Think Tank Advocacy Reports Not Credible for Education Policy: SC Edition

The Palmetto Promise Institute‘s report authored by Adam CrainMoney doesn’t translate into student results, is a follow-up to their 2013 report also comparing South Carolina education to Florida education reform.

Although this report offers several charts detailing an analysis of SC and FL National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests data (some of which is aggregated by race, disabilities, and poverty, but focusing on 4th grade reading), the report proves to be overly simplistic and an incomplete picture of student achievement in both states—with the ham-fisted data analysis serving as a thin veneer for advocacy unsupported by valid research and a more nuanced analysis of data.

In short, this report proves to be significantly inadequate evidence to support the ideologically-driven recommendations offered at the end—recommendations this conservative think tank would make regardless of the evidence (mostly a mishmash of school choice policy). There simply is no credible link between the shallow analysis of SC/FL NAEP scores and the call for policy as solutions to the manufactured problems.

Let me outline here both the flaws of the data analysis and then the folly of the recommendations.

The foundational flaw of both reports is suggesting some sort of value in comparing SC to FL and the persistent but discredited claim that FL has successful education reform. In fact, the so-called Florida “miracle” has been strongly refuted, notably its grade-retention policy based on high-stakes test scores.

By comparison, SC is slightly more impoverished than FL, and SC (27%) has a higher percentage than FL (16%) of blacks (both metrics used in the report analysis). However, this report from PPI makes no effort to show how their raw comparisons are actually apples-to-apples, or valid.

Another analysis of NAEP data that adjusts for factors impacting test scores reveals a much more nuanced and important picture, one that exposes a huge flaw with the FL model of reform [1] and depending on test data.

While adjusted trend data on NAEP continues to show 4th grade FL reading scores better than SC scores, by 8th grade (see Table 6B1, 2013 data) SC (269.5) and FL (272.3) have nearly identical adjusted scores.

Here is a key point about FL’s retention policy: Retaining students can inflate short-term test data, but those gains erode over time. Further, grade retention [2] maintains a strong correlation with students dropping out of school and an inverse correlation with students receiving a diploma (see Jasper, 2016 [3]).

Ultimately, the data analysis and charts in this report are overly simplistic on purpose because PPI has an agenda: argue against increased school funding and promote school choice.

The report uses bold face, lazy math, and insufficient statistical methods to dramatize a baseless claim: “Simple funding comparisons indicate quite the opposite. Over the twelve year period between 1999 and 2011, South Carolina spent a total of $6,920 more per student, or an average of $692 per year.

Without proper statistical analysis, using controls and making causal claims, this raw data approach, like the NAEP analysis, means almost nothing.

The body of educational research, in fact, shows that funding does matter (see Baker, 2016) [4].

Both, then, the NAEP analysis and the related argument that SC school funding is somehow excessive/wasteful are statistically inadequate and useless for making the recommendations at the end of the report.

Those recommendations fall into two broad categories: accountability and school choice.

SC and FL jumped on the accountability bandwagon early, about three decades ago, and remain completely unsatisfied with their educational outcomes, despite huge amounts of tax dollars and immeasurable time spent on ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.

Calling for accountability ignores the research base that shows accountability based on standards and testing has failed, will continue to fail:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced tests core advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum….

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. (Mathis, 2012)

The evidence on school choice also contradicts the report because choice fails to increase student achievement, but it is strongly associated with increasing segregation and inequity (see here and here).

Let’s summarize the major points of the report:

  • The report claims SC lags FL in academic achievement and education reform while spending more per pupil. However, the analysis offered here is an incomplete picture and statistically flawed. None of the claims made in the report are proven, and more nuanced and longitudinal analyses of NAEP greatly erode the premise of PPI’s report (grounded also in the debunked Florida “miracle” claim).
  • The report’s major recommendations about school funding, accountability, and school choice are all strongly contradicted by the research base, which the report fails to acknowledge.

