This essay was written by Horace Meister, a young untenured scholar who cannot use his own name for fear of retribution. Read it and judge it by the evidence.
This is what happens when policy is based on ideology, not evidence.
The power and reach of the federal Department of Education (DOE) has grown dramatically since 2009. The DOE has used Race to the Top and the controversial granting of waivers from the legal mandates of No Child Left Behind to force states to implement very specific policies. These policies include increasing the number of charter schools, evaluating teachers through value-added measures, and implementing the Common Core Standards and associated assessments. The DOE has also attempted to improve the “lowest-achieving schools” by closing them, turning them over to private operators, or firing the principal and/or the staff.
Unfortunately, not a single one of these policies has any supporting evidence. As a sector charter schools do not have better student outcomes than public schools.[i] Value-added metrics are unreliable measures of teacher quality.[ii] The adoption of standards has no effect on student learning.[iii] The “lowest-achieving schools” are statistically schools that work with a more challenging student body, not schools with failing teachers and principals.[iv]
It is bewildering to see an entire department of the federal government taken over by what can only be described as mass hysteria. With no evidence backing their policies, we are left with ideology and the power of special interests as explanations for what is happening. This refusal to use evidence in evaluating educational policies is apparent in the work of Arne Duncan’s chief speechwriter, David Whitman. In 2008 he wrote a book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism.[v] The book profiles six “no excuses” schools and argues that they show the way to a radically improved education system in the United States. But let’s see if the evidence actually supports this claim.
The first school profiled in the book is the American Indian Charter School in Oakland, California. Whitman forgot to mention that “half the 6th grade students performing poorly in 2007 had left the school before graduation, and only 39 of the 51 students who started in 2006 completed their middle school years with AIPCS[vi].” He also forgot to mention that “Chavis [the principal] routinely abused his students verbally, humiliating them in front of their classmates, to force them [to] score higher on tests or quit the school altogether… At minimum, Chavis’ schools appear to be nothing more than a rigged system in which mostly high-scoring students apply to get in, are accepted, and then continue to score well on tests.[vii]” Another story noted that “there’s evidence to suggest that the school’s high scores aren’t the result of an unusually high caliber of teaching or organization, but rather the educational equivalent of bringing in ringers… the school appears to be asking parents to submit test scores as part of their student’s applications.[viii]” Strangely enough Whitman claimed on page 80 of his book that the school was “hardly an example of selective recruiting or creaming from the top of the local academic ” It appears that he didn’t dig deep enough.
Moving on to the second school profiled in the book– Amistad Academy, an Achievement First school in New Haven, Connecticut. Here is what’s really going on at Amistad “Data show that for nearly one of them [i.e. graduating seniors] who walked across the stage Wednesday, another was “lost” along the way. Students “lost” to Amistad include one senior who withdrew in March to attend adult education…Of the 64 students who entered Amistad High in 2009 as freshmen, plus two who joined the group after freshman year, 25 are graduating this year and heading to college; seven were retained and plan to graduate high school next year; and 34 withdrew from the school.[ix]” Whitman notes (on pages 119-120) that every Achievement First school “is expected to keep student attrition to less than 5 percent a year.” He somehow forgot to mention that Amistad fails to meet this expectation.
Another aspect of the Amistad “model” is captured by this parent comment “the middle school is a stressful, mentally abusive, black children being degraded mess! I have never seen a kid get so many DEDUCTIONS, OSS, ISS in my life. If you are so much about kids getting their education, why are you so quick to kick them out of class and/or suspended them?[x]”
The third school profiled is Cristo Ray Jesuit High School in Chicago, Illinois—a school that requires all students to work one full weekday a week to pay off tuition costs. An interview with G.R. Kearney who wrote More Than a Dream: The Cristo Rey Story: How One School’s Vision Is Changing the World noted that “Almost half of the student who enroll in Cristo Rey fail to graduate from Cristo Rey.” To which the Kearney added “Cristo Rey has a fairly rigorous application process, though there is no entrance exam. The school goes to great pains to ensure that the students selected to attend are capable of graduating and attending college. In theory, those students who would be true negative influences are screened out in the application process.[xi]” The interviewer also mentioned that the descriptions of disciplinary issues at the two schools dramatically differ between the two books “Whitman seemed to describe it as a place where discipline problems almost magically ceased to exist while Kearney provides a slightly different picture.” This raises some questions about whether or not Whitman’s descriptions of the schools he profiles mirror reality.
