GAPS AND SCHOOLS: One school is the "good school" of the piece!

MONDAY, MAY 14, 2018

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 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.
The widely sought-after School 54, whose kids had passed the state exams, is the "Gallant" in this story.

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.

“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.”
We only know part of what Butler said. We can't say what she was thinking with any degree of certainty.

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


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  2. "What would a good school really be like for the kids we're leaving behind? "

    Why, the one that doesn't promote them to the next grade until they are proficient at the current grade level, of course.

  3. I went to an integrated junior high school in New Rochelle, NY. Classes were homogeneous, so poor students didn't share classes with good students. Heterogeneous classes wouldn't have worked well. How could the same class serve kids who were several years apart in ability?

    The setup Bob describes seems to take homogeneous grouping to another level: good students and bad students not only have separate classes, they have separate schools. Is that worse for the bad students? Well, regardless of which school they're in, the bad students need the same textbooks, lesson plans, methods of instruction, etc. As long as resources are equally divided, it seems to me that the bad students should be as well off in their separate classes, regardless of which building they're in.

    1. It isn't necessarily true that good and bad students need to be separated. One theory is that assigning the good students to help the bad ones is beneficial for both sets of students. Further, even if you divided the good kids into a single class, there will be gaps between them, with some way above grade level and others more modestly advanced. What does a teacher do about that? The same thing he or she does with good and bad students in the same class.

    2. Bob Somerby has no frickin' idea what he's talking about.

    3. As long as resources are equally divided, it seems to me that the bad students should be as well off in their separate classes, regardless of which building they're in.

      See Plessy v Ferguson for justification.

      poor students didn't share classes with good students.

      "Poor" students, eh?

      Maybe we don't even need schools for the undesirable students. How about camps?

      Yeah, that's the ticket.

    4. deadrat -- All the sarcasm in the world won't make it a good idea to put someone who struggles with long division in a calculus class.

    5. When do we teach kids that if you aren't struggling, you aren't learning?

  4. Sounds like Somerby is arguing in favor of segregation by performance. He makes no argument about how to help those who are struggling in any school. He does says that those who are struggling don't need to go to those better schools where the higher performing kids go -- presumably because those better schools have no struggling kids and no plan for helping them either.

    This is idiotic. The article doesn't deal with low performing students at either school and there is no basis for judging which school is better equipped to help low performing kids. It might be reasonable for a grandparent to assume that a school that does well with its high performing kids might similarly do well with its struggling kids.

    Somerby seems to be saying that if you have a low performing, struggling child you shouldn't be judging a school based on how many of its kids succeed. But what other basis is there for evaluating the quality of a school?

  5. I don't believe for even a minute that Somerby cares about low performing kids, one way or the other. This is a way to beat up some reporter who decided to write an article on a different topic than Somerby thinks was important.

    1. Somerby chose to spend many years teaching low performing kids in Baltimore. As a Harvard graduate, he surely could have found a more lucrative and comfortable profession. There's no doubt that he cares deeply about low performing kids.

    2. You forget that he was a philosophy major. What kind of jobs can a philosophy major get? Most kids majoring in philosophy go on to law school. Not Somerby. Why not? I suspect his grades were poor. That no doubt gave him plenty of empathy for low performing black kids.

  6. How does a child get several levels below grade level without the parents being informed? If the parents are informed, why hasn't there been any intervention long before 6th grade? Shouldn't the parents be down there at the school demanding help for the child, seeking tutoring or evaluation for learning problems? Shouldn't the child be doing remedial work at home?

    If a parent were informed that a child had a health problem would they wait several years to treat it, meanwhile it gets much worse?

    If this is what is happening with poor kids, it is a different kind of problem than who goes to what school two blocks away from the other. I think there is no urgency felt by anybody during the early years when kids get farther behind and cumulative, geometrically increasing gaps start to form and grow. Why isn't this considered child neglect? Our assumption that there need to be dumb kids and smart ones instead of everyone attaining competence may be at the heart of this. In Asian countries, no one assumes there is any such thing as a child who cannot learn. If a child learns slowly, it means the parents and school invest more effort in attaining the same level of knowledge as the other kids. Because Asian schools do not assume difference in ability but instead differences in effort, which can be remedied.

    Maybe we need that kind of attitude in the USA.

    1. The parents are too busy working long hours (or multiple jobs), just to get by.
      While corporate profits, executive management pay, and business efficiency has ballooned, wages for non-management positions have stagnated since the 1970s.

      The USA needs a new attitude. One that pays labor.