Ultimately, as a colleague responded when I shared this report, PPI has published “a five page Op-Ed with bar graphs,” and I would add, not a very good one at that.

SC should in no way be influenced by this report when making education policy.

However, SC should heed a kernel the report’s conclusion: “The disparity between the stewardship of resources in Florida and our struggling education system in South Carolina is apparent.”

As I have detailed, while most educational rankings and comparisons prove to be hokum, what evidence from our schools and reform policies shows is that SC ranks first in political negligence.

Ironically, this report is calling for more negligence in the pursuit of market ideology.

[1] See evidence discrediting Florida “miracle” and FL’s reading policyhow SC could benefit from looking at Oklahoma, not FL; and why FL reform is harmful for students and literacy.

[2] See the National Council of Teachers of English’s Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing:

Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.

[3] Jasper’s abstract captures the ultimate failure of FL’s reform:

In 2003-2004 approximately 23,000 third graders were retained in Florida under the third grade retention mandate outlined in the A+ Plan. Researchers in previous studies found students who were retained faced difficulty in catching up to their peers, achieving academically, and obtaining a high school diploma (Anderson, Jimerson, & Whipple, 2005; Andrew, 2014; Fine & Davis, 2003; Jimerson, 1999; Moser, West & Hughes, 2012; Nagaoka, 2005; and Ou & Reynolds, 2010). In this study I examined educational outcomes of students retained in a large southwest Florida school district under the A+ Plan in 2003-2004. I used a match control group, consisting of similarly nonretained students, who scored at level one on the Grade 3 Reading FCAT. I then compared the control group to the retained group. I also compared achievement levels on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT of the retained and non-retained group. I evaluated longitudinal data, for both the retained and non-retained students, and found 93% of the retained students continued to score below proficiency (below a level 3) seven years after retention on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT as compared with the 85.8% of the non-retained students. I also compared standard diploma acquisition of the retained and non-retained group. The non-retained group was 14.7% more likely to obtain a standard high school diploma than the retained group. Finally, I used data from previous studies to extrapolate economic outcomes.

[4] Baker’s analysis has key points detailed in the Executive Summary (p. i):

baker funding 2016.png

UPDATED: Beware the “Miracle” School Claim: “Why not tell the whole story?”

UPDATE 19 April 2017

Since my post below, Benjamin Navarro, founder of Meeting Street Schools, submitted a Lady Macbeth-esque protest about the article linked below.

Navarro, I believe unintentionally, poses a very important question while challenging how the Post and Courier reported the excessive suspensions at Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood: “Why not tell the whole story?”

While Navarro bristles at the suspension data, he is quick to offer a partial story about data he prefers, test scores:

And most important of all [emphasis added], why not talk about the enormous impact that Brentwood’s higher test scores have on the likely outcomes for these children? Why not report the fact that our students scored in the 71st percentile in reading and 73rd percentile in math (almost eliminating the bottom quartile), while other North Charleston Title One schools scored on average in the 42nd and 39th percentile respectively in 2016?

So let’s have a shot at the whole story because that is the problem with Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood, with all so-called alternative approaches to public schools such as charter schools.

Currently, South Carolina is not holding schools accountable by the usual school report card until fall 2018. But the media, in fact, has been reporting glowing depictions of Brentwood, depending almost entirely on the school’s founder and leaders who are incentivized to paint the best picture possible of their experiment while concurrently (and dishonestly) falsely trashing Charleston public schools (see Navarro’s letter).

Navarro’s reference to test scores looks impressive; yet, he fails to provide the whole story about that data—and as I detail below, virtually every time the whole story comes out about miracle schools, that whole story proves there are no miracles.

