Dec 01 2011

Miracle Schools: Where Are They Now?

The current education reform battle is a bit like a boxing match.

The corporate reformers had a lot of momentum until April 2010, when Diane Ravitch came out with ‘The Death And Life Of The Great American School System.’ This was like a giant upper cut to Bloomberg, Klein, Rhee, and Gates.

Six months later, in September 2010, the corporate reformers tried to punch back with the feeble ‘Waiting For Superman.’ Despite millions of dollars in free advertising from the mainstream media, this movie was so flawed if might not even qualify as a documentary. It claimed, essentially, that anyone who says that teachers don’t have the ability to overcome poverty is wrong, and as proof held up some successful schools (all charters) that were doing exactly that.

Nine months later, with the June 2011 publication of the New York Times Op Ed ‘Waiting For A School Miracle,‘ Ravitch exposed that several schools that Obama and Duncan used in speeches to prove that the corporate reform movement is working were actually not doing so well. This was like a body blow which sent the corporate reformers scrambling.

Before that Op Ed, Duncan liked to talk about how there were many schools that had 90% poverty, 90% passing the state tests, 90% graduation rate, and 90% going to college. In the ‘Miracle Schools’ Op Ed, Ravitch showed how Obama and Duncan tried to imply that three schools: Urban Prep in Chicago, Miami Central in Miami, and Bruce Randolph in Denver were beating the odds and overcoming poverty by having higher expectations.

Duncan spoke about Urban Prep at the TFA 20th anniversary summit. Though he didn’t explicitly say it, it was implied that Urban Prep was a 90-90-90-90 school when he said that 107 out of 107 graduates were accepted into college. He didn’t mention that only 17% passed the state tests, or that the 107 seniors had been 160 freshmen three years earlier.

Obama praised Denver’s Bruce Randolph school because 97% of their 50 seniors graduated. He failed to mention that there were 100 freshmen three years earlier. He also didn’t mention that their state test scores were all under 10% proficiency.

Obama also praised Miami Central for their great improvements, neglecting to mention that they were still near the bottom of the state in all academic categories.

What these three schools had in common was that they had all been ‘turned around’ through corporate reform tactics. Urban Prep was a charter that replaced part of a big ‘failing’ school. Half the teachers in Miami Central had been fired and replaced. Bruce Randolph had fired 34 out of its 40 teachers.

Within days after that Op Ed was published, the corporate reformers came up with a new defense. They claimed that they had never said that these schools were getting high achievement. They were praising the ‘improvement’ of these schools.

The most angry response was by Jonathan Alter, who concluded with “Her view is that we should throw up our hands and admit that nothing will change until we end poverty in our time,” which, of course, was not the point at all.

A few days later, Alter and Ravitch debate on a Denver radio show where Alter gushes about how Bruce Randolph 9th graders went from 7% passing writing in 2007 to 15% in 2010 and from 5% passing math in 2007 to 14% in 2010.

In The Huffington Post, the CEO of Urban Prep said that their scores need to be compared to students with the same demographics. Judging their 17% pass rate against the district average is unfair. “These critics should be comparing apples-to-apples; not apples-to-grapefruits.”

Overnight, they changed their strategy from saying “Demography is not destiny” and “Look at all the schools that are getting huge rapid gains by firing their teachers” to saying steady improvement is what they want. It seemed, for the moment, like they had averted a crisis.

But changing “what they meant” is a tactic that can only be used once. It’s time for the knockout punch.

Now that six months have gone by, it’s time to check in on our three miracle schools and see if their improvements have continued in a steady rate. Only someone who knows nothing about education and schools would expect these improvements to continue. Why would they? If you get new students each year and often a new crop of new teachers, why would scores continue to rise until they eventually reach 100%?

Not surprisingly (to me, at least) all three of these schools have regressed in their most recent report cards.

At Urban Prep, where they had a 17% passing rate in 2010, they now have a 15% passing rate. In Math it is just 9%. When that 9% is broken down into free-lunch and not-free-lunch, we see that only 6% of the students with free lunch were proficient in math, while 24% who did not get free-lunch passed. On their college readiness statistic, even though 100% of their seniors get accepted into college, according to The Chicago Tribune database 0% of them were considered ‘college ready’. As far as comparing apples to apples, in their district they were way below the averages in every category, generally with about half the percent proficient as the rest of the district.

This scatter plot from the Illinois Interactive Report card shows how test scores correlate with free-lunch and how Urban Prep fits right on the trend line.  It is hardly an outlier.

At Miami Central all their scores went down, so much that the school was scheduled to be closed down. The Miami Herald Reported that it was saved at the last minute, for now.

And Bruce Randoph lost most of the gains that Alter spoke about had returned to near it’s 2007 levels. Now it has 10% passing writing and 10% passing math. It is one of the lowest performing schools in Colorado.

Though some will still misunderstand the point of this post, I am not saying that poor kids are not capable of learning or that these three schools need to get shut down. The point is that the corporate reformers need to have ‘miracle schools’ to justify their shutting down the ‘failing schools’ even though many of the failing schools are as good, if not better than the miracle schools. If there were more transparency (accountability, the corporate reformers love to say) so schools could not leave out relevant statistics as they try to secure more private and public funds.

