Part 1—Familiar upbeat reporting: It was a highly familiar, decades-old type of upbeat report.
This familiar type of news report has been around since at least the early 1970s. We refer to the familiar upbeat report about low-income "schools that work."
In the recent report to which we refer, the low-income schools that work were those of an entire school system. The news report, in the New York Times, offered a remarkably upbeat appraisal of the Chicago Public Schools.
The report appeared last December. In print editions, it consumed the entirety of page A13, the first page in that day's National section.
The report appeared beneath a large, familiar photo of six adorable children. Beneath the upbeat photo, this hard-copy headline appeared:
New Measure Shows Where Students Learn the MostAt this point, we still didn't have the standard report about low-income schools that work. But then, at the start of the actual news report, we were told where our nation's students learn the most.
As it turns out, they learn the most in Chicago! In that city's once-maligned public schools, the nation's third-largest school system!
The news report to which we refer was written by Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy. Neither is an education specialist. Their upbeat report starts like this:
BADGER AND QUEALY (12/13/17): In the Chicago Public Schools system, enrollment has been declining, the budget is seldom enough, and three in four children come from low-income homes, a profile that would seemingly consign the district to low expectations. But students here appear to be learning faster than those in almost every other school system in the country, according to new data from researchers at Stanford.Can that basic claim really be true? Are kids in Chicago really "learning faster than those in almost every other school system in the country?" Has a new study from Stanford actually shown such a thing?
The data, based on some 300 million elementary-school test scores across more than 11,000 school districts, tweaks conventional wisdom in many ways. Some urban and Southern districts are doing better than data typically suggests. Some wealthy ones don’t look that effective. Many poor school systems do.
This picture, and Chicago’s place in it, defy how we typically think about wealth and education in America.
To some extent, it all depends on what the meaning of "learning faster than those in almost every other school system in the country" is. As they continue, the reporters explain what they mean:
BADGER (continuing directly): It’s true that children in prosperous districts tend to test well, while children in poorer districts on average score lower. But in this analysis, which measures how scores grow as student cohorts move through school, the Stanford researcher Sean Reardon argues that it’s possible to separate some of the advantages of socioeconomics from what’s actually happening in schools.As it turns out, kids in Chicago are learning so fast that, by the end of eighth grade, they're almost scoring at the national average! It would be easy to mock this formulation. On the whole, that might be a mistake.
In Chicago, third graders collectively test below the second-grade level on reading and math. But this data shows that over the next five years, they receive the equivalent of six years of education. By the eighth grade, their scores have nearly caught up to the national average.
Badger and Quealy are reporting a study by Professor Sean Reardon, whose work we've cited many times in the past. The reporters say his study shows the following:
When they're tested in third grade, Chicago's kids are performing below second-grade level. But five years later, by the time they're tested in the eighth grade, they've made up a lot of ground.
By the end of eighth grade, those same Chicago students are scoring near the national average, though they haven't quite reached it yet. According to Reardon's data, they've gained six year of learning in five school years—one of the largest average amounts of growth Reardon can find in any school system in the country.
Is that what Reardon's study says? You're asking a sensible question.
Perhaps more significantly, does Reardon's study make sense? For popular journalistic purposes, we're not sure it does.
At least as described by Badger and Quealy, the study has some obvious shortcomings. Meanwhile, for popular journalistic purposes, it's possible to demonstrate an important fact—Chicago's schools seem to be performing quite well as compared to those in other big cities—in ways which are much more straightforward.
In the next few days, we'll present basic, straightforward data about the way Chicago's students are performing in reading and math by the end of eighth grade. In particular, we'll show you how Chicago's black and Hispanic eighth graderss are performing in reading and math.
When compared to their counterparts in comparable cities, Chicago's "minority" and low-income kids seem to be doing well. That said, Chicago's black and Hispanic kids may not be doing nearly as well as the Times report may seem to suggest. And then there's the case of those beautiful, smiling kids in that photograph and the particular school they attend.
That photograph shows you only six children. They attend only one school in a very large city school system.
Still, that photograph establishes the tone and the feel of this whole report. Beneath the photo of those children, this upbeat caption appears:
Students in gym class at Mildred I. Lavizzo Elementary School in Chicago. “Whatever kids come in here, we know we can grow them,” the school’s principal, Tracey Stelly, says.Before subscribers read a single word of the Times report, they're offered that upbeat caption.
In that caption, Stelly is cast as the highly confident, upbeat principal, a standard figure in this type of report. In the past, we've found that you can't necessarily believe these highly confident persons!
Toward the end of their report, Badger and Quealy visit Lavizzo Elementary, which they describe in glowing terms. That said, it's very hard to match their description to the picture painted in this depressing official report—in Lavizzo Elementary's official "Illinois State Report Card."
Glowing descriptions of floundering schools? This is one of the journalistic horses we rode in on, more than four decades ago.
Such descriptions have been a weirdly standard part of these familiar reports. In the current circumstance, this seems to tell us more about New York Times journalism than about Chicago's very large school system.
Have Chicago's students registered very large gains in reading and math—among the largest in the country? To some extent, it may depend on how you slice and dice it.
As the week proceeds, we'll show you basic, straightforward data about the city's eighth graders as of the spring of last year. We'll also ponder Lavizzo Elementary School—and our nation's upper-end journalism.
Tomorrow: Chicago's important eighth-graders in the spring of last year
Who is the Chicago Public Schools: Let's establish a bit of background information. The leading authority on Chicago's schools offers this overview:
Chicago Public Schools (CPS), officially classified as City of Chicago School District #299 for funding and districting reasons, in Chicago, Illinois, is the third largest school district in the U.S....For the 2014–2015 school year, CPS reported overseeing 660 schools, including 484 elementary schools and 176 high schools; of which 517 were district-run, 130 were charter schools, 11 were contract schools and 2 were SAFE schools. The district serves over 396,000 students.As of 2015, there were almost 500 public elementary schools in the Windy City.
Six of Chicago's beautiful children were shown in that New York Times photograph. Out of all the elementary schools in all the neighborhoods in all parts of their sprawling city, our nation's most influential newspaper decided to walk into theirs!