Over the past two years I’ve spent a lot of time debunking ‘miracle’ schools and ‘miracle’ districts. The way it works is that some politician or journalist tells a story about how this school or district has come up with a way to get their high poverty students to score as well in standardized tests as their wealthier counterparts. Usually they just imply that a school or district has done this, instead quoting some contrived growth statistic, college acceptance numbers, or an ambiguously defined graduation rate.
When I debunk a school or district, it’s not to say that these schools are not doing a good job. They may very well be. But my purpose is to show that they are not doing a miraculous job and are certainly not proving that “poverty doesn’t matter” or whatever other cliche you prefer. I think that these miracle stories are dangerous since they imply that even without a huge increase in funding some schools have figured out how to outperform the nearby ‘failing’ schools. Certainly some schools are better run than others and certain staffs are better teachers than other staffs. But when one place is supposedly working miracles, it causes people to support the idea of shutting down those other schools and firing their teachers, which is something I don’t believe works.
The latest miracle district was featured in a New York Times Op Ed written by David Kirp entitled The Secret To Fixing Bad Schools. This article has gotten a lot of attention and I learned about it initially from people on “my side” of the ed reform debate since the article says that this “turnaround” story was accomplished without any of the usual corporate reform tactics. Here is a widely quoted section:
What makes Union City remarkable is, paradoxically, the absence of pizazz. It hasn’t followed the herd by closing “underperforming” schools or giving the boot to hordes of teachers. No Teach for America recruits toil in its classrooms, and there are no charter schools.
Instead they made research-based reforms which included expanded Pre-K programs and teacher-designed curricula. I can understand why people opposed to the destructive policies of corporate reform would get excited about the point of this article. This district has improved despite bypassing the reckless type of reform that is happening in Newark with charter schools and merit pay.
But after the initial good feeling I got by reading this article, the skeptic in me started thinking about these claims and their implications. I also noticed that this article was sent around on Twitter by some corporate reform types and was even sent out on Whitney Tilson’s email digest. My concern is that when people who are opposed to corporate reform buy too much into a story like this, it opens them up for people to say “You see. Poverty really doesn’t matter. You admit that schools can overcome all.”
Now it seems like this district, which is ironically named “Union City” has done a lot of good things. Expanding Pre-K is something I fully support and I’ve noticed some things recently even from StudentsFirstNY tweeting about the importance of the early years. Also Union City has gotten some extra funding from the state, and I’m all for giving schools more resources. All these things will help students get a better education, but they still won’t make a big difference in terms of the main metric of the corporate reformers — test scores. And looking at the school report card for the lone high school in that district, Union City High School, the numbers are not all that impressive.
The article quotes one statistic, that the school has an 89.5% graduation rate. While this is true, I’ve found that ‘Graduation Rate’ is one of the more ambiguously defined metrics I’ve studied. It doesn’t mean, generally, what most people would think it means, namely that 89.5% of the students who entered as 9th graders four years ago graduated four years later. When I examined the report card I learned that of that 89.5%, a large 23.2% graduated in a non-traditional way by appeals, an Alternative High School Assessment (which is, from my understanding, like a GED) or other methods.
One statistic you can see for yourself in the report card is that the school seems to have zero students passing any AP exams. Not that I put a lot of stake into standardized tests, but still, it is worth noting. Also the average SAT score hovers at approximately 400 per section. This is a little lower than the score for their District Factor Group (DFG) which is a group of schools that have similar demographics.
Anyway, I hate to burst people’s bubbles and I certainly don’t want to take anything away from the work that the teachers and students are doing over there. I think these authentic reforms are the way to go and are the things that make schools better. But still, there is a limit to how much schools are able to accomplish without some shocking increase in resources. I certainly don’t think that their test scores mean they should get shut down or to be experimented on with ridiculous corporate reform garbage. But I also don’t think that the ‘bad’ schools that are alluded to in the title of the Times article deserve to be called that either. I do think we should celebrate a district not buying into the usual reforms, but it is also important to acknowledge the limits of school based solutions, even solutions based on research, on things like standardized test scores. In that sense there are not, to my knowledge, any ‘miracle’ schools. On the other hand, the small miracles that teachers all over the country perform each day are not something to be ashamed of.