Part 1—But what would a "good school" look like? As presented, it was a tale of two middle schools—one a "good school," one not.
It was also a tale of three parents.
We refer to a fascinating news report by the New York Times' Elizabeth Harris, a report we cited last week.
Harris was reporting on a "desegregation plan" for a fairly small number of middle schools in Manhattan's District 3, one of 34 different districts within the giant New York City school system. Her report appeared in the hard-copy Times on May 2.
In the main, Harris' report is a tale of two middle schools, one of which is considered a good school by all concerned.
One school is seen as a good school. The other school pretty much isn't.
Let's call the roll of the players. The "good school" in this age-old story was described in this passage from Harris' report:
HARRIS (5/2/18): [T]here is sharp disparity in performance between the district’s middle schools—which have different admissions criteria, often based on test scores—as well as a stark racial divide.The widely sought-after School 54, whose kids had passed the state exams, is the "Gallant" in this story.
The sought-after Booker T. Washington school, Junior High School 54, a middle school on West 107th Street, looks at scores on the state exams, essentially requiring the passing grades of a 3 or a 4, and at a student’s performance on an in-house test. Sixty-nine percent of the students are white or Asian, and last year 88 percent of them passed the state English and math exams.
Meanwhile, the middle school widely cast as "Goofus" can be found just two blocks away:
HARRIS (continuing directly): Two blocks away, at West Prep Academy, many students enter with 1s or 2s, failing grades, on the state tests, and 97 percent of the students are black or Hispanic. Just 14 percent of them passed the math test last year, while 30 percent scored on grade level in English.That's the school which isn't "sought-after." It's located two blocks away from the good school of this rather familiar piece.
Quickly, let's review:
At West Prep Academy, just 14 percent of incoming sixth-graders had passed the state math exam the previous year. But two blocks away, at School 54, at least 88 percent of the incoming sixth-graders had passed the same math test!
Which would you see as the good school? The question seems to answer itself! But all week long, we'll suggest that there may be more to this familiar story than may appear on the surface.
Before we say another word, let's note an important point. Those incoming sixth-graders had passed or failed that state exam at their elementary schools, when they were still in fifth grade.
The kids who passed the fifth-grade exam got admitted to School 54. But those kids had passed that state exam before they ever set foot in the sought-after school.
In other words, nothing happened at School 54 to produce those 3s and 4s—those passing grades on the test. By the same token, nothing anyone did at West Prep produced the lower math scores which Harris correctly reported.
When those fifth-grade students recorded those scores, they'd never set foot in either school! And yet something seems clear all through Harris' report:
School 54 was widely seen as the "good school" on the basis of those passing scores—on the basis of test results its teachers and principal did nothing to produce. West Prep was seen as the lousy school—as the school you want to avoid—on the exact same basis!
How do we know that School 54 was seen as the "good school?" Let's start with one of the middle school parents quoted in Harris' report.
In this case, the middle school parent is actually a grandparent. First, a quick bit of background:
Under the proposed "desegregation" plan, School 54 would reserve 25 percent of its seats every year for incoming sixth graders who got failing grades—1s or 2s—on those fifth grade state exams. Delicately, Harris explained how this proposed procedure would produce "desegregation:"
HARRIS: The new plan would give priority for 25 percent of the seats at all the district’s middle schools to students who score below grade level on the state tests. Because test scores closely track socioeconomic status and race, the plan would likely increase the number of poor and minority students at schools that are now out of reach for many disadvantaged families.Because black and Hispanic kids tend to get the lower scores, the proposed plan would bring additional black and Hispanic students to the hallowed halls of School 54! The school might end up being 50 percent black and Hispanic, not the current 31 percent.
(Similarly, West Prep might end up being 20 percent white and Asian, not the current 3 percent. Basically, West Prep would receive an influx of white sixth graders who got 3s on the fifth-grade test.)
This is the aspect of the plan which gets called "desegregation." This might, or might not, have positive effects on the lives of the children involved.
But in the main, the grandparent Harris quoted wasn't discussing that part of the plan. In the main, she didn't seem to care about the fact that her grandson could be attending a school with a different demographic mix.
She seemed to think, rightly or wrongly, that her grandson would do better in math at the sought-after school. She seemed to think that he'd be more challenged, and learn more, at the sought-after locale.
The grandparent's child is a sixth grader at West Prep. When this boy's grandmother spoke with Harris, she seemed to suggest that he might be "struggling" in his classes at West Prep.
The grandmother seemed to think that he'd do better at a school like School 54. Here's what the grandmother said:
HARRIS: Irene Butler, who has four grandchildren in the district’s public schools, welcomed the idea. Her grandson is in sixth grade at West Prep, but she said she would have considered other schools if the plan had been in place for him.We only know part of what Butler said. We can't say what she was thinking with any degree of certainty.
“A lot of kids are struggling to get through their classes and need help, but are not getting the help they need,” Ms. Butler, who is black, said. Having an opportunity to go to some of the higher-performing schools, she added, “will also help children from getting frustrated and dropping out.”
But as this situation is pictured by Harris, the grandmother seems to see School 54 at the "higher-performing school." She seems to think that kids who are struggling at West Prep would likely do better two blocks away at the more sought-after school.
If they went to the higher-performing school, they might not get frustrated and drop out of school. On its face, this line of reasoning may seem to make perfect sense.
There is, of course, no way of knowing how the sixth-grader in question is going to fare in the years ahead. He may or may not be struggling or frustrated at West Prep. That said:
Based on Harris' report, the odds are good that he didn't pass the state math exam last year, when he was in fifth grade. His grandmother seemed to suggest that he's struggling now in sixth grade.
That said, understand this:
Our country is full of deserving sixth grade kids who are "years behind" in math. Large numbers of these kids are "struggling" in their sixth grade classes.
Would Butler's grandson likely do better at the higher-performing School 54? As we'll discuss all week, there's no real way to answer that question. But beyond that, understand this:
The vast majority of struggling kids don't have a high-performing School 54 two blocks away. The vast majority of struggling kids are going to sink or swim at schools which look a great deal like West Prep.
Large numbers of our sixth graders are "years behind" in math. What would a "good school" actually look like for them?
From reading the New York Times, or from watching MSNBC, it's abundantly clear that no one actually gives a flying fig about questions like this. Despite this problem, we'll be discussing that question all week:
What would a good school really be like for the kids we're leaving behind?
Rachel, Lawrence and Chris don't care. But what would "good schools" really be like for the kids who get disappeared as our big silly corporate stars mug, clown, entertain us, produce good ratings, perform?
Tomorrow: A second parent speaks