on the NYC schools' website, which is linked in the article.
I am not sure what got you hot under the collar. But I can assure you that the Harlem miracle school has far more resources for teachers and facilities than the neighboring public schools. I don't have to visit the school to acknowledge that simple fact.

Linda Johnson,
You bring up an excellent point about Brooks' using the Harlem Children's Zone charter school to knock the "Broader Bolder Agenda" position. The whole point of the Harlem Children's Zone is to provide the social supports--infant care, health care, social services, psychologists, etc.--that BBA recommends.
So why in the world does he take this particular school and say that it demonstrates that schools alone can close the achievement gap? That is a puzzle, because if anything, this school is a poster-child for BBA.


Aha! I have it! I've figured out the money thing!

Money only makes a difference if it's private money! That explains why it made a difference for the Harlem Promise Academy--the small class sizes and nice buildings and teaching resources and additional services were bought by private funds! But if we did the same for all public schools, since we'd be using public money--taxpayer money--it wouldn't make any difference! I get it now.

Silly? Of course that's silly. Is money the only factor? No. Does how much money schools have at their disposal matter? Of course, on average. Is there a correlation of 1 between school quality and # of $$--of course not. But neither is there a 0 correlation. Can you find examples of schools with relatively less money who are doing better than schools with relatively more money? Yes. Does that prove money doesn't matter? No. Are there things money can buy that will make a difference? Yes. Are there things money can't buy that will make a difference? Yes.

OK, I feel better now--my little rant is over. The only thing I will add is that the one conclusion clearly not supported by the Harlem Promise Academy experience is that money does not matter.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, in 2007 Cambridge Ringe and Latin High School spent $24,467 per pupil. Their tenth grade MCAS scores were near the bottom in the state for mathematics and reading.

While there are extenuating circumstances surrounding the 1,500 plus students in this school the data clearly suggests money cannot buy school success.

"We do have a certain expectation of civility on this blog, and I hope you can refrain from calling me stupid because I don't agree with you."

But Diane--you did call him an economist (smile).

I too was struck by the walloping contradiction and illogic in Brooks' use of the Harlem Children's Zone to claim schools alone can close the achievement gap. As Diane said, the Harlem Children's Zone appears to be the very poster child for the Broader/Bolder approach.

Diane, forgive me if I'm out of line in asking, but do you think the NYT would publish an op/ed from you in response to Brooks?

And Jean just raised a very interesting point about the money. I wonder, have the Big Boys who invest so much in charter schools done any similar investing in traditional public schools (complete with the community and social supports)to see what the outcome would be? Shouldn't they in fairness be challenged to do so?

In answer to your question, the NY Times would not let me write a column in response to David Brooks column. The first reason is practical; I had an op-ed in the Times about three weeks ago on Bloomberg's record in running the public schools, and the Times doesn't let any outsider publish an opinion piece more than once every six months. It is known as the six-month rule.
But it is also their practice not to print articles that are a response to someone else. If that's what one wants to do, they will tell you to write a letter to the editor.
I noted, by the way, that every letter they printed in response to Brooks (I think there were four of them) took his column at face value, no questions asked.
And, no, I don't know of any of the billionaire foundations doing for a regular public school what is being done for the Harlem Children's Zone and its school.
Where are you, Bill Gates? And you, Eli Broad?


Paul Hoss,

No, money can't buy school success, but high spending is correlated with school success, and low spending is correlated with lack of success.

Money doesn't buy happiness, either, but it sure is better to have money than to be poor.

Look, a Chevy will get you to work as fast as a Mercedes, but which would you rather drive?

Seriously, it isn't fair to say that school with a zillion advantages, including small classes and lots of extra resources, is a miracle because it gets better results than a school with large classes and no extra resources.

What did you learn from Brooks' account about how to get a miracle school?


Paul, there are lifelong smokers who live into their 90s. It's still true that smokers in general die earlier than non-smokers. You can't refute a correlation by citing a single example that runs contrary to the prevailing relationship.

To some extrent, debating whether or not money matters is a red herring. Money matters for what it can buy, not in and of itself. Some of the things schools can do they can do better with more money, up to a point anyway. I'm sure there must be some point at which more money would make no difference because the school already has all the resources it needs that money can buy. But as far as I know, we've never even gotten close to that point.

There is no magic bullet. No one factor is going to make all the difference. Not teachers nor teacher education; not reducing class sizes (though if I had to pick just one, this would be it--if we could put an adequate teacher in all those additional classrooms, which there is no reason to believe we could in the short run, anyway); not curriculum standards; not school governance; not charter schools; not even integrating social services into schools. Niether current tests, nor improved tests, nor eliminating tests altogether is going to "fix" everything and make it all better.

We have to think systemically, instead of in terms of "it's this; no it's that" in order to make progress at a national (or even a state or metropolitan) level. That seems to be what the Better Bolder Approach people are trying to do--think systemically, including all the relevant factors and information instead of focussing narrowly and obsessively on one or two elements in the system. We need more of that, and we need public officials who understand that kind of thinking.

