On Monday May 16th, President Obama will be the commencement speaker at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, TN. They had won a competition called ‘The Race To The Top High School Commencement Challenge’ based mainly on the claim that the all-black school in a very poor neighborhood had managed to increase their graduation rates from 55% in 2007 to 82% in 2010.
I hate to be a party pooper. But when the party is one that propagates the myth that education is where it is in this country because there are too many lazy teacher and, as proof, point to miracle schools whose only difference from the failing local school is the hard-working teachers, then I guess I’ll poop away. In reality, there’s a lot more to improving ‘graduation rates’ than that including, as I’ll demonstrate, some creative defining of ‘graduation rate’ and also some external factors that enable a school to rid themselves of the students that bring down that rate.
When I heard about the miracle, I did some searching which took me to the official Tennessee Department of Education Report Card for that school On the page describing the graduation rates, I saw something unusual.
In 2007, the ‘graduation rate’ was 55%, though there was also something called the ‘cohort dropout’ rate, which was 23.5%. Now, common sense says that those two numbers should add up to 100%, but they don’t for various complicated reasons.
Then, in 2008 the ‘cohort dropout’ went up to 26.4, though the ‘graduation rate’ also paradoxically climbed to 62.8%
In 2009 the ‘cohort dropout’ went up to 27.8% and the ‘graduation rate’ went down to what I’d expect, 60.4%. Notice that these two numbers do add up to nearly 90%, which is getting close.
Then the ‘miracle’ year of 2010, the ‘cohort dropout’ was back to 24.3% which, though lower than it had been in the previous two years was still slightly higher than it had been in 2007. But when you look at the ‘graduation rate’ for 2010 you get the often quoted, and the reason for the special guest speaker, 81.6%. I’ve looked up the formulas, and I can’t understand how ‘graduation rate’ could ever be larger than 100% minus ‘cohort dropout rate’, though it is in this case.
The ‘miracle’ seemed to be one of creative math. But what made the 24% dropout equate to 55% graduation rate in 2007 and then to a graduation rate of 82% three years later?
When I investigated further, I found that there was a lot of attrition over that four year period. The school enrollment was 760 in 2007, 732 in 2008, 649 in 2009, and then in the ‘miracle’ year 2010, down to 566. So the school had lost nearly 25% of its students in that time period, which is also the exact percent that the graduation rate climbed by.
I looked into this sudden drop in enrollment to find if I could learn if the 200 students who disappeared were the ones who were less likely to graduate. It didn’t take long for me to locate this article, which explains that a large housing project right near the school was torn down, which may have contributed to the declining numbers. In the video that the school made, it said that 20% of the students were from that project, though they don’t make it clear if that is just 20% of the students who remained in the school. The actual demolition of the project didn’t happen until a few months after the miracle, but surely people started leaving once they found out about it. Though some of the displaced kids, as the article states, found a way to continue going to their school, most didn’t. So this may have contributed to the skewed stats. Some of the poorest, and thus least likely to graduate, kids were displaced to other schools. The video Booker T. Washington submitted to the contest begins with images of the demolition of one of the projects so this is not something they were trying to hide, but it needs to be examined how that could have artificially boosted their graduation rate.
Now, I should make a note here that I believe that Booker T. Washington is a school that is doing a good job. The students, teachers, and administrators are working hard and there seems to be a very good learning environment there. The test scores for the school show that they are three points above the state average for math, while sixteen percent below the state average for English, though in the video they claim that their math scores are 20% above the state average.
Here are some more relevant things I’ve found through the Tennessee education Dept. website:
1. Though Tennessee seems to be proud of the 81.6% miracle, the school Booker T. Washington, it remains extremely low on their own ‘failing schools list.’ Out of about 1600 schools in Tennessee, there are about 400 on this list, and they are broken down into different categories. The four lowest categories have a total of 14 schools in them, 5 in the category called ‘Restructuring 2 (Alt Governance)’ Booker T. Washington is one of those five schools which means that they have failed to progress in certain categories for six consecutive years, which includes the entire time of the miracle. Note that there are only 9 schools in the entire state that have a lower status than BTW.
And here is the 2010-2011 document from the state that shows all the failing schools.
2. The ‘graduation rate’ for black student for the entire state for 2009 was 71.5%, which seems to reveal that it is an inflated statistic. The 2010 results for the whole state are not posted yet.