Here, then, is what we need to know:

  • What test data are being cited? It is likely he is citing practice test data (such as MAP and ACT testing). We must confront if we truly believe that intensive test-prep and test scores are what any child deserves from formal schooling, if these claimed higher scores are from test prep, and why we allow this reduced form of education for poor and black/brown students while affluent and white students receive advanced courses, gifted programs, and all sorts of enrichment.
  • What is the attrition rate for Brentwood—the number of students originally enrolled compared to the number of students tested? Are suspension/expulsions and counseling out creating skewed test score data?
  • What percentage of English language learners (ELLs) and students with special needs are being tested, and then, are data from Brentwood being compared to other schools with similar demographics (and not just all Title One schools)?
  • Has Brentwood controlled for the extended school day/year to account for these claimed higher test scores, or are we being asked to compare student data under different conditions of learning? More teaching and learning time should produce higher scores; thus, Brentwood may have higher scores while not being able to claim that anything other than more time created that difference.
  • If, as advocates and Navarro claim, some unique practices by Meeting Street are causing greater student achievement, how can they prove those practices are causal and then that they are scalable? For example, what is the per-pupil expenditure, what are class sizes and student/teacher ratios, and what can Brentwood do that traditional public schools cannot (such as refuse to serve ELLs or special needs students)?
  • What race and social class biases are driving our willingness to create schools for high poverty and black/brown students that are committed to “no excuses” and zero tolerance discipline practices?

Advocates for Brentwood, including Navarro, are trafficking in partial stories by failing to be transparent about their claims of miracles while refusing to accept data that tarnishes those claims.

Until all of the questions above are answered by making that data transparent to independent analysis (not by those invested in the success of Brentwood), we are forced to suffer under partial stories that serve no one well.

Original Post: Beware the “Miracle” School Claim

Published on Easter Sunday 2017 in the Post and Courier, Paul Bowers offered what I suspect will be a slow and painful series of unfortunate evidence that will discredit claims of educational miracles at Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood; in this case, the public/private partnership elementary school has a unique and extreme suspension problem:

Meeting St suspensions copy

As a public/private venture, as a school choice and reform mechanism, Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood is trapped in the need to advocate, sell its process. And since South Carolina has not held this experiment to the traditional school report card transparency, we are left only with the claims of school leaders.

However, we have well over a decade of “miracle” school bluster, all of which has been dismantled—suggesting that, I am sorry to say during this holiday season, there are no miracles.

While the school report card based mostly on high-stakes testing data is a significant failure of education reform, South Carolina’s report card system has included a key way to know if schools are in fact outperforming other schools, using the “Schools with Students Like Ours” metric (which I have detailed multiple times exposes that charter schools are no different, and possibly less effective, than traditional public schools in our state):

However, analyses from two years of report cards for charter schools in SC reveal the clear picture that more investment is not justified (see below for complete analysis of both years’ comparisons):

  • Using 2011 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical.
  • Using 2013 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 2/52 ABOVE Typical, 20/52 Typical, 22/52 BELOW Typical.

And thus, this disturbing suspension data about an elementary school are just the beginning of what I can predict will happen as the evidence grows against the claims of this school somehow is accomplishing what other schools have not, cannot accomplish.

First, the evidence is very clear that “high-flying schools” are extreme outliers, constituting about 1.1% of high-poverty schools. This means two things: (1) if Meeting Street does achieve some sort of high-flying status, it will be in extremely rare company, and thus, (2) outliers prove virtually nothing about what most schools can and should accomplish (outliers often include key elements that cannot be scaled to all schools).

Next, the huge caution about any claims of miracle success on test scores at Meeting Street must be couched in their extended day and academic year. This technique has driven the false but powerful propaganda from KIPP charter schools that conveniently leave out that when you identify learning as months or years of growth, and you extend the learning time, the raw data growth is actually the same growth rate as other schools.

Comparing students with more teaching and learning time to other students with less is just one way advocates of charters and miracle schools mislead the public.

Remaining questions—some linked to suspension and expulsion patterns—include how any school’s test scores are impacted by student attrition (counseling out, expulsion, etc.), the percentage of special needs and English language learners served (when compared to traditional public schools), and the impact of self-selection (which can skew even claims that a school is serving a high-poverty population of students).

Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood will prove, once again, to be evidence of the inherent problems with education form, and no miracle at all.

Our most vulnerable students—impoverished, black and brown students, English language learners, and special needs students—are disproportionately the targets of educational reform/experiments grounded in test-mania and harsh discipline policies and outcomes (see here, here, and here).

To be blunt, good intentions of administrators and teachers in our traditional public schools have not been enough, and now, those same good intentions among reformers cannot be justification for false claims and failed policies and practices.

Practices and fads such as exit exams, “no excuses” mantras, “grit” and  growth mindset, zero-tolerance discipline, and the larger accountability movement churning through standards and high-stakes testing—these have all increased the existing problems with inequity in our schools and society, and have miserably failed the students who need nurturing and effective schooling the most.

Miracle school claims are that human-sized Easter bunny; but that is just some stranger in a suit pretending to be a bunny, and it isn’t really appealing so much as something we should be very leery of approaching, especially with children.


Education Reform in the Absence of Political Courage: Charleston (SC) Edition

Words matter, and thus, I must apologize by opening here with a mundane but essential clarification of terms.

As I have written over and over, everything involving humans is necessarily political, even and especially teaching and learning. Therefore, no teacher at any level can truly be apolitical, objective. Taking a neutral or objective pose is a political choice, and an endorsement of the status quo.

Key to that claim is recognizing the difference between political and partisan. Partisan politics involves allegiance to and advocacy for organized political parties, notably Republicans and Democrats.

A partisan feels compelled to place party loyalty above ideology or ethics. To be political can be and should be a moral imperative.

We can avoid being partisan, even as that is political. And when many people call for education and educators to avoid being political, what they really are seeking is that education and educators not be partisan—a position that is achievable and one I endorse.

This distinction matters in public education and public education reform because all public institutions in the U.S. are by their tax-supported status at the mercy of partisan politics.

From around 1980, in fact, politicians at the local, state, and national levels have discovered that public education is a powerful and effective political football. The standard politician’s refrain is “Schools are horrible, and I can make them better!”

The current rise of the inexpert ruling class at the presidential level has been foreshadowed for more than three decades by the partisan politics around education reform—politicians and political appointees with no experience or expertise in education imposing pet reform initiatives onto public schools because these policies appeal to an equally mis-informed public.

Even with large failed crucibles such as New Orleans post-Katrina, political leaders remain committed to finding themselves in a hole and continuing to dig.

In my home state of South Carolina, infamous for our Corridor of Shame, Charleston, on the east coast and part of that corridor, continues to represent the savage inequalities that result from a combination of an inexpert ruling class and an absence of political courage.

Charleston schools reflect the most stark facts about and problems with K-12 education across the U.S.: private and gate-keeping public schools (such as academies, magnet schools, and some charter schools) that provide outstanding opportunities for some students in contrast to grossly ignored high-poverty, majority-minority public schools that mis-serve “other people’s children.”

As a result of these inequities and dramatically different student outcomes exposed by the accountability era obsession with test scores, Charleston has played the education reform game, committing to provably failed policies over and over: school choice, school closures and takeovers, school turnaround scams, overstating charter schools as “miracles,” and investing in Teach For America.

Why do all these policies fail and what ultimately is wrong with inexpert leadership? The absence of political courage to address directly the blunt causes of inequitable student outcomes in both the lives and education of students.

Currently in Charleston, the closing of Lincoln High and transferring those students to Wando High (see here and here) highlight that the gap between commitments to failed edureform and political courage to do something different persists.