Despite their claims, the corporate reformers have no proof that the harm of their tactics is outweighed by any good. They lied about their 90-90-90-90 schools. Now they’ve been caught lying about their continually improving schools. They have absolutely nothing.

And the media and the public are finally starting to catch on to this. In Chicago, today, one of the most corporate reform friendly cities in the country, all the major newspapers reported about a study that showed that Chicago charters are doing no better, and often worse, than their public counterparts. It really is only a matter of time before knowledge of this spreads.

It is inevitable. The corporate reform bubble will soon burst.

21 Responses

  1. Roger

    It should also be noted tha Urban Prep does not follow the normal CPS curriculum

  2. Eric

    I was reading a post about the OWS movement last weekend and came across some advice I thought also pertained to your blog. The author said, “They can’t be AGAINST everything forever. To achieve real progress, they need to be FOR something.” Food for thought.

  3. EMinNM

    The other awful side effect of all this clouding of the statistics is that schools can’t (or won’t) ever admit to specific changes they need to make to improve. Meetings end up being about how what we’re already doing meets requirements of this new idea. Well, if our DIBELs tracking was already telling us how much comprehension has improved (even though DIBELs doesn’t measure comprehension, really), then we’re already doing this new system optimizing tracking in intervention! How great! We can’t be found faulty, and we don’t have to change! Except for kids’ reading comprehension, everything’s fine.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with your opinions, and I applaud your research. I have a little trouble with your conclusion, though, much as I’d like to share it. A lot of this is about perception, and a lot of people read the editorials in the papers, including the Times, and believe them no matter how baseless or nonsensical they may be. That’s gonna be tough to overcome. I’ll support it, and I’ll work for it, but it’s tough when The US Education Secretary is a marionette with Bill Gates pulling the strings.

  5. Phil

    Corp edreform is not the only edreform.

    We need real reforms! Let’s try equity of inputs to support students and teachers in schools. Teachers, especially in the most high-need schools, must be well equipped and fully supported if they are to help students grow despite the difficulties posed by low incomes and coming from marginalized communities.

    Nobody is calling for charters or “turn-arounds” in wealthy suburbs. We need school funding reform, we need to rekindle our war on poverty and on racial inequality.

  6. andy

    thanks for the info and the clear highlight of corporate reform rhetorics 1 & 2. i think it’s likely they’ll come up with a #3.

  7. Ms. Lee

    Mr. Rubenstein,

    I have been reading your blog posts and they are very good. I live here in New Orleans after relocating from the Houston area right and I have to say I wish I was back there considering the failed “experiments” taking place down here with educatinal reform and charter schools. I wanted to know do you have an e-mail address because I believe you can write your next book on the mess occurring in New Orleans. It would be a best seller!

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Sure. garyrubinstein (then the at sign) yahoo.com

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Sure. You can email me at garyrubinstein (the-at-sign) yahoo.com

  8. J.C.

    May you be correct in your prediction, sir, that the bubble will burst.

  9. Kara

    Gary,
    I am an equally frustrated alum. I am so glad that you followed up with this data. I’m even more excited that the findings ended up on The Answer Sheet this week. I hope that this corporate reform bubble will burst. My fear is that without a strong opposition movement, corporations like Pearson and others will continue to mine and exploit education under the guise of putting kids and achievement first. Keep up the great work!

  10. In my job working on an inpatient psych unit for children and adolescents in Chicago, I have met many young men who have been kicked out of Urban Prep. Just today, one young man told me they kick out kids with behavior problems “all the time” and that he’s probably next. He said many of his friends and classmates have already been told to leave . It breaks my heart to hear these boys’ stories. And it enrages me to hear our highest officials act like this school does anything miraculous.

    • Phil

      I see students show up at my neighborhood high school half way through the year who have been pushed out of charter schools. These are kids who have learning disabilities or have gotten into trouble, sometimes for minor infractions like now wearing their uniform correctly. Some transfer out of the charter because their parents can’t pay the fines that come with each tardy or uniform violation. They always make it to our school in time to take the ACT exam… lowering our scores while raising those at the school who pushed them out. “Silver bullets” like charters are killing public education. We need real solutions, not fake miracles.

  11. Megan Pledger

    It’s funny. Charter school advocates say that teachers should not have poverty as an excuse for kids performance but when charters schools performance is being judged they complain that you shouldn’t be comparing “apples-to-grapefruits.”

    They can’t have it both ways (poverty doesn’t matter but then it does) – but I guess it’s worth trying.

  12. We heard the Catholic Church is considering designating charter schools as “miracles” #satire http://studentslast.blogspot.com/2012/10/charter-school-miracle.html

  13. Thanks for this blog. We need more facts than venting. And that is what you have given us…For a more in dept look at what education reform looks like today and the attached corruption, read this essay – http://www.scribd.com/doc/106337306/THE-CHICAGO-PUBLIC-SCHOOLS-ALLERGIC-TO-ACTIVISM It stands at 1600 reads thus far and looks like a TKO if ever…

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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