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An Interesting Few Days

Dear Deborah,

I had planned to write about an important new report from the National Research Council that shows the risks and ineffectiveness of high-stakes testing, but I have to put that off until next week. Events intervened that require me to address another, though related, subject.

On June 1, The New York Times published my critique of politicians who single out "miracle schools." These schools allegedly made such amazing progress in such a short time that they prove that poverty is no barrier to high academic achievement. Bill Bennett often referred to such schools as "existence proofs": If one school can do it, then all schools can do it. I have come to believe that such existence proofs are akin to saying that if one person can run a four-minute mile, then everyone should be able to do so. If one student can score a perfect 800 on her SAT in mathematics, then all should.

My goal in the article was to make five points: 1.) our political leaders are selling a false narrative (dramatic school reform can happen quickly and allow us to ignore oppressive social conditions); 2.) the media should be skeptical when presented with such claims; 3.) our society must act to reduce poverty; 4.) schools can and should be improved; and 5.) parents are children's most important educators and what they do matters a lot.

Two days later, Jonathan Alter of Bloomberg View accused me of trying to derail school reform. Alter's article quoted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying that I had "insulted" teachers and students by questioning the gains at Bruce Randolph school in Denver, Urban Prep Academy in Chicago, Miami Central High School, and P.S. 33 in the Bronx.

I write now not to rehash the events, but to present the evidence. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg first launched the myth of the New York City "miracle" at P.S. 33 in the Bronx in 2005. He went there, in one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods, to celebrate a 49-point gain in its reading scores in only one year. Andrew Wolf of the New York Sun and Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute noticed the next year that the scores fell by 40 points and called for an investigation. When the city investigated three years later, they could find nothing amiss; all the paperwork had been destroyed. Case closed. Now the reading scores at P.S. 33 are nearly the same as they were in 2004, before the evanescent miracle of 2005.

Several weeks ago, I got an email from Gary Rubinstein, a high school math teacher and Teach For America alumnus. Gary reviewed Secretary Duncan's claims at the TFA 20-year reunion about Urban Prep. Duncan said that the students were no different from those in the old failed school, but 100 percent of the new school's graduates were accepted to four-year colleges. Gary discovered that Duncan was omitting some crucial facts: the students were not really the same, not all 9th graders made it to graduation, and—remarkably—only 17 percent of the students at the school passed the state exams, compared with 64 percent in Chicago.

When Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism invited me to blog for www.niemanwatchdog.org, I included Gary's Urban Prep story as a cautionary tale for reporters.

A few weeks later, Noel Hammatt, a researcher in Louisiana, contacted me. He had reviewed public data about Miami Central High School, which President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and former Governor Jeb Bush hailed as a successful turnaround. Hammatt concluded that the school had improved, but had not turned around. Despite some gains, it was still one of the lowest-performing high schools in Florida. He asked if I had any ideas where he could publish it, and I sent him to Nieman Watchdog.

I asked Noel if he could check out the Bruce Randolph school in Denver, which President Obama had lauded in his State of the Union address. He went to the Colorado website, where he discovered that Bruce Randolph has an amazing graduation rate, but is still one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. On the state tests of reading and writing, it scores in the first percentile, meaning that 99 percent of schools in the state get better results. The ACT score for its graduating seniors is 14.4, which indicates a lack of college readiness, as compared with a state average of 20.

None of these schools made adequate yearly progress, and under our punitive federal No Child Left Behind system might have been slated for closure, not for celebration. This system, I think we can agree, makes no sense.

On one level, this is a story about politicians taking credit for improvements to justify their policies. But there is a larger, and I think more ominous story, and that is the effort to claim that we can safely ignore growing income inequality and poverty and concentrate instead only on specific school reform policies. The underlying narrative is that our current regime of high-stakes testing is working; that teachers are to blame if scores are low; that if we fire principals and teachers, open more privately managed schools, and have more testing, scores and graduation rates will rise, more students will go to college, and our society will prosper. This narrative fits nicely with the political goals of the Tea Party governors who are slashing the budget for public education and encouraging vouchers and charters and testing as their school reform agendas.

This is wrong. Schools and society are intertwined. We have to improve both. There are certainly many schools that have made genuine gains in test scores and graduation rates, and they deserve recognition and commendations because their success defeats the odds. But the odds remain decidedly against children who grow up in poverty, without adequate healthcare, housing, nutrition, and support. The success of some schools does not obviate the need to improve the harmful economic and social conditions in which families live.

The night before Alter criticized me for "phony empiricism," I received the Daniel Patrick Moynihan award from the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences for promoting "the use of informed judgment to advance the public good" through "sound analysis and social science research in policy-making, while contributing to the civility of public discourse and pursuing a bipartisan approach to society's most pressing problems."

Douglas Massey of Princeton University, the president of the academy and a renowned scholar of race and poverty, wrote to say that the controversy was evidence of our society's unwillingness to face up to the great social and economic challenges of our day.

All in all, an eventful few days.

Diane

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