SATURDAY, JUNE 26, 2021
Basic concerns disappear: For starters, let's look at Chicago.
By light years, it's the largest of the six school districts discussed in Karin Chenoweth's new book, Districts That Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement.
By light years, Chicago is the largest such district discussed in Chenoweth's book. In his latest column for the Washington Post, Jay Mathews reports what Chenoweth says about the other five "Districts That Succeed," three of which are "tiny."
He then reports what Chenoweth says about Chicago, the nation's third-largest school district. This is what Chenoweth says:
MATHEWS (6/21/21): 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.”
Let's start with a quibble. Chenoweth didn't exactly "detect" the apparent improvement recorded by Chicago's public school students.
The improvement described in Mathews' column has been widely noted. Chicago's higher test scores are a basic matter of record, based upon student performance on the federally-administered NAEP tests of reading and math.
Chicago's performance has improved on the Naep, the testing program widely known as "The Nation's Report Card." The summary Mathews quotes does sound quite impressive:
In Chicago, fourth- and eighth-graders “now achieve at levels above many other cities and right around the national average.”
Chicago's kids are now achieving at levels "right around the national average?" Given that large urban system's demographics, that sounds like extremely good news.
Here in Our Town, we've been in love with stories like this dating at least to the mid-1960s. That said, here are Chicago's Grade 8 math scores from the most recent Naep tests, as compared to the scores which were recorded in public schools nationwide:
Average scores, Grade 8 math
Chicago public schools, 2019 Naep
White students: 303.22
Black students: 264.24
Hispanic students: 274.61
All students: 275.26
Average scores, Grade 8 math
U.S. public schools, 2019 Naep
White students: 291.46
Black students: 259.21
Hispanic students: 267.96
All students: 280.99
For all Naep data, start here. We'll apply a conventional, though very rough, rule of thumb to place those scores in perspective:
According to that very rough rule of thumb, black kids in Chicago outperformed black kids nationwide by something like one-half an academic year.
Assuming there's nothing wrong with the data, that's a fairly good performance. The performance gets a little bit better when family income is factored in.
On the other hand:
According to that very rough rule of thumb, black kids in Chicago were outperformed by white kids nationwide by something like 2.5 academic years.
Chicago's black kids performed way below their white peers nationwide. Making matters somewhat worse, the nation's Asian/Pacific Islanders kids performed, on average, 18 points higher than the nation's white kids.
(In Chicago, a "District That Succeeds," API kids outscored black kids by an astounding 52 points! If it's equal performance that we seek, what would failure look like?)
In a slightly different world, it would be shocking to see results like those treated as good news, worthy of a book. It would be shocking to see a district whose black kids were 2-3 years behind the nation's white kids heralded as one of six—count 'em, six!—"Districts That Succeed" nationwide.
In a slightly different world—in a world where anyone, black or white, actually cared—Our Town would be dropping R-bombs on the heads of academics and journalists who were willing to offer that framework. Luckily, no one in Our Town really cares about this, so Chenoweth (and Mathews) will be spared the name-calling.
Chicago's students have been scoring better in recent years on the Naep, our nation's one testing program which seems to be fairly reliable. That said, if anyone actually cared about matters like this, the R-bombs would be descending on Chenoweth's head as payment for the upbeat way she characterized those data.
Imagine! Chicago's black kids were two to three years behind the nation's white kids when tested in Grade 8 math. On that basis, we're anointing Chicago as one of six (6) districts nationwide which are showing us how to succeed!
Our standards tend to be clownishly low when we construct these stories. That's because nobody cares, or at least so it seems.
In truth, Our Town has been in love with such stories since the 1960s. Our Town's motto may as well be this:
You gotta believe!
Historically, we've always been ready to believe these upbeat "Schools That Work" presentations. We're always ready to move ahead to the next presentation suggesting that the solution to our education problems may lie right around the corner.
We're always willing to believe! That brings us back to the other five "Districts That Succeed" in Chenoweth's latest book.
