BLACK KIDS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Miracle tales!

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2015

Part 4—New Orleans allegedly rising:
We were struck by a fleeting remark in yesterday’s New York Times. It appeared in Eduardo Porter’s weekly column in the weekly Business Day section.

The headline on Porter’s column said this: “Education Gap Widens Between Rich and Poor.” Gloomily, Porter noted a fact we’ve discussed before—according to Stanford’s Professor Reardon, achievement gaps are widening between kids at the very top of the family income scale and kids at the very bottom.

Porter always digs into matters of substance. This explains why his weekly columns are never discussed. At the very start of yesterday’s piece, we were struck by these passages:
PORTER (9/23/15): The wounds of segregation were still raw in the 1970s. With only rare exceptions, African-American children had nowhere near the same educational opportunities as whites.

The civil rights movement, school desegregation and the War on Poverty helped bring a measure of equity to the playing field. Today, despite some setbacks along the way, racial disparities in education have narrowed significantly. By 2012, the test-score deficit of black 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds in reading and math had been reduced as much as 50 percent compared with what it was 30 to 40 years before.

[…]

For all the progress in improving educational outcomes among African-American children, the achievement gaps between more affluent and less privileged children is wider than ever, notes Sean Reardon of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford. Racial disparities are still a stain on American society, but they are no longer the main divider. Today the biggest threat to the American dream is class.
We were struck by this part of Porter’s column. Here’s why:

We’ll take a guess! Very few New York Times readers have ever heard about the alleged “progress in improving educational outcomes among” black kids to which Porter refers. They’ve never heard that the achievement gaps between white and black kids, in both reading and math, “have been reduced as much as 50 percent compared with” where they stood in 1975 or 1985.

Has the Times ever published a news report concerning these little-known statistical facts? Has the Times ever provided a basic analysis of these facts, which seem to describe very important news?

Our questions continue. Has the New York Times ever reported the reason why those achievement gaps still exist? (Even as black kids’ test scores improve, white kids’ test scores have risen too, although not as much.) Has any columnist at the Times ever discussed these facts?

Do New York Times readers have any knowledge of these basic facts? Overwhelmingly, we would assume that they don’t.

Within the organs of our mainstream press, these basic facts are almost never reported or analyzed. That’s true at the New York Times—and it’s true everywhere else. People don’t hear about black kids’ score gains. Their score gains have been disappeared.

Mainstream reporting about public schools has been dominated by gloomy narratives for a very long time. Encouraging facts get disappeared. Gloomy facts get invented.

Nothing is working in our schools! This gloomy narrative has controlled mainstream “reporting” for many years at this point. But an equal-but-opposite, miracle narrative has also been popular down through the years.

Jonathan Chait went there last month when he discussed the current state of the New Orleans schools.

Please understand! We’re not saying that Chait was wrong in what he wrote about New Orleans, although he certainly may be. We’re saying that he offered a very familiar tale—a tale we’ve heard many times through the years—and that this familiar type of tale has routinely turned out to be wrong.

Did Chait really pen a miracle tale about the public schools of New Orleans? We think he was flirting with such pixie dust. This is the way he started:
CHAIT (8/24/15): The creation of high-achieving urban charter schools is one of the most impressive triumphs of American social policy. For all the success of the New Deal and the Great Society in ameliorating the hunger and deprivation of deep poverty, it has had but modest success breaking the power of social systems that allow affluent families to sustain their children in the same social class, while poor children cannot escape theirs. In a short period of time, urban charters have yielded impressive, even astonishing, success at closing the academic achievement gap between the poorest children and more privileged ones. The management of charter schools varies widely, but in urban centers, where education reformers have concentrated most of their energy, their performance has been especially strong. A major study earlier this year, carefully comparing equivalent student populations, found that urban charters on the whole produce an extra 40 days of classroom learning—eight weeks—in math, and 28 days of extra classroom learning in reading per student per year.

Nowhere has this revolution had a more dramatic impact than in New Orleans, because nowhere has reform been carried out with such breadth. Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina wiped out huge swaths of the city’s infrastructure and displaced its population, a disaster that paradoxically gave the city the chance to redesign its failing school system. Rather than re-create the neighborhood-based schools that had recapitulated generations of poverty, the city created a network of public charter schools. The charters, which have open admission and public accountability, have produced spectacular results.
We’ve read many such stories in the past forty years—sometimes about individual schools, sometimes about whole systems. Again and again, such miracle tales have turned out to be wrong.

Again and again, it has turned out that credulous, true-believing non-specialists had fallen for some sort of con. We can’t say that Chait is the latest such rube. But we also can’t say that he isn’t.

(Remember when we examined one such claim and discovered that the whole state of Virginia was posting embellished test scores? We do remember that!)

Have the charter schools of New Orleans produced “spectacular results?” As he continues, Chait refers to score gains by News Orleans students on Louisiana’s statewide tests—and he relies on a study by local educational experts.

Historically, each strategy is fraught with peril. As a non-specialist, which is not to say rube, Chait may not be aware of such facts.

Black kids have produced major score gains at public schools all over the nation. This fact is almost never reported, but we know of no reason to doubt that this has occurred in New Orleans too.

That said, we know about score gains in other big cities because their school systems take part in the National Assessment of Education Progress (the NAEP). More specifically, they take part in the NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment (the TUDA), in which representative samples of public school students from twenty-one cities are tested on the NAEP.

For whatever reason, New Orleans doesn’t take part in the TUDA. A prudent person will regard that as a possible point of concern.

