Part 3—Sadly, not hard to find: Chicago's schools seem to have improved, a lot, over the past dozen years.
That apparent fact is easily demonstrated. A second claim is a bit harder to assess or define.
Based on a poorly explained metric, Chicago's public school students learn much more than their counterparts nationwide in the five years encompassing Grade 4 through Grade 8. Or so the New York Times has said, citing a study by Stanford's Sean Reardon, whose work we've often cited.
For various reasons, Reardon's claim is a bit hard to assess, based on the Times' reporting. Still, Chicago's apparent improvement is easily demonstrated using more straightforward measures.
How are Chicago's black kids doing in math? Based upon our most reliable data, they seem to be doing much better:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, NaepApplying a standard but very rough rule of thumb, black eighth graders in Chicago were a year and a half ahead of their counterparts from 2005. That represents a very straightforward measure of substantial academic improvement.
Black students in Chicago
Unfortunately, this hasn't produced a nirvana. Using those same straightforward data, here's one way matters currently stand at the end of eighth grade:
Average scores, Grade 8 mathOof! Based on our most reliable data, Chicago's black kids are, on average, more than three years behind the nation's white kids at the end of eighth grade.
Black students in Chicago: 259.45
Black students nationwide: 259.60
White students nationwide: 292.16
If anyone cared about those kids, this would be seen as a very large problem. The size of this problem would have been described in the New York Times a long time ago.
All in all, that sort of thing hasn't happened. Last December, the Times ran a large, high-profile report in which six adorable little girls were presented as the smiling, photographic emblem of the Chicago's schools' greatness.
Readers were told that the adorable little girls are students at Lavizzo Elementary School, a school where "scores are rising." After an upbeat profile of the school's procedures, the Times reporters went on to say this about Chicago's schools as a whole:
BADGER AND QUEALY (12/13/17): Across the district, data about attendance and grades is being used to identify the students likely to need extra attention. And the district has emphasized the role of more autonomous principals in improving instruction, an element of reform that [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel said is underappreciated nationally in debates that more often focus on teachers.Allensworth goes on to say that she feels the improvement is real. As noted, that seems to be easy to document just by the large rise in Naep scores.
The mayor has pushed other changes, including a longer school day and expanded pre-K, but those policies have shifted too recently to explain all the gains in Mr. Reardon’s data. Mr. Casserly suggests that Chicago and other large urban districts have been focused for years on the quieter work of defining what “grade level” actually means and how to get children there.
Between all these changes, it’s hard to untangle what’s been most effective, said Elaine Allensworth, who leads an education research consortium at the University of Chicago that works with the district...
We offer this as a way to assess one part of that excerpt from the Times. Also, as a way to assess the standards maintained by our biggest newspapers when they report on the nation's low-income schools.
Why have schools gotten better in Chicago? According to the Times report, data are used across the district "to identify the students likely to need extra attention."
The naive Times reader will nod in satisfaction, imagining that the occasional straggler at a school like Lavizzo is being singled out for extra help.
That is a very pretty idea. The reality, of course, is quite different.
Uh-oh! Judged by any normal standard, the vast majority of Chicago's black kids "need extra attention" in math! On average, those little girls' older sisters and brothers are three years behind the nation's white kids at the end of eighth grade. According to the somewhat arcane Times report, they were apparently even farther behind before that!
Judged by any normal standard, the vast majority of these kids "need extra help" in math! That said, Times readers received no such impression from their favorite newspaper's upbeat report, which was fronted by six adorable little girls—beautiful girls whose older siblings are in fact years behind.
We don't think, not for a minute, that the two reporters who wrote this report were attempting to mislead Times readers. We think they're a pair of nonspecialists who are unknowingly sunk in the culture of indifference (and ultimate deception) which has defined such reporting for four or five decades.
The pattern is well known. The reporter is sent to some low-income "minority" school which is alleged to be a "school that works."
A photo is taken of some beautiful kids. An upbeat principal lauds her own work. Sometimes, test scores are cited.
In this case, two statements were made about Lavizzo's test scores. The school's "scores have risen," we were told right away. We were also told this:
BADGER AND QUEALY: At Lavizzo, the district’s emphasis on data and performance tracking is also conveyed to students in a manner [Principal Tracey] Stelly hopes will inspire competition while remaining playful. One first-floor bulletin board updates the school’s attendance targets. Another records goals that students have set for their standardized test scores.We don't know if kids should set goals for their test scores at all. If they do, we think it's great that Stelly tries to keep it "playful."
Elsewhere, the things we're told don't make a lot of sense. For example, did Casserly "suggest that Chicago...has been focused for years on the quieter work of defining what 'grade level' actually means and how to get children there?"
The city has focused on "defining what grade level means?" We have no idea what that means. We'll guess the reporters didn't know either.
It may be that Casserly said something which made more sense, but these reporters aren't specialists. The New York Times has never bothered to hire or develop such personnel. In a word, the upper-class, Hamptons-based paper has never seemed to care a great deal about those little girls.
More often, the nation's upper-end papers have tended to do what happened here. They've produced occasional happy talk about black kids in school.
They give us pictures of smiling kids, sometimes even of parents. They quote upbeat principals. A reassuring picture is formed, and readers aren't told about this:
Average scores, Grade 8 mathWe see beautiful kids and we read happy talk. We aren't told about our most straightforward data.
Black students in Chicago: 259.45
White students nationwide: 292.16
What's happening in schools like Lavizzo? Tomorrow, we'll try to figure out what Lavizzo's test scores mean.
Tomorrow: We remember Maury