WEDNESDAY, JUNE 23, 2021
A few tiny schools, plus Chicago: As we noted yesterday, we've long been fans of Jay Mathews' work. Despite that fact, we aren't big fans of his most recent column.
The column appeared in Monday's Washington Post; it sang a familiar song. In print editions, the headline on the column said this:
Surprising gains in five school districts you’ve never heard of, plus Chicago
Mathews is a highly experienced, highly regarded education reporter and columnist. He's done a lot, and he knows a lot. In this, his latest weekly column, he was praising a new book by a former colleague.
According to Mathews' description, the new book walks a very familiar road. (That doesn't necessarily mean that the book is wrong in some way.)
Still, it's a very familiar road, one which has led folks astray in the past. Mathews' column began like this:
MATHEWS (6/21/21): When Karin Chenoweth began a five-year stint as a columnist at The Washington Post in 1999, she soon became one of the best education writers I had ever read. She has gotten better since. Her latest book takes us to the heart of student achievement, and why we so rarely give our most disadvantaged students what they need.
The title is “Districts That Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement.” As she has done in previous books and in her work as writer-in-residence for the Education Trust advocacy organization, she explains in detail how some educators have managed to defy low expectations, despite an undertow of mindless routine in our schools.
According to Mathews' description, Chenoweth has written the latest book about those inspiring "Schools That Work."
Chenoweth has written about schools—actually, about school districts—which have "defied low expectations." About schools in which "our most disadvantaged students" finally get what they need, with very good results.
Here in Our Town, we've been in love with this narrative format dating at least to the 1960s. We love love love these inspiring tales. They never stop popping up.
That said, we've often gone wrong as we've swallowed these tales, which tend to suggest that it should be easy to eliminate the "achievement gaps" which exist in our public schools. That doesn't necessarily mean that anything's wrong in Chenoweth's book, which was written through the auspices of the Education Trust.
(Full disclosure: The organization isn't called the Education Trust But Verify. Having accomplished that bit of gloomy foreshadowing, let's continue with Mathews' description of Chenoweth's book.)
As he continues, Mathews' names the names of the latest "Schools That Work." Three of the six school districts are "tiny," he correctly says:
MATHEWS (continuing directly): The book has six case studies. In Valley Stream 30, a tiny district on Long Island, N.Y., African American students performed 1.2 grade levels above the national average for all students in 2016. In the Seaford district in southern Delaware, Black third- and fourth-graders in 2019 caught up to where White students had been in 2014. Steubenville, a working-class community in Ohio, had some of the best-performing third- and fourth-graders in the country. The Cottonwood and Lane districts in Oklahoma are tiny, but they got together to boost low-income children.
And then there’s Chicago...
Chenoweth has examined six school districts which allegedly work. As Mathews' headline suggests, you've never heard of five of these districts, three of which he correctly describes as "tiny."
Three of the "Districts Which Work" are tiny. For the record, Seaford and Steubenville are small.
That said, Chicago completes the gang of six, and Chicago is very large! Advancing claims we've reviewed in the past, Chenoweth is said to have said this:
MATHEWS (continuing directly): And then there’s Chicago. In 1987, Education Secretary William Bennett declared it the worst school district in the country. Its reputation eventually improved enough to be considered a bit better than Detroit’s.
But Chenoweth detected a startling turnaround in the past decade. In 2011, 48 percent of Chicago’s fourth-graders met basic standards for reading. In 2015, 67 percent of that same group met basic standards for eighth-graders. No other urban district measured by federal tests had shown that kind of increase in that period of time.
Chenoweth sums it up this way: In Chicago, fourth- and eighth-graders “now achieve at levels above many other cities and right around the national average.”
Chicago, our nation's third largest district, is also allegedly a "district that works!" Five of these districts are tiny or small. Chicago is very large.
At any rate, there you see the field of play, as described in Mathews' column. For today, as a point of caution, we will only say this:
When Mathews calls three of those school districts "tiny," he isn't kidding around!
As Mathews notes, the Cottonwood and Lane School Districts are located in rural Oklahoma. According to this profile from Education Trust, the Lane district serves a total of 274 kids, full stop, spread through ten grade levels (PK through Grade 8).
That's a truly tiny school district, but Cottonwood is smaller! Indeed, it's hardly a "district" at all. According to that same profile, it operates only one school, another PK through Grade 8 school which serves a total of 180 students.
Although we share the old school system tie, we've never met or spoken with Mathews. We've long admired his approach to public school issues, largely because his demeanor and instincts are different from our own.
Concerning this current issue, we learned, long ago, in the early years of our time in the Baltimore City Schools, to be cautious concerning upbeat claims about those "Schools That Work."
We were among the first to note that claims from such schools may not always be what they seem. In this case, a skeptic might offer this thought:
Our of all the school districts in all towns in all the country, Chenoweth had to walk into three tiny districts just to find six that allegedly work. You'll also note that we keep including that one key word, "allegedly!"
She had to include three tiny districts just to name six we can talk about! That doesn't necessarily mean that anything's "wrong" in her book.
We do take that as a warning sign concerning the latest appearance of this very familiar old framework. And yes, we return to that nagging key word: "allegedly."
Three of the districts in question are "tiny." Two other districts are small.
Chicago would, of course, be a much larger story. Before the week is done, we'll examine the claims about the Chicago schools which Mathews reports, as we've done in the past.
Eventually, we'll go to Chicago! First, though, we'll discuss a blindingly obvious point of caution.
We'll discuss that point tomorrow. It's a blindingly obvious point of concern, one which routinely disappears when we fall in love, once again, with those schools which (allegedly) work.
Tomorrow: A remarkable lack of concern