This is a great discussion. And I'm a huge fan of both Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier, so this is a privilege for me. By the way, I did write letters responding to both Mr. Friedman and Mr. Brooks (reasoned criticism) and neither was published. I was chagrined to see the imbalance of the published NYT 'opinions.' I'm not quite sure I understand the politics behind this current push (almost a rising hysteria) toward more testing, 'accountability,' charter schools, merit pay etc. Education 'reform' has always had to do with power, but I'm not sure in this case whose power, or why. Some of it, I would argue, has been a cynical attempt by the right to destroy our public schools. But I don't understand the fact that people like Mr. Friedman and the editors at the NYT seem to be jumping on the bandwagon too. Not to be a conspiracy theorist, but maybe it has to do with who owns the paper? Regardless, I'm very concerned that this push seems to be crossing political lines. It impacts us all, including those of us who teach (as I do) in a 'regular' suburban school.

Anyway, I do want to add one thing. There is definitely an elephant in the living room with this achievement gap, and though I'm a liberal, I will speak it: IT's the children's families and home environment. This "miracle" school is in no way indicitive of the majority of inner city schools, so it is not a valid example. However, one factor in its 'success' is that is helps create a supportive community among the families and children, and helps parents as well. I taught in Camden not too long ago. Most parents didn't show for back to school night; every kid knew someone who had been shot, and so on. Let's face the truth; so many of these kids grow up in highly disruptive, often toxic, environments. I disagree with Conservative views on the causes of all these complex issues, but to ignore it entirely only hurts the child. Schools are not magic. It's so easy to talk about changing schools and ignore the toxic environment and home lives surrounding these kids (not to mention the toxic school environment, another topic altogether).

By the way, to those who say the building doesn't matter--you've got to be kidding me. You have obviously never taught in poor conditions. I've taught in 100 degree temperatures without air conditioning and with mice and rat infestations and no textbooks. THere is no way you could argue that building environment doens't matter. Come on. If that's so, then why do our rich districts have such beautiful buildings?

If you have a choice to send your child to a school with great facilities and small classes (no larger than 18) and state-of-the-art science laboratories, or one that is bare-bones and operates in a century-old building where the plumbing is unpredictable and the average class size is 32, which would you chooose?

Whichever is the one with the better teaching and the better principal. Why would anyone pick the quality of facilities over the quality of the lessons? Assessing teaching quality and principal quality is harder than assessing facility quality, but that's the criteria to be looking at.

Unless we are talking about plumbing so bad that it is a threat to health of course. I agree that water-borne infections interfere with getting an education.

By the way, to those who say the building doesn't matter--you've got to be kidding me. You have obviously never taught in poor conditions. I've taught in 100 degree temperatures without air conditioning and with mice and rat infestations and no textbooks. THere is no way you could argue that building environment doens't matter. Come on. If that's so, then why do our rich districts have such beautiful buildings?

Because most people, including rich people, only look at surface issues, and beautiful buildings are easy to assess? I went to university with a number of people who went to flash private schools, I've never seen any reason to believe that they got a better education than me. My mum's business partner was sending her kid to the local, low socio-economic primary school (where her two oldest children had gone before), when the school called her up one day and said "Your daughter has a reading problem." The concerned mother goes "Yikes!" and instantly sends kid off to a very expensive private school with very nice facilities (we did a science competition there once). Two years later the private school calls her up and says "Your daughter has a reading problem." Two years and the daughter hadn't progressed one bit - it took that long for the expensive private school to reach the level of the poor state school.

In terms of more comprehensive study, I've never seen any reason to believe that once you control for the characterstics of most private schools' intake, that they provide a better education because they have more resources and I've seen some evidence to the contrary. Consider for example this study of British purely private schools compared with ones funded by a mix of government grants and private funding (direct grant) and state-funded schools (broken down into grammer, secondary modern and comprehensive). This is not to say that there is no such evidence for private schools, just I haven't seen it.

(Also, I do not want to second-guess any parents' decision here. There may be some individual situations in which a private school is the best option, my disbelief is only about the average student going to private schools).

I don't see how textbooks are a building issue.

The version of the Chinese folktale that I know is the one from J.D. Salinger's "Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters." It reads:

Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: "You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?" Po Lo replied: "A good horse can be picked out by its general build and appearance. But the superlative horse — one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks — is something evanescent and fleeting, elusive as thin air. The talents of my sons lie on a lower plane altogether; they can tell a good horse when they see one, but they cannot tell a superlative horse. I have a friend, however, one Chiu-fang Kao, a hawker of fuel and vegetables, who in things appertaining to horses is nowise my inferior. Pray see him."
Duke Mu did so, and subsequently dispatched him on the quest for a steed. Three months later, he returned with the news that he had found one. "It is now in Shach'iu" he added. "What kind of a horse is it?" asked the Duke. "Oh, it is a dun-colored mare," was the reply. However, someone being sent to fetch it, the animal turned out to be a coal-black stallion! Much displeased, the Duke sent for Po Lo. "That friend of yours," he said, "whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast's color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?" Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. "Has he really got as far as that?" he cried. "Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses."
When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.