So far, Chait isn’t that person. In his semi-miraculous tale, he simply isn’t sufficiently wary of state-run tests and the educational experts who take their data at face value.

Why must a prudent analyst exhibit these types of caution? In this passage, Chait proved to us that he doesn’t know:
CHAIT: Researchers studying the enormous gains registered in New Orleans have been able to rule out the usual sources of skepticism. The schools are not using stricter discipline to expel higher numbers of troublemakers—the city’s suspension rate is lower than it was before 2005, and also lower than the statewide average. (The system has a citywide process for major discipline, eliminating even the ability of principals to use suspensions to push out low performers.) Nor is New Orleans shortchanging students with disabilities, whose graduation rate in the New Orleans system (60 percent) dramatically exceeds their graduation rate statewide (43 percent). Nor is there any reason to believe the gains have come from schools “teaching to the test”—student performance on tests that have no accountability measures for the staff (such as the ACT) have also risen, as have graduation and college entry rates.
Personally, we’re not opposed to charter schools. We favor all sorts of experiments and efforts. We’re glad that people in New Orleans are trying hard to improve urban schools. It’s our impression that admirable people have done such things all around the nation.

New Orleans may have produced the cure with its new regime of charters. It’s possible that our admirable black kids are making more progress in Big Easy schools than they are anywhere else.

But it’s also possible that they aren’t. And that one highlighted sentence by Chait made all the analysts wail.

Good God! Even after all these years—even after all these cheating scandals—we can’t stop non-specialist true believers from writing about “teaching to the test!”

Those giant scandals in Atlanta and D.C. were not about “teaching to the test.” Those giant scandals were about outright cheating on standardized tests—widespread outright cheating in the pursuit of “spectacular results.”

Those giant cheating scandals involved elaborate “erasure parties.” Teachers and administrators erased wrong answers on students’ answer sheets and replaced them with the right answers.

In our own experience, outright cheating on standardized tests has been occurring for more than forty years. As far back as the early 1980s, the big test companies would scan answer sheets for suspicious erasure patterns if a school system was willing to pay them for the service.

But even after D.C. and Atlanta—even after Superintendents Rhee and Hall—it’s impossible to get potential rubes to confront the nature of the problem. In that passage, Chait added his name to that list.

“Teaching to the test” can be a problem, depending on what you mean by the term. But the scandals in D.C. and Atlanta (and elsewhere) were actually about outright cheating! A scribe who still can’t grasp that fact is offering himself as a rube.

In our public school reporting, we often see education reporters disappear important facts to build tales of gloom and doom. Black kids’ test scores are way up, but you aren’t permitted to know that.

In that familiar narrative, “nothing has worked” in our public schools. Routinely, reporters disappear important facts in order to pimp this claim.

That said, miracle tales have always been popular too. That’s especially true in certain settings, in the case of favored programs.

Remember when we heard those tales about the brilliant work of Rhee? The analysts wailed and tore their hair when they saw that Chait does not.

Tomorrow: One last dose of score gains

Not that there’s anything wrong with it: We can’t say that this full disclosure left us reassured:
CHAIT: Full disclosure: My wife (and chief intellectual influence on education reform), Robin Chait, has worked as a public-school teacher and an education-policy analyst, and works for a public charter school network in Washington.
We’re not opposed to charter schools. We’re opposed to inaccurate claims about same, and to true belief.

8 comments:

  1. I agree.

    Chait's article touts "proof" that reform has worked -- citing test results as a primary basis for believing so -- and claims to "rule out the usual sources of skepticism," but gives no evidence at even being aware that outright cheating has been behind so very many "proven" successful reforms in the past.

    That's a big blindspot.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree too, but have one quibble. Chait's article isn't about proof that reform works. It is about achievement of "astonishing success." It is the size of the change that is suspicious, not the fact of improvement, not reform "working" but working to such an extreme.

    If you have a student who has been getting F's on exams consistently and all of a sudden they get an A, you suspect cheating. If they go from an F to a D to a C, to a B and then an A, you suspect hard work. Even if they go from an F to a C- to an A, you suspect hard work with tutoring. So, it is the degree of progress and the time scale that make this suspicious. Such an extreme change can happen, but it does require extra caution and investigation, and Chait's failure to even consider the possibility of cheating is what Somerby is talking about, not the success of reform. I do believe him when he says he wants reform to succeed and is open to different approaches.

    The reformers have burned the public before by cheating to provide proof that their reforms have worked.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Chait is a decent political columnist/blogger who knows next to nothing about education but occasionally fires off pro-charter and anti-teachers' union polemics, no doubt fed to him by his wife. Usually, they are laughably thin on substance. This one, at least, takes a stab at providing some support for his position. I'm not an expert (nor do I play one on tv), but a few questions stand out - in addition to those raised above. First, wasn't there a large-scale population transfer following Katrina that affected the demographic composition of New Orleans as a whole? Is that reflected in the data? Second, as Chait notes, the major change in New Orleans was doing away with neighborhood-based and adopting a city-wide system. That change has nothing to do with charters. There's no reason why N.O. couldn't have adopted a city-wide public system that would have provided the same benefits. A recent two-part series on This American Life argued persuasively that the most effective means for reducing the achievement gap has been school integration, which has unfortunately been virtually abandoned due to political opposition. The town in which I live - Montclair, NJ - moved away from neighborhood schools and now has a citywide system of public magnet schools. Students may choose any school within the district and are assigned based on a lottery. The result is racial and economic diversity within each of the schools. While achievement gaps persist, they are far less pronounced than under the former system.

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