3. I’ve finally tracked down some of the enrollment by grade level statistics from 2007 to 2009. Based on the number of students who took English I in 9th grade in 2007, there were 189 ninth graders that year (not including repeaters, I think). Then I looked at the English II numbers for 10th graders in 2008, which was 173. Then I looked at the 11th grade Writing test for 2009 to find 139 students left. Already the miracle class was down to 73.5 percent, assuming everyone from 11th grade graduated the next year. Still this is less than 81.6 percent. I’d like to see all the numbers that went into that calculation, but I haven’t been able to yet.
4. Another thing I noticed is that the ‘test scores’ statistics give the percents of below basic, basic, proficient, and beyond proficient, but never the actual number of students who took the test. The only place where we can find out the number of students who took various tests is when you go to the achievement tab, and then click the radio button for additional academic achievement data, and click some other boxes, and you get some very unusual numbers, like only 82 9th graders and 79 10th graders taking Algebra I, and this being 96.5 and 100 percent of of the school tested.
So, I’m not saying that this is a bad school, nor do I think they did anything ‘devious’ in winning this award. They didn’t make the definition of ‘graduation rate’ or tear down those projects. But I think that most schools have the same kind of hardworking teachers. This school, I think, is an average school, and I think that average schools are doing a pretty good jobs given the constraints they face. I like that Obama is speaking at an average school. Rather than have a contest where PR wins over substance, he could just pick a school at random and probably get one with pretty hard-working students and teachers.
So the Obama miracle school, I think, is a school that benefited a lot from a creative definition of ‘graduation rate’ and also from a timely closing of some nearby projects in order to get the bump that earned them the honor of getting the President to be their graduation speaker.
Now, I realize that even though I have a lot of facts here, some of this post is speculative. The Tennessee website has a lot of information about the school, but what I wasn’t able to get was the number of students in each year, broken down by grade. On the web I found an unofficial page that had the stats for what I think was 2008: 9th – 232, 10th – 184, 11th – 140, 12th – 105
What we’d need to calculate actual graduation rate rather than ‘graduation’ rate is the number of new ninth graders that came into the school in 2007 and compare that to the number of graduating seniors in 2010 to verify the miracle. Ironically, there is one person who could easily verify or dispute my claims, and that is the new head of schools there, Kevin Huffman. Kevin was a TFA Houston ’92 corps member who eventually became the executive Vice President of Public Affairs at TFA and just a few months ago got this job. I was a Houston ’91, so I’ve known him for almost 20 years though we’re just cordial acquaintances. He’s always been nice to me when we’ve crossed paths at TFA functions, so I’m hoping if he reads this, he could e-mail me more details to resolve my questions.
As a last note to any graduates of BTW, I hope you don’t see this post as anything negative against you. You graduated high school and you and your families should be very proud.
Based on some comments I’ve received right after this post went up, I’d like to clarify what I’m trying to say and also explain the bigger motivation for this post.
First, I’m not trying to ‘prove’ that BTW is not a good school or that they don’t deserve to have Obama come speak at their graduation. In the past couple of years there have been many reports of ‘miracle’ schools that turn things around with nothing more than the adults working harder. Most of the schools that have gotten national attention have not deserved it. Most have cheated in some way either by getting a lot of external money or by counseling kids our or other tricks with statistics. On the other side of the coin, most of the schools that do deserve national attention are not getting it because although they are doing a great job and getting families involved and kids working hard and learning deeply, it’s not translating into test scores and highly improved graduation rates. The things that make those schools great are intangible, but they are still great.
Now, it may very well be that BTW is a rare school that belongs to both categories: It deserves to have national attention and it is getting it too. But the things that it is getting national attention for — like ‘graduation’ rate — are not the things that actually make the school great, just the things that makes it look great on paper.
As I mentioned, many of the miracle schools are just facades so when you get recognized as one, you now have to stand up to defend yourself under public scrutiny, which is what I’m doing. The miracle schools, in general, are not being challenged to prove their claims enough. The true miracle schools, though, should not worry about being challenged to defend their stats since they have nothing to hide.
Now, the bigger picture is that there are many schools out there that are just as good as BTW, but don’t have the inflated stats to back them up. And those schools aren’t getting visited by the President, but by the Grim Reaper. What happens with these miracle schools is that, in the wrong hands, politicians use them as a weapon to push through a reform agenda which includes firing teachers and shutting down low-performing schools. So when one of these schools says they need more resources, politicians say “Well, Booker T Washington in Memphis got their graduation rate up to 82% without any resources, so you’ll just have to work harder or suffer the consequences.”
So, I hope that teacher at BTW doesn’t think this post is meant to minimize his or his student’s accomplishments. Instead it is to make sure that thousands of other teachers don’t have their accomplishments minimized and their schools shut down under the battle cry of “BTW did it, why can’t you?”
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