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Charles Payne and the 'National Secret' of Educational Success

Where can we find the most promising practices in education? University of Chicago professor Charles Payne argues researchers should look more carefully at "low-performing" urban districts.

"We can become addicted to these negative narratives, especially about urban issues," Payne said as part of the American Education Research Association's centennial lecture series, held in Detroit last night. "My great fear, especially in the current political atmosphere, just since the election, is that this emergent good work is going to be destroyed by people who either cannot or will not see it."

Payne, author of the 2008 book So Much Reform, So Little Change and veteran urban education researcher, argued researchers and policymakers should dig deeper into school systems producing stronger than average results for disadvantaged students, which he called a "national secret of education." Policy studies and large-scale evaluations tend to focus on overall or average results, but often do not follow up to identify and study outliers. 

Payne pointed to the most recent Trial Urban District Assessment, a focused study of large city districts in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Nationwide, about 40 percent of 4th graders reached proficiency in math in 2015, and for urban students that was about 36 percent. But that obscures a wide range in proficiency across urban districts, from lows of 13 percent in Cleveland and only 6 percent  in Detroit to highs of 41 percent in Miami, 47 percent in Austin, and 51 percent of 4th graders proficient in math in Charlotte, N.C. 

Similarly, in Washington, D.C., 4th grade math proficiency rates have risen from only 7 percent in 2003 to 33 percent in 2015, while Baltimore's 12 percent proficiency rate has remained mostly flat during the same time:

BaltimoreNAEP.JPGwashingtonnaep.JPGThe achievement gaps from city to city follow similar patterns in reading.

"It's that range ... we don't have an explanation for it and we are not systematically trying to find out," Payne said. "My point now is that even with difficult-to-deal-with schoolchildren, some systems are doing two to three times better by this measure than other systems.

... These differences are an order of magnitude larger than the differences most of us spend our time arguing about. This is not the difference between the average charter and the [average traditional district school]—that is trivial in comparison to what we seem to be seeing here. Okay? But that is where we are focused. "

The full lecture will be posted soon here.

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