Three of those districts are accurately described by Mathews as "tiny." (If only on a statistical basis, it seems off that they're included.) The other two districts are small.
There are no Naep data—none at all—for these other five districts. As a large city, Chicago participates in the Naep's Trial Urban District Assessment. But there are no stand-alone Naep data for the other five districts.
When Professor Reardon assembled the voluminous data upon which Chenoweth relied, he had to use data from our various rattletrap statewide testing programs. There are no other data he could have compiled—but at this point, an elementary fact disappears.
That fact is known to everybody. That basic fact would be this:
As everyone know, these statewide testing programs have been dogged by massive cheating scandals in recent years. And no, we aren't talking about something as simple or semi-innocent as "teaching to the test."
We're talking about outright cheating—absurdly flagrant outright cheating for the purpose of improving the scores from a classroom, school or district. We're even talking about so-called "erasure parties," where teachers would gather to change wrong answers to right on students' answer sheets after the testing was over.
Within the last decade or so, this sort of thing went on in Atlanta, in Philadelphia, in D.C. In Atlanta, the highly-regarded superintendent was indicted on racketeering charges, but died before going to trial. Eleven teachers and administrators were convicted on criminal charges.
Purely by happenstance, we ourselves became aware of outright cheating at certain schools in Baltimore in the early 1970s. On several occasions, we wrote about this topic in the Baltimore Sun. On a sporadic basis, this problem popped up again and again over the years, but it was serially forgotten about by the nation's press.
Within the past decade, some major newspapers finally caught up with this practice. As a result, it became a major national story. Everybody knows that this sort of thing has gone on, but when we want to stop worrying here in Our Town, such knowledge may disappear.
For various reasons, the Naep is largely immune to such practices. Statewide testing programs are not. When Professor Reardon assembled his data, he was working with mountains of test scores from those testing programs.
Aside from Chicago, Chenoweth profiles five school districts which allegedly have succeeded. One of them produced the most anomalous test scores in the entire nation, by far, within Reardon's voluminous data.
Does Chenoweth know if the testing programs in those five districts may have been invalidated in some way, whether deliberately or by simple error? Did she try to examine this point?
As we've noted, one of her districts produced the most anomalous test scores in the entire nation, by far! Given what's happened in other locations, did it occur to her that she might want to ask around?
Also this: Did it occur to Mathews? His wife, Linda Mathews, is one of the journalists who blew the whistle on one of the nation's largest cheating scandals. He knows that cheating exists.
Should this apparent point of concern be mentioned as part of his column? Why do we simply proceed as if there's no such point of concern?
Here in Our Town, we don't really care about low-income kids, but we're fully convinced that we do.
The very bad people are all Over There, and we enjoy calling them racists. As for ourselves, we stopped discussing low-income schools a long time ago. We walked away from the topic when it became clear that finding solutions to this brutal legacy was going to be be hard.
Today, it's all about Our Town's R-bombs—the R-bombs we aim Over There. No one cares about the kids who attend our low-income schools. We prove this point again and again, and then we prove it again.
We've written about Jay's column all week. (We've long admired Jay's work.) Here in Our Town, where the good people live, you'll never hear Chenoweth, or her upbeat book, ever mentioned again.
Anthropologically, this is a lesson in human nature. Or so major experts have said.
In the end, two choices: One of Chenoweth's "Districts That Succeed" was producing highly anomalous test scores as of 2009-2012. Way back then, that district was overperforming in a way no other district in the nation came close to matching.
In April 2016, this fact became abundantly clear when the New York Times published its graphic of Reardon's data. When it came to over-performance, that district was in a class by itself, by a rather wide margin.
Why didn't Our Town descend on that district to figure out what it was doing? Until this week, you'd never heard a single word about that high-performing district.
Why didn't that high-performing district get swarmed by the deeply caring people we admire so much in Our Town?
We can offer two possible answers:
No one believed that those scores were real. More likely, nobody looked at that New York Times graphic. And that's because nobody cares!