The debates and controversy over how former Lincoln students are now performing at Wando offer some important lessons, such as the following:

  • The media and the public should be aware of partisan political code. A garbled reach for “the soft bigotry of low expectations” has been used to explain why Lincoln students’ grades have dropped while at Wando. The “soft bigotry” mantra is a conservative slur triggering the public’s belief in “bleeding heart liberals,” who coddle minorities. But the more damning part of the code is that it focuses blame on the administration and teachers in high-poverty, majority-minority schools and thus away from political leadership.
  • And thus, the public needs to distinguish between blaming educators at Lincoln for low expectations (again, garbled as “low standards”) and the expected consequences of high-poverty, majority-minority schools suffering with high teacher turnover, annual under-staffing, and persistent teacher workforces that are new and/or un-/under-certified. Additionally, the accountability era has unrealistic demands of these schools when compared to low-poverty, low-minority schools that have much greater percentages of experienced and certified teachers.
  • The apparent drop in student grades and test scores from Lincoln to Wando is extremely important data that deserve close scrutiny, but so far, that scrutiny has been reduced to partisan politics and deflecting blame. Dozens of reasons could explain the grade differences, including the transfer as well as the staffing differences between the two schools (neither of which is the simplistic “soft bigotry” argument used primarily to justify closing a community school).

The partisan political approaches to schools and education reform are tarnished by both willful ignorance and a confrontational blame game.

The willful ignorance of politicians and the public refuses to acknowledge huge social inequity driven by racism and white privilege; the blame game seeks ways to blame the victims of those inequities instead of confronting systemic forces.

What should political leaders be doing and what should the public be demanding that is different from the patterns identified above, than the policies already proven as failures?

  • Recognize that in-school only reform creates two serious problems: (1) unrealistic demands with high-stakes consequences produce unethical behavior among otherwise good people (see the Atlanta cheating scandal), and (2) since out-of-school factors overwhelmingly influence measurable student achievement, even the right in-school only reform is unlikely to result in measurable improvement.
  • Interrogate the proclaimed cause of low student achievement—”low expectations”—and instead seek to understand the complex reasons behind that low achievement by poor and black/brown students based on available evidence that includes carefully interviewing the administrators, teachers, and students involved.
  • Advocate for public policy that addresses serious inequity in the lives of children—policy impacting access to health care, a stable workforce, access to safe and stable housing, and high-quality food security.
  • Refuse to ignore needed in-school reform, but reject accountability-based reform for equity-based reform focusing on equitable teacher assignment for all students, articulated school funding that increases funding for schools serving struggling communities, guaranteeing the same high-quality facilities and materials for all children regardless of socioeconomic status of the communities served, and eliminating gate-keeping policies that track high-needs students into test-prep while advantaged students gain access to challenging courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

Ultimately, the absence of political courage in SC and across the U.S. is where the real blame lies for inequitable student achievement along race and class lines.

Many students, the evidence shows, are doubly and triply disadvantaged by the consequences of their lives and their schools.

Trite and misleading political rhetoric, along with “soft bigotry of low expectations,” includes soaring claims that a child’s ZIP code is not destiny.

Well, in fact, ZIP code is destiny in SC and the U.S.; it shouldn’t be, but that fact will remain as long as political leadership chooses to ignore the expertise within the field of education and continues to lead without political courage.

Political courage requires direct action, even when it isn’t popular, and refuses to deflect blame, refuses to wait for what market forces might accomplish by taking the right action now.

Political courage, as James Baldwin expressed, embraces that “[t]he challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

For More on Political Courage

Support Betsy Devos Shoot Yourself In The Foot, Andre Perry

Black Activists Don’t Want White Allies’ Conditional Solidarity!, Stacey Patton

NEW from IAP: Learning from the Federal Market‐Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA

Learning from the Federal Market‐Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA

Edited by:
William J. Mathis, University of Colorado, Boulder
Tina M. Trujillo, University of California, Berkeley

A volume in the series: The National Education Policy Center Series. Editor(s): Kevin G. Welner, University of Colorado – Boulder. Alex Molnar, Arizona State University.

