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High-Flying Schools Are Outliers

The media love to publicize schools that have managed to overcome the odds against them to provide their students with a solid education ("Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares," The New York Times, Apr. 29).  I understand the appeal of such articles.  If these schools can do it, why can't all schools with similar enrollments do the same?  It's a fair question that deserves a thoughtful answer.

These high-flying schools, as they are often called, actually are not new.  More than a decade ago, schools in Houston were termed the Texas miracle.  But closer scrutiny revealed that the district was recording students as transferred when, in fact, they had dropped out.  Moreover, underperforming students were often kept from taking standardized tests.  Then Atlanta was ballyhooed for its alleged success until 2011 when an investigation revealed rampant cheating. More recently, San Jose was found to have massaged its college-ready results by counting students who received a D grade or shifted to alternative schools.

The point is that there are no miracles in education reform. Even when evidence is free of taint, the results are almost always not sustainable or scalable.  As a result, I view such outcomes with a healthy dose of skepticism.  In short, it's important not to get carried away with unbridled enthusiasm, as tempting as it is.  The latest example is a Mississippi Delta elementary school that was cited for its transformation through the efforts of a nonprofit run by Netscape's former CEO ("How to Turn Around a Terrible School," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 1).  But will the results stand up to scrutiny? I say: caveat emptor.

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