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Learning at its Best

Miracle schools, vouchers and all that educational flim-flam

is the title of this piece by Diane Ravitch. It appeared at the website of Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, as part of the “Ask This” which is subtitled “Questions the Press Should Ask.” Oh if only reporters and writers on education were knowledgeable enough about education to ask questions such as those posed by Ravitch, perhaps we could cut through all the misleading and inaccurate information, the attempts to manipulate the public discourse on education to exclude the voices of those – including both Ravitch (a personal friend) and myself – who say that our supposed pattern of educational “reform” is like the emperor’s new clothes – there is no there there, as Gertrude Stein once opined of Oakland.

You should read Ravitch’s piece. To whet your appetite, let me offer Diane’s first paragraph here, and then explore a bit more below the fold:

Be skeptical of miracle schools. Sometimes their dramatic gains disappear in a year or two or three. Most such claims rely on cheating or gaming the system or on intensive test prep that involves teaching children how to answer test questions. These same children, having learned to take tests, may actually be very poorly educated, even in the subjects where their scores were rising.

Please keep reading.

Diane offers some very tough questions to consider. Understand that as an educational historian and as someone very involved in policy questions, the questions she poses are derived from the record, from extensive reading/research into the information that is actually available. For example:

When a charter school reports miraculous results, be sure to ask about the attrition rate. Some highly successful charters push out low-performing kids and their enrollment falls over the years (and the departing students are not replaced). Recently Arne Duncan hailed a “miracle” school in Chicago—Urban Prep—where all the students who graduated were accepted into college. But 150 students started and only 107 graduated. The 107 graduates had much lower test scores than the average for Chicago public school students. The school did a good job of getting the students into college (perhaps that was a miracle) but they were not better educated than students in the regular public schools.

In another instance, one of the “amazing” schools singled out by the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman” admits 140 students, but only 34 graduated. That’s a 75 per cent attrition rate. Some miracle.

Or try the brief paragraph before what I just quoted:

Whenever a district has a dramatic increase in test scores, look for cheating, gaming the system, intensive investment in test prep. Testing is NOT instruction. It is meant to assess instruction, not to substitute for it.

Take this points one at a time

cheating – explore the recent USA Today examination of test results in DC public schools under Michelle Rhee

gaming – the so-called Texas miracle on their state tests, given in tenth grade, was accomplished by holding back lower performing kids in 9th grade. Some were held back several times until they dropped out, and if they said they MIGHT get a GED, they were listed at having transferred to an alternative educational program, not as dropouts. Or perhaps after having been held back one year they were skipped to 11th on the grounds they had made so much progress. In either case, they were not tested. All this was documented BEFORE No Child Left Behind was passed into law, and people in Congress cannot say they were unaware. Walt Haney of Lynch College of Education at Boston College wrote about it, as did others, and a number of us passed on the literature to key people in Congress. Yet somehow Rod Paige won a superintendent’s award and got promoted to Secretary of Education, in part because of a claimed 90% graduation rate in Houston schools, when in reality only a bit over 40% of those entering 7th grade graduated with their cohorts.

intensive investment in test prep – these seems to be the pattern in a number of charter schools and some public schools claiming significant gains. But what evidence there is that the “gains” on tests are not maintained in subsequent grades, and students as they ascend the educational grades arrive less and less prepared to do the kind of work necessary to be successful even in a high school course of students, to say nothing of what is necessary in colleges, which is why post-secondary institutions have had to expand the number of places in remediation courses.

Ravitch remind us – at least those of us who have been paying attention – that improving pass rates on state tests may mean merely that states are manipulating their cut scores. It is possible to pass some state tests with less than half the questions answered correctly. Since all that are published are scaled scores, converted from raw scores, unless one can see the conversion formula, the scaled scores are subject to manipulation for all kinds of reasons, including the state (or school district for district wide tests) wanting to be able to show “success” or to avoid the politically unacceptable prospect of large numbers of students not being promoted or not graduating from high school.

Not all “studies” are peer-reviewed by independent scholars. Some are not even rigorous, as Ravitch points out about the claim by Carolyn Hoxby that students who spent 9 years in a NYC charter could close the achievement gap differential between, say, Harlem in inner city NY and Scarsdale, perhaps the wealthiest of the New York suburbs. As Ravitch writes:

The press gave that study huge attention and credibility, but no one noticed that there were very few students who had attended a charter in NYC for nine years or that Hoxby did not provide a number for the students who had closed the gap. It appears that her study was an extrapolation, and it was an extrapolation based on NYC and NY state’s inflated and unreliable test scores (see above). When NYC’s charter scores are reported, they range widely from very abysmal (a six per cent pass rate) to exceptional (100 per cent pass rate).

Ravitch also reminds us of the wisdom of the words spoken by Hal Holbrook in “All the President’s Men” – Follow the Money. In the case of education, we have the likes of Philip Anschutz, a billionaire who advocates for free market solutions (and for whom, I might mention, Michael Bennet worked before becoming Superintendent in Denver, and then a US Senator, and now apparently the successor in waiting to Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education). He was a funder of “Waiting for Superman” as was a man “previously CEO of a string of for-profit postsecondary institutions.” Similarly, the so-called Democrats for Education Reform has a board full of Wall St. hedge fund managers and big real estate moguls. Ravitch suggests asking why they are so interested in charters, and how they are connected with other ‘reform’ groups such as” Education Reform Now, Stand for Children, the state CAN organizations (e.g., ConnCAN), and a host of other groups promoting privatization and de-professionalization?” She also reminds us, as she did in her book, about the influence of the ‘billionaire boys’ club” of foundations such as Gates, Broad and Walton.

No high performing nations, as Ravitch reminds us, are pursuing the kinds of approaches we are seeing advocated by such groups and foundations, and unfortunately by the Obama administration. She challenges the administration with a number of questions, on continuing Bush administration accountability problems, on school choice, on merit pay (which lacks any supportive research base in education or in industry, and has clearly been shown to have no effect on test scores, which of course are the measurement of choice of the so-called reformers). Given the President’s recent remarks at Bell Multicultural High School in the District, in response to a question from a student, it is worth noting this question from Ravitch:

Why does the president publicly say he is against standardized testing at the same time that his administration is demanding more emphasis on standardized testing?

Read Ravitch. Perhaps pass on the article to the editors, editorialists, and reporters dealing with education at your publication of choice.

Ravitch concludes her piece with simple statement:

Principles for reporters: Be skeptical; don’t believe in miracles; follow the money.

Perhaps were these principles followed, we might actually be able to have a meaningful public discussion on how to address the real needs and issues confronting our schools and our students.

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Discussion

One thought on “Miracle schools, vouchers and all that educational flim-flam

  1. So, what’s a better use for the money going to all charter and non-charter public schools – succeeding and failing – that are stuck replicating a 19th century model of assimilation and indoctrination into Protestant work culture?

    I worry profoundly on a daily basis that whenever we engage in a new charter debate, we give up one more opportunity to talk about what all schools should be doing to transform themselves into learning organizations that don’t wound adults and students.

    Open more truly innovative schools. Spend less money in more meaningful ways. End sorting, staffing, and scheduling by adult convenience. Abolish grades and the Carnegie Unit. Create portfolio districts so older schools become specialty centers staffed and attended by people who want to be in them. Implement Kirsten’s curated list of ways to make school more democratic.

    There are dozens of ways to make school matter more. I’m interested in Ravitch’s take on how all schools should change.

    Best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 20, 2011, 7:21 pm

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