A year ago, I wrote an article about “miracle schools” in the New York Times.
My beef was with politicians who pointed to a school and said that it had achieved dramatic test score gains and amazing graduation rates despite the poverty in which the children live. The usual “remedy” was to fire the teachers, close the school and bring in a new staff. On closer examination, however, the “miracle” evaporated. Some of the schools held up as models by the politicians had very high attrition rates, some had very low test scores coupled with high graduation rates, none of them had met the politicians’ descriptions of them. None proved that poverty doesn’t matter or that miracles happen when you fire the entire staff and close the school.
My point in debunking the myth of miracle schools was two-fold. It was not to embarrass the schools but to try to persuade the politicians that education is hard work and that closing schools doesn’t “fix” poverty. Education is an incremental process that happens day by day, one child at a time. The people who do this work do their best work when they are in a collegial atmosphere, when they work together as a team, collaborating to help the children in their care. And, yes, poverty does drag down students’ motivation and ability to succeed in school. Being hungry and homeless interferes with one’s focus on academic work.
It is distinctly unhelpful to go forth to national media and claim that your school is the very one that has cracked the code, especially if your success is built on high attrition rates and spin.
The latest “miracle” school is a small charter chain called Harlem Village Academy. Its founder, Deborah Kenny, has written a new book to tout the latest miracle in Harlem. She has been featured on the major television shows, telling her story. She is neither a teacher nor a principal but she is the one garnering praise (and an annual salary in excess of $400,000). Her charters get amazing test scores. President George W. Bush visited HVA. A New York Times columnist hailed her achievements, especially her passion for cultivating “great teachers.
When I was writing my article for the New York Times a year ago, I turned to Gary Rubinstein to analyze state data about the “miracle” schools. Gary is a math teacher at Stuyvesant High School. As I said when I spoke to NCTM earlier this year, math teachers and mathematicians are hard-headed. They insist on evidence. They want proof. They like theory, but they are not content with theory alone. Sentiment doesn’t count with them. Nor does spin and hype. Gary has become the nation’s pre-eminent myth buster of education “miracles.” I urge you to sign up for his blog.
Gary investigated the Harlem Village Academy data, and he concluded there was no miracle. HVA has astonishingly high attrition rates among both students and teachers. In 2009-10, a startling 61% of teachers left HVA.
Gary’s blog includes a letter from a teacher who left HVA, angry and disillusioned by the imperious and disrespectful ways that teachers were treated by Deborah Kenny. Gary notes that truly great schools are great communities. Teachers don’t want to leave great schools. Great schools do not have high teacher attrition rates every year. They love their jobs, their students, their school, their community, and their colleagues.
There is no joy, as Gary notes, in debunking a school’s claims. Like Gary, I would like to find schools that are succeeding against all odds to provide a great education for their students. I know such schools exist. I have seen them. When I have been in such schools, the leaders and teachers don’t talk about their test scores. They talk about the community spirit that brings together teachers and parents to work together on behalf of students. They talk about the accomplishments of their students and the work they proudly exhibit. They talk about the students who are meeting their own goals, despite the deck stacked against them. They celebrate small victories. They don’t boast. They exemplify the respect and concern–and well, love–that make a school successful. Not a miracle, but a beloved community institution.