Miracle school debunking has been my most important contribution to the ed reform debate. The first miracle school I ever debunked was Urban Prep in Chicago after Arne Duncan touted it at the 2011 Teach For America 20 year alumni summit. I’ve probably debunked over 100 such schools and districts over the past 6 years.
A miracle school is one that has managed, with no additional resources but just harder working teachers with higher expectations, to beat the odds and get students in a high poverty school to get exceptional standardized test scores, thus proving that lazy teachers who have jobs for life and the unions who represent them, are the cause of the achievement gap. Debunking a miracle school claim is important since the existence of a miracle school will be used as Exhibit A by reformers as evidence that the other 99.99% of schools must be failing.
Most alleged miracle schools are charter schools. Since charter schools must have PR to attract students and wealthy donors, it would make sense that they would find ways to make it look like they have some secret to raising test scores. Usually it turns out that the test scores are not very good, after all, and when the test scores are good it is because of massive attrition of the weaker students.
About four years ago I wrote my most widely criticized blog post ever called ‘The Status Quo Miracle District.’ The post was an analysis I did of a miracle district touted in the New York Times by David Kirp. He had written about a traditional miracle district in New Jersey called, most ironically, Union City. Even though many of my public school supporting friends had been enthusiastic about this article because it showed that a traditional district can be a miracle district too without resorting to reforms like charters and TFA, I did my fact-checking to find that the test scores at that district were not impressive. My post was not well received. People called me a traitor and an ally of the reformers.
I had to write another post defending my first post, explaining that a district can have low test scores and even low ‘growth’ scores by some cryptic measure and still be a great district making differences in children’s lives. Likewise there can be a district with good test scores that is a test-prep factory and making, I think, a negative difference in children’s lives.
In the New York Times, the other day, April Fools Day, actually, there was another article by David Kirp called “Who Needs Charters When You Have Public Schools Like These?” touting another traditional miracle district, this one in Oklahoma, and again, ironically, called Union. Here are some excerpts:
Betsy DeVos, book your plane ticket now.
Ms. DeVos, the new secretary of education, dismisses public schools as too slow-moving and difficult to reform. She’s calling for the expansion of supposedly nimbler charters and vouchers that enable parents to send their children to private or parochial schools. But Union shows what can be achieved when a public school system takes the time to invest in a culture of high expectations, recruit top-flight professionals and develop ties between schools and the community.
Two fifth graders guided me around one of these community schools, Christa McAuliffe Elementary, a sprawling brick building surrounded by acres of athletic fields. It was more than an hour after the school day ended, but the building buzzed, with choir practice, art classes, a soccer club, a student newspaper (the editors interviewed me) and a garden where students were growing corn and radishes. Tony, one of my young guides, performed in a folk dance troupe. The walls were festooned with family photos under a banner that said, “We Are All Family.”
A fourth grader at Rosa Parks Elementary who had trouble reading and writing, for example, felt like a failure and sometimes vented his frustration with his fists. But he’s thriving in the STEM class. When the class designed vehicles to safely transport an egg, he went further than anybody else by giving his car doors that opened upward, turning it into a little Lamborghini. Such small victories have changed the way he behaves in class, his teacher said — he works harder and acts out much less.
Now these two schools sound like they are great schools doing innovative things and I applaud that. But it didn’t take me more than five minutes to type ‘Oklahoma school report cards’ and get to this public data site. Another few clicks and I got the A to F report cards for these two schools. McAuliffe got a D- with an F in student achievement, a D in growth, and an F in growth for growth for students in the bottom quartile. Parks got an F with Fs in all three categories.
Let me say again, I do not think that these grades reflect the quality of these schools. For me these low ratings merely show how inaccurate these A to F rating scales are that reformers are so enamored with. And no need to have Betsy DeVos come and see these schools. She thinks that schools in this country can’t get any worse so she would be very eager to declare these schools failures based on their A to F ratings.
When I do this kind of a debunking for a charter school, I don’t feel bad at all since the charter school was usually the source of the miracle claims. In this case I seriously doubt that the leadership at these two schools somehow brought this scrutiny on themselves with boasting about their test scores. But for two public schools like these that did not ask to be touted in the New York Times, I do feel a little bad for calling attention to their flawed ratings.
What I would have liked to have in this article is Kirp writing about all the great things going on at these schools and how anyone visiting these schools would be impressed by them, and then express outrage that the schools have a D- and an F rating thus demonstrating how inaccurate the A to F rating calculations are and how they are likely to be just as inaccurate in all the states throughout the country. Now that would be a powerful article.
Get mad at me all you want, but I think that when public education advocates start taking plays from the reformer playbook we cheapen ourselves.