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.

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