We are halfway through the list of schools that Arne Duncan’s chief speechwriter believes should serve as the model for transforming the entire American education system. So far we haven’t seen anything at all compelling. What comes next? The forth school profiled is KIPP Academy in Bronx, New York. Much space in Whitman’s chapter is devoted to describing the orchestra in which every student participates. When describing the school’s academic outcomes Whitman acknowledges (pages 176-78) that KIPP Academy serves students with higher incoming academic performance than the district average, many fewer English Language Learners (who score poorly on standardized exams), and many more female students (who in aggregate do better on standardized exams than male students). He nonetheless insists (page 175) that “the usual demographic suspects fail to explain the superior performance of KIPP students.” It is clear that Whitman has not done his research and neglects to mention lots of relevant data. “On their math tests in the fourth grade (the year before they arrived at KIPP), KIPP students in the Bronx scored well above the average for the district, and on their fourth-grade reading tests they often scored above the average for the entire city.[xii]” “KIPP Academy had one of the highest suspension rates among New York City charter schools.[xiii] Despite Whitman’s claim that “like their peers at comparison schools, KIPP students are likely to live in poverty (page 175)” the data actually show that KIPP schools in New York City have dramatically fewer free lunch students than local public schools.[xiv] KIPP schools in New York City serve many fewer high need special education students.[xv] And KIPP Academy has a 20% cohort attrition rate in middle school.[xvi]
Ironically, KIPP schools in New York City have done rather poorly on the policies that Whitman writes speeches for Duncan defending. Reporting on the Common Core test results Politico noted “the highly touted KIPP network also stumbled, with proficiency rates well below the city average for several grades and subjects.[xvii]” KIPP teachers also receive lower value-add scores than teachers at comparable schools.[xviii]
The fifth school profiled by Whitman is SEED, a boarding school in Washington D.C. The sky-high attrition rates at this school make it anything but a model for nationwide reforms. One analysis noted that of students who began 7th grade at SEED “most of their cohort was gone by the time graduation rolled around.[xix]” The SEED high school alone has attrition rates of over 50%, although Whitman only acknowledges attrition as an issue in the middle school.[xx] The New York Times describes “The incoming class of 70 students slowly dissipated each year so that by senior year, the remaining students barely filled a gym bleacher. The high attrition made the school’s much-lauded college acceptance rate less impressive: If a class of 70 seventh graders fell to 20 students by the time of graduation, those remaining 20 students were arguably among the best — at least in terms of self-discipline and a willingness to stick it out — of the original class.[xxi]”
We now come to the final school model, University Park Campus School, in Worcester, Massachusetts. This is the only public school profiled by Whitman and it has a number of interesting characteristics. Unlike the other schools in the book, which focus on lecture-centered pedagogy, University Park Campus School’s focus is on group work. This is more aligned to the teaching style used in schools that serve America’s middle and upper class students than the militaristic methods focused on obedience all too common in “no excuses” schools serving America’s lower class students.
Whitman mentions some demographic differences, such as more students coming from “intact families” than the district average. He forgets to mention a lot of others– including half the number of African-American students and three times the number of Asian students as the district average.[xxii] He also forgets to mention that the school serves half as many English Language Learners and half as many special education students as the district average.[xxiii] Whitman claims (page 244) that “its attrition rate is effectively zero” but the data show that the attrition rate is actually 8% a year and five times higher among African-American and Hispanic students than White and Asian students.[xxiv] English Language Learners attrite at a rate 4% higher than the student average.
Whitman’s claim (on pages 243-44) that “unlike the two other high schools profiled… University Park has succeeded not only in eliminating the college attendance gap but the achievement test gap as well” is demonstrably false. According to the data the school has a 15% AP exam pass rate, well below the national average.[xxv]
So where does this all leave us? It is no fun to debunk the work that schools, principals, and teachers across America are doing. Each and every one of the schools discussed here has dedicated leaders and teachers doing amazing work with students every single day. In the current political climate claims about the performance of some schools are used by our Secretary of Education to bludgeon and demean the rest.[xxvi] That is not OK and the misrepresentations must be addressed. Hopefully, there will be a shift in policies at the federal level to reflect evidence and data.
We all want great teachers for every student. So let’s provide the training and on-the-job professional development that teaches teachers how to be great teachers.[xxvii]
We all want teachers to be held accountable for doing a great job with students. So let’s increase the use of peer-to-peer observation, feedback, intervention, and dismissal when appropriate.[xxviii]
We all want great schools for our students, especially students living in poor neighborhoods. So let’s build community schools that provide wraparound services for students.[xxix] And yes, let’s acknowledge that without addressing underlying issues of poverty, racism, and social inequality in neighborhoods and homes we will never close the achievement gap.
We all want our children to have rich and engaging curricula. So let’s ensure that our school districts are providing their schools with such curricula that teachers can modify and adapt for their students.[xxx]
We all want to know how are students are doing in school. So let’s let teachers create assessments that make sense for their classes and students. As has been done throughout history teachers will share the assessments and student progress in a transparent fashion with students and parents. A high-quality standardized exam given to a sample of students every other year will suffice to serve as a standardized measuring stick to norm across schools.
We all want to know the truth and create an education system that works for all students. So let’s stop perpetuating myths and falsehoods for ideological reasons.[xxxi]
[v] A pdf of the book can be found here http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED502972.pdf
[x] http://www.greatschools.org/connecticut/new-haven/1440-Amistad-Academy/reviews/ typos have been corrected.