Published 2016

Over the past twenty years, educational policy has been characterized by top‐down, market‐focused policies combined with a push toward privatization and school choice. The new Every Student Succeeds Act continues along this path, though with decision‐making authority now shifted toward the states. These market‐based reforms have often been touted as the most promising response to the challenges of poverty and educational disenfranchisement. But has this approach been successful? Has learning improved? Have historically low‐scoring schools “turned around” or have the reforms had little effect? Have these narrow conceptions of schooling harmed the civic and social purposes of education in a democracy?

This book presents the evidence. Drawing on the work of the nation’s most prominent researchers, the book explores the major elements of these reforms, as well as the social, political, and educational contexts in which they take place. It examines the evidence supporting the most common school improvement strategies: school choice; reconstitutions, or massive personnel changes; and school closures. From there, it presents the research findings cutting across these strategies by addressing the evidence on test score trends, teacher evaluation, “miracle” schools, the Common Core State Standards, school choice, the newly emerging school improvement industry, and re‐segregation, among others.

The weight of the evidence indisputably shows little success and no promise for these reforms. Thus, the authors counsel strongly against continuing these failed policies. The book concludes with a review of more promising avenues for educational reform, including the necessity of broader societal investments for combatting poverty and adverse social conditions. While schools cannot single‐handedly overcome societal inequalities, important work can take place within the public school system, with evidence‐based interventions such as early childhood education, detracking, adequate funding and full‐service community schools—all intended to renew our nation’s commitment to democracy and equal educational opportunity.

Foreword, Jeannie Oakes. SECTION I: INTRODUCTION: THE FOUNDATIONS OF MARKET BASED REFORM, Purposes of Education: The Language of Schooling, Mike Rose. The Political Context, Janelle Scott. Historical Evolution of Test‐Based Reforms, Harvey Kantor and Robert Lowe. Predictable Failure of Test‐Based Accountability, Heinrich Mintrop and Gail Sunderman.SECTION II: TEST‐BASED SANCTIONS: WHAT THE EVIDENCE SAYS, Transformation & Reconstitution, Betty Malen and Jennifer King Rice.Turnarounds, Tina Trujillo and Michelle Valladares. Restart/Conversion, Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel. Closures, Ben Kirshner, Erica Van Steenis, Kristen Pozzoboni, and Matthew Gaertner. SECTION III: FALSE PROMISES, Miracle School Myth, P. L. Thomas. Has Test‐Based Accountability Worked? Committee on Incentives and Test‐Based Accountability in Public Education(Michael Hout & Stuart Elliott, Eds.). The Effectiveness of Test‐Based Reforms. Kevin Welner and William Mathis. Value Added Models: Teacher, Principal and School Evaluations, American Statistical Association. The Problems with the Common Core, Stan Karp. Reform and Re‐Segregation,Gary Orfield. English Language Learners. Angela Valenzuela and Brendan Maxcy. Racial Disproportionality: Discipline, Anne Gregory, Russell Skiba, and Pedro Noguera. School Choice, Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski. The Privatization Industry, Patricia Burch and Jahni Smith. Virtual Education, Michael Barbour. SECTION IV: EFFECTIVE REFORMS, Addressing Poverty, David Berliner. Racial Segregation & Achievement, Richard Rothstein. Adequate Funding, Michael Rebell. Early Childhood Education,Steven Barnett. De‐Tracking, Kevin Welner and Carol Corbett Burris. Class Size, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach. School–Community Partnerships, Linda Valli, Amanda Stefanski, and Reuben Jacobson. Community Organizing for Grassroots Support, Mark Warren. Teacher Education, Audrey Amrein‐Beardsley, Joshua Barnett, and Tirupalavanam Ganesh. SECTION V: CONCLUSION.

