Obama at the ‘Miracle In Memphis’

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.

As you can see, the school has progressed down the levels since 2006.

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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32 Responses to Obama at the ‘Miracle In Memphis’

  1. guidedmetotennessee says:

    I can’t speak definitively about TN, but in Massachusetts students who are ineligible to graduate (missing requirements, failing subjects, etc.) but haven’t dropped out by graduation (so the school expects them enrolled either in their previous school or in another school in the district in the fall) aren’t counted as contributing to the “drop-out rate”, but also aren’t part of the “graduation rate”. Retention could be a partial explanation for the missing percentage of students. Also, at least in MA the “graduation rate” published by the Dept. of Ed only includes students who graduate in four years.

  2. Ben Guest says:

    Great post Gary. “Graduation Rate” is one of the biggest BS stats out there. For all the reasons you mention and one more… As it is based on how many kids pass it gives schools an incentive to pass more kids. Maybe there was great teaching at Booker T. (as a supporter of public education I certainly hope so) or maybe they “juked the stats” in the ways your post brings up, or maybe they just passed more kids. The fact is “Graduation Rate” tells us nothing about the quality of the school.

  3. A.Q. says:

    As a teacher and Memphian, I am very proud of BTW and its coup of getting the president to speak here, but I also appreciate your post. We insult our own intelligence when we do not question the information we are given.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Thanks for the comment. I just learned that TFA places CMs in Memphis. Are you teaching there too? Any TFA CMs who want to comment to fill in any details, please feel free.

  4. Steven McKinney says:

    All I ask is for you to please post facts. Those are not BTW’s math numbers a quick trip to the Tennessee Department of Education website shows very different numbers. If one key fact is wrong in your acticle I can assume others are as well. BTW won the contest, the school is improving despite all the obstacles, at least you can post correct data. I am a teacher at the school.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I got those stats from the state website, but I’ll investigate further to make sure I’ve got the right numbers.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I’ve updated the data. I’m not sure what happened the first time. The new data does have BTW a bit above the state average (but not 20%) though it has BTW significantly below state average in language and writing.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Thanks. Let me know if you still don’t think what I have up is accurate.

      • Steven McKinney says:

        That’s better. Mr. Rubinstein I can assure you BTW made a very conscience effort to improve our flaws buy attacking the rout of our problems.  There are three issues that are hurting us the most. 1 The students that are assigned to our school that did not register. 2. The decline of Fresman as they move through the grades. 3 A big Special Needs population getting Sped Diplomas. We put things in place to move us forward. Some say very radical changes. For a consultant fee, I’m sure any one from our school will love to do PDs. Thanks for the correction on the math scores because I teach Algebra 1.

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        Thanks for helping me make this more accurate.
        I’m sure that you and your fellow teachers there are doing everything you can to meet the needs of your students. Keep up the good work. If you want some math resources I’ve made, check out my youtube website with math videos I’ve made at http://www.youtube.com/nymathteacher

  5. Phillip says:


    I appreciate your thoughts, but what is missing in your article is the sense of pride and involvemnet emerging in the school and the surrounding neighborhood.

    Yes, there is still along way to go, and the numbers might be a little skewed, but anyone closely related to the situation will tell you that major progress is and continues to be made at BTW.

    I am not a teacher, but I do work in that area and several of my co-workers have or have had kids in BTW.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I actually think that those ‘intangibles’ are more meaningful than strange ‘graduation rates’ and even test score percentages. BTW seems to have those intangibles, but so do a lot of other schools that are being shut down rather than being visited by the President. That doesn’t mean that BTW doesn’t deserve the President, but it does mean that the other schools don’t deserve to be shut down.

  6. MS says:

    Like nine other states, Tennessee calculates dropout rates using a cohort system. Very simply, because we are an urban system with a transient student population, we attribute a high-school graduation rate to the school that a student started at in ninth grade. If this student transfers, he or she is still attributed to the original school four years later whether they leave or not. This system does have flaws, but providing legitimate numbers isn’t one of them. Simply put, if you ask a student who entered high school with a class of 123 about their graduating class, they’ll tell you that 23 are not graduating this year, though they may still be enrolled in school, and that all 100 graduating began their freshman year at a Memphis City Schools high school and, four years later, they’re graduating from a Memphis City Schools high school.

    Here are the two terms you need to understand to properly examine a Tennessee high school graduation rates:

    Cohort rate: the percentage of an entering 9th grade class which has dropped out by the end of 12th grade. The cohort rate measure what happens to a single group, or cohort of students, over a period of time. Cohort rates are important because they reveal how many students starting a specific grade drop out over time. The cohort rate for the 2006-2007 graduating class is calculated by dividing the total number of dropouts in the class of 2006-2007 (over the past four years) by the ninth grade class enrollment for 2003-2004.

    Event rate: the percentage of a specific school population which drops out during a calendar year. The dropout rate provides a measure of recent dropout experiences. Event rates are important because they reveal the proportion of students who leave high school each year without completing a high school program. Tennessee defines event rate as the number of dropouts (grades 9-12) in a given calendar year divided by the same net enrollment (grades 9-12) for the same year.