My read of this story is a bit different than yours. To me this story asks us to try see the difference between qualities that might indicate "good" rather than "great." (e.g. KIPP might be a way to get a good school but may never get you to a great school.) Also this version of the story does not end with a "race" that unambiguously determines the best horse--but rather leaves definition of "superlative" to an abstract spiritual intuition (i.e. attention to test scores versus more holistic measures of student progress). Also I don't think that the story encourages us to look into the "black box" to scientifically discover what characteristics of horses we all have been missing. Kao is depicted as extraordinary in the story, as achieving something that for is nearly impossible. And the way he achieves this success is by methods more spiritual than scientific.

Don't know how useful others will find Taoist tales for understanding schools, but it is nice to take a break from the never-ending stream of tedious social science research every now and again.

No, money can't buy school success, but high spending is correlated with school success, and low spending is correlated with lack of success.

Come on. Why on earth are you acting as if you've never heard that correlation does not equal causation? Indeed, you admit in the same comment that a Ford will drive as fast as a Mercedes . . . which refutes your own argument that it's somehow not "fair" to compare which car drives faster (read: which school is better).

I've taught in 100 degree temperatures without air conditioning and with mice and rat infestations and no textbooks.

Then the problem with that district went way beyond buildings; every school district in America easily has enough money to afford textbooks.

I think that in actuality, it is difficult to establish correlation between spending and achievement. Hanushek discusses this and concludes that we have to look at spending within a context that includes a number of other variables (hiring practices, autonomy with regard to decision-making, assessment practices, etc) to really see a correlation that includes an impact for spending.

John Doe - But schools probably shouldn't be buying textbooks and the "programs" that go with them - what a waste of money. There are much better ways to spend money to support student learning - lots and lots of literature at all reading levels for one for sure, art supplies, PE, actual science and social studies - all of this would lead to better readers than textbooks would.

Margo/Mom - agreed - we've done the "spending lots of money" aimlessly way, and it works as poorly as any other poorly planned / implemented way we've tried. In fact one area we have lots of data to support (although I'm pretty sure no one has kept track of the data) is doing things with lots of money, little training, and poor implementation doesn't work.

We've just come off doing technology poorly (for the above reasons), and anyone that has a favorite program be it DI or project based / problem based learning to Whole Language and so on always complains it was poorly implemented with deficit training and little follow through ... and they are probably all correct ... they all have poor track records of sorts depending on whose ox we are goring. It is one of the ramifications of constantly either underfunding education or spending the money poorly or in the wrong areas.

However, I do believe that IF the money being spent is coupled with good planning, implementation and supportive social services ... as seems to be the case in Harlem ... it is money well spent and will save us money in at least some other areas ... not enough to cover it for sure ... but money well spent none-the-less.

Another commentator on this op-ed pointed to an organization called "Say Yes to Education" which provides supports like health care and mentoring to needy public school children from elementary school through high school. This efforts of this organization show real results - i.e. a high percentage of children graduating from high school and entering college (as compared with good test scores in one grade). Why don't commentators with wide readerships like Brooks point to this organization and conclude that to develop children into successful citizens we need to invest in all the supports that Say Yes to Education does?


Several reflections on Promise Academy. Yes, I'm sure wonderful things have happened with the kids in that school, and much of it was the result of more money.

One quick aside on money: we all know 80% to 85% of a school budget (which determines per pupil expenditure) is based on how much the staff, and in particular, teachers are paid. That's why I cited the Ringe Tech figures. The teachers in that high school are paid well but their results are still putrid.

Further, one school or one study does not an achievement gap erase. They may have come up with an alternative form of chemo but they have not cured cancer just yet - at least not in my mind.

As I said a few days ago I read the Brooks article with much skepticism. One question I had then that still remains; how much did the student population change between their sixth and eighth grade years when all the improved test scores materialized? Were those kids 95%-99% in tact over the two years or did school officials some how make the "weaker" students from that class disappear leaving only the better ones for data purposes - you know, gaming the system?

Paul Hoss

I have found this article months after it was published, so no one else may be reading it at this point. I didn't read every post completely, but I did read most of them, and skimmed the rest. I agreed with Diane originally, and all the more so as I read on.

One thing that struck me was how little of the conversation was about the measures being used to define success. Of course children given many advantages (economic and social) will benefit from those advantages. But if all one cares about is the limited batch of memory skills that can be tested, we could create a generation who have all sorts of other gaps. A boot camp educators' "success" is a miserly success that leaves children with a poverty of the mind.

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