Miracle School Myth

 P.L. Thomas, Furman University


The accountability era of education reform began under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, spurred by the Nation at Risk report. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, education reform driven by accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing remained a state-based process, but during George W. Bush’s time as governor of Texas, the seeds of national accountability were sown, labeled the Texas “miracle” and providing the framework for No Child Left Behind. “Miracle” school narratives—including the Harlem “miracle,” the Chicago “miracle,” and other claims of “miracle” reform/policies (DC public schools, charter schools) and reformers (Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada)—have followed a predictable pattern: claims of “miracles,” use of those claimed “miracles” to advance particular state and national education policy, media endorsing  the “miracle” claims, a nearly universal refuting of credibility of those “miracles,” and political, media, and public failure to recognize the debunking.

More Questions for The Post and Courier: “Necessary Data” or Press-Release Journalism?

Back-to-back editorials at The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)—Bolster efforts at rural schools (18 June 2016) and Make literacy No. 1 priority (19 June 2016)—offer important messages about the importance of addressing South Carolina’s historical negligence of high-poverty schools, especially those serving black and brown students, and the folly of cutting funding for literacy initiatives in Charleston.

However, reading these two editorials leaves one well aware that good intentions are not enough and wondering if the P&C editors even read their own editorials.

In the 18 June 2016 editorial, the editors argue: “Acting rashly without necessary data would be misguided. But taking baby steps while one class after another misses out on an adequate education is a continued waste of valuable time.”

And the very next day, we read:

Still, parents should expect their children’s reading skills to improve noticeably.

And it’s fair for parents of the youngest students to expect significant improvement in their children’s reading by the end of the school year — if the new approach works. Of course, parents also can make a difference by reading to their youngsters every day at home.

If Dr. Postlewait’s plan doesn’t succeed, the school board must find a way to pay for programs that do.

Those programs exist. At Meeting Street Academy private school, and now at Meeting Street @ Brentwood, entering students score well below average on literacy tests and quickly catch up to and surpass the average. All Charleston County students deserve the same opportunity.

This praise of “programs [that] exist” is the exact “acting rashly” the P&C rightfully warns about the day before.

So what about “necessary data”?

We have two problems.

First, we do not have a careful analysis of data by those not invested in these schools about the two praised school programs. The fact is that we do not know if successful reading programs exist at these schools.

Second, we do know that “only 1.1 percent of high-poverty schools were identified as ‘high flyers'” (Harris, 2006). In other words, we now have decades of data refuting the political, public, and media fascination with “miracle schools.”

As I have repeatedly warned: “miracle schools” are almost always unmasked as mirages, but even if a rare few are outliers, they cannot serve as models for all schools because they are not replicable or scalable.

Therefore, the P&C editors are right to warn about acting rashly and without the necessary data as we reform public schools and bolster literacy among our students.

But the P&C is wrong to continue press-release journalism that contradicts that mandate.

Questions for the P&C about School Closure, Takeover

The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has taken an editorial stand in favor of closing a high-poverty, majority-minority school and a private takeover of public schools in Charleston (see a history of the debate here).

Now, a P&C editorial asks more questions:

How many classes of children should come up through the school’s failing system before the district makes some big changes?

Another question: Don’t those children deserve to try an educational approach that has proven to be far more successful?

Since turn about is fair play, let’s investigate those questions and ask a few in return.

At the very least, these questions are loaded, and as a result, misleading.

Burns Elementary (to be closed) is framed again as “failing,” and the Meeting Street Academy, “successful.”

As I have documented, many problems exist with the “good”/”bad” school labeling.

But in this case, we must be extra skeptical because all of the praise for the “successful” and the promises of even more success in “closing the achievement gap” for poor and mostly black students rest on the claims of the private entities invested in this process.