    A simple Google search would have led you straight to these definitions which explain your “problem.” I agree that we should question information, but do this before you open to the door to claims of cooked numbers. Do you really think that no one on Arne Duncan’s team vetted this school and its results? Please join the ranks of people who believe that Memphis is on the cusp of a huge turnaround in urban education reform, in which our schools are making legitimate gains and our children are graduating prepared for higher education. Booker T. Washington’s performance simply highlights the outcomes of the first few steps we are taking to ensuring that our students attain an excellent education. Believing in Memphis leads to changing Memphis. Try it.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I’m still pretty confused how to interpret the different stats. What I’d need is the raw data they used, which is not made available, like exactly the number of students who started in 2007, how many them graduated 4 years later, how many dropped out, how many are still trying. It seems that ‘cohort dropout rate’ is revealing and that was higher in 2010 than it was in 2007.

    • There’s a difference in believing, and believing blindly. While it may be instinctive to defend the accomplishments of your school/community, please know that these are also being used to justify drastic actions such as school closures and turnarounds at other schools. One should be careful in affording the title of “miracle school” to schools like this one. Because if this is the case, the public has the right to know how the “miracle” was accomplished, so as to be able to duplicate it.

  7. MS says:

    Type in the phrase “Tennessee graduation rates cohort.” Look at page three of the PDF (found at this link: http://www.all4ed.org/files/Tennessee_grp.pdf) for full formulas. Plug in all your numbers. They add up.

    Also, BTW’s numbers are 20% above the state average for math scores- 20% above the state average for math scores of African-American students.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I don’t have all the numbers to plug in, or I would.

      Also, if that’s what they meant when they said 20% higher, they should have said that. This is yet another misleading stat. 54% beyond basic is not a great rate no matter how you dress it up.

  8. Steven McKinney says:

    BTW submitted an initial video and essay. They made the top six, worked with a film crew and produced another video. They included their current data and won. ANY school in the country could have put in the same work. As for the math scores, Tenessee moved to higher standards more aligned with national standards. This was the first year of this exam. As the data shows BTW scores where higher than the state average overall and in each subcategory.  When I was in New York at an Education Champions conference sponsored by Mayor Bloomburg someone mentioned your videos. Hopefully the next time I’m in New York, I can come visit your classroom and I invite you to mine if you are ever in Memphis. I am truly a fan of any person who is about the business of improving kids lives. BTW set out to put a positive spin on our school and to allow our students a chance to have the President of the United States to deliver their commencement! In a little more than 12 hours I will be in the room with the most powerful man in the world. My son, who is a sophomore at BTW, will personally see the President and can truly believe an African American came become anything he like, even President. Thanks for the article at least one you know who we are now.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Definitely enjoy this special day and please post another comment letting me and everyone who reads this know what it was like. I’m all for a school that is working hard to improve getting such a treat. I was only worried that politicians could use your school as a reason to close similar schools who are not getting the same numbers. Stay in touch and let me know if you have any questions about teaching math.

  9. JC says:

    I really don’t understand the purpose of this cohort system. It seems needlessly complicated, which is to say, purposefully complicated.

    Memphis City Schools have a history of vague numbers. Just try to find out how many students are actually enrolled. You can’t get a straight answer.

  10. dkzody says:

    A high school that small should do well. With so few students, teachers and administrators should know every kid on campus. Makes a world of difference. An inner city school with close to 3.000 students would have different results.

  11. Steven McKinney says:

    Wow what a great experience, I am so proud of my students! They did a great job! This will forever hold a place in my heart because the President quoted my article and ” checked me!”

  12. Phil says:

    The author of this article is totally out of touch with the reality of world of schooling youth. BTW did achieve far beyond the norm and should be recognized as should any school or student who achieves far beyond the norm. I read the article twice and I fail to see the valid points in any way. As a retired educator of 43 years it is folks like the author of this article that create false doubts in all of their students as a teacher. I cannot imagine you as a teacher having positive hope for any youth. Sad that you have to stoop so low.

  13. Derek says:

    14.4 composite ACT score is what these group of ‘graduates’ earned. Absolutely embarrassing and just plain pitiful. The school I teach at in TEXAS averaged 24 and we are considered an average campus. And for the record, a two bedroom appt. in our boundaries is about $600 so don’t even think about calling us upper class. Difference is our conservative values where men solve their own problems and raise their own children.

  14. Tex Shelters says:

    Well done. A lot of these “improving schools” are using statistical trick, and other like D.C. under Michelle Rhee are outright lying and using erasures to boost their scores. This competitive madness between schools for dwindling fund has got to stop and we need to look at ways to help all schools and thus all students.

    Tex Shelters

  15. Voice of Reason says:

    I’m a high school principal in Memphis, and I want to interject a few things, here.

    1. Memphis City Schools is not responsible for calculating the graduation rate. The numbers you so desperately crave are being held “hostage” at the State Dept of Ed (Nashville, TN). As we were recently told, we won’t even receive the cohort list until this summer…it is extremely difficult to “cook the books” in Tennessee as it relates to graduation rate since the State Dept of Ed sends the list that tells schools who should receive a regular diploma in four years and a summer. Schools are then given about two weeks to locate students they have never seen and prove (documentation) that those students have graduated from some high school in order to receive credit for that student….whatver BTW did, I’m calling the principal – if it’s that easy to get over, I certainly want to know.

    2. Every junior and senior in MCS takes ACT and those scores are factored into the average. Other schools in other states may just have a different composite…but who takes the test?

    3. Unfortunately the tone of this article suggests that BTW shouldn’t have applied for nor received this attention because other schools out “there” will have to figure out what BTW has done?? That’s so unfair.

    I want my school to get off of the failing list just like the next guy, but to suggest that BTWs accomplishment is making that more difficult for me is suspect (at best).

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