So there are actually some very important questions that the editors at the P&C are failing to ask:

  • Why have some students been allowed ever to languish in school conditions that are subpar when compared to vibrant schools and opportunities for other students in the same city? Burns Elementary with a poverty index of 96 is but one school that represents a long history in SC of how negligent we have been as a state in terms of providing anything close to equity in the opportunities poor and racial minority children are afforded.
  • Why does any public school board need a private partnership to do what is needed to offer these students the sort of school all children deserve? If what is needed is so obvious, and so easy to do (which is a subtext of the editorial), the truth is that the school board simply does not have the political will to do what is right for some children.
  • And this is very important: What third party, not invested in the Meeting Street Academy, has examined the claims of academic success in the so-called “successful” schools that are being promised as fixes for Burns? I cannot find any data on test scores (setting aside that test scores aren’t even that good for making these claims), but I have analyzed claims of “miracle” charter schools in SC—finding that these claims are always false. Always. I do not trust that Meeting Street is going to prove to be the first actual miracle school in a long line of those that have been unmasked before.

This last question cannot be overemphasized because the political process has proven time and again that political leadership can be easily bamboozled by glitzy claims but routinely fail to examine the evidence that would guide well our educational policy, as Christopher Lubienski, Elizabeth Debray, and Janelle Scott have revealed:

But what was perhaps most interesting was the degree to which research played virtually no part in decision making for policymakers, despite their frequent rhetorical embrace of the value of research. While many interviewees spoke of the importance of research evidence, nearly all were unable to point to an instance where research evidence shaped their position on an instrumentalist issue.

SC political leaders have pushed for school choice, charter schools, VAM evaluations of teachers, ever-new standards and high-stakes testing, exit exams, third-grade retention, and now takeover policies for so-called “failing schools”—yet all of these have no basis for policy in the body of research refuting the effectiveness of each one.

For the editors of the P&C, as well as our political leaders and the public, the real questions are why do we persist in ignoring the stark realities of our inequitable society, why do we then continue to play politics with our schools that are just as inequitable as our society, and then why do we refuse to consider the evidence about addressing social and educational inequity directly in our policies?

Again, as I have stated many times, the answer is that the people with the power to change things simply do not really care about change because any change can threaten their perches of power.

Closing schools, renaming schools, shuffling students—these are the practices of those who are invested in the status quo regardless of the consequences for “other people’s children.”

Outliers Never Evidence of Normal in Education

In Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares, the NYT, like most of mainstream media, is begrudgingly coming to admit that race and class inequity in the U.S. has a profound impact on the education of children—and that simply tinkering (badly) with school policy is not enough to change that reality:

We’ve long known of the persistent and troublesome academic gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in public schools.

We’ve long understood the primary reason, too: A higher proportion of black and Hispanic children come from poor families. A new analysis of reading and math test score data from across the country confirms just how much socioeconomic conditions matter.

Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.

But then there is this:

The data was [sic] not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.

“There are some outliers, and trying to figure out what’s making them more successful is worth looking at,” said Mr. Reardon, a professor of education and lead author of the analysis.

Well, no, if we find outliers—and virtually all data have outliers in research—we should not waste our time trying to figure out how we can make outliers the norm.

The norm is where we should put our efforts in order to confront what is, in fact, not “puzzling” (used earlier in the article) at all; the data are very clear:

What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.

Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.

Our great education reform failure is one of failing to rethink our questions and our goals.

Let’s stop trying to find the “miracle” in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.

Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.

And while we are making efforts at social policy, let’s end the in-school policies that we know “exacerbate” inequity: tracking, teacher assignments (and TFA), high-stakes testing, grade retention, discipline policies grounded in zero tolerance and “no excuses,” and segregation through school choice (including charter schools).

Education reform, as was highlighted in the original court case examined in the South Carolina documentary The Corridor of Shame, is obsessed with playing the hero by seeing who can pull the most babies out of the river.

And then examining the ones who survive the potential drowning in order to “make” all babies survive the trauma of being cast down stream.

But no one seems interested in walking upstream to stop babies being thrown in.

Life and learning do not need to be something children survive—and we must confront that we have decided that this is exactly what we are willing to accept for “other people’s children.”

It would not be so if we believed and acted upon that “they’re all our children.”

The Allegory of the River