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Valerie Kershaw, a literacy teacher at the Bruce Randolph Middle School in 2005, shown with a 12-year-old student. (AP photo)

Shifting standards in the world of school reform

ASK THIS | May 25, 2011

Again, Obama singles out as a success story a school that had been failing. But have any reporters dug into the data? Previous success stories touted by the White House have turned out to be a reflection of school-reform hype, not actual educational attainment.

By Noel Hammatt

In his State of the Union address President Obama spoke of the turnaround achieved by the Bruce Randolph Middle School in Denver. He said it had been rated one of the worst schools in Colorado just three years earlier, but by January of this year it was apparently flourishing as a middle and high school.

In much the same way as Chicago's Urban Prep Charter School was praised for having so many of its graduating seniors accepted to college, and Miami Central High School for increasing its graduation rate, Obama highlighted the 97 percent of seniors graduating from Bruce Randolph. More recently, on May 16, he was again suggesting that increases in graduation rates at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis were a sign of the success of that school's reformation, and a further justification for his education policies.

Sounds great, doesn't it? But that number for Bruce Randolph High School has some hype built into it. In the great majority of cases, once students have made it to the senior year, they graduate. Instead, what most states measure is the four-year graduation rate, the percentage of 9th graders who graduate in four years. On that measure, Bruce Randolph does respectably enough, being credited by Colorado's Department of Education with an 86 percent graduation rate. Yet such graduation rates are themselves often hyped, open to various manipulations. On other, more acceptable measures it’s hard to see why Bruce Randolph is singled out as a success story.

Earlier on this site I pointed out that data from success-story schools such as Urban Prep Charter High and Miami Central High School suggest they are no better than schools that reformers close, or turn into charter schools, or that become "intervention models" as outlined in the Obama administration’s "Race to the Top" competition. Obama was correct, in a sense, when he pointed out in his State of the Union address that these higher "standards for teaching and learning" came from governors, and not from those who have actually studied education, or from those who actually teach the students. For punishments and takeovers, school reformers tend to use rigorous standards. They often use other, softer gauges when it comes to claiming success for their favored schools and programs.

As far as I can tell, none of the media reports on Bruce Randolph mentioned the school’s recent scores, compiled by the Colorado Department of Education, on the measures that caused Bruce Randolph to be identified as one of the worst schools in Colorado just a few years ago.  These data are easily accessible, and they expose the myth of "higher standards for teaching and learning."

The Bruce Randolph that was described as a failure was a middle school only. Thus it makes sense to look at the scores the middle grades received in their most recent testing. And they are dismal.

The middle school’s math score is the 5th percentile. This means, of course, that 95 percent of the schools in Colorado outperformed it. In addition, fewer than 21 percent of students are at the proficient or advanced math levels. 

Achievement goes down from there. In science, the school comes in at the 2nd percentile, with fewer than 10 percent meeting the standard. In writing and reading, Bruce Randolph students at the middle school level are at the lowest possible level, the 1st percentile. Isn't it curious that this school would be highlighted by the President as an example of the success of the "turnaround model?"

The high school grades were a bit better but still poor: the 9th percentile in math (the high school’s highest score in any subject), the 7th in reading, and the 4th percentile for both writing and science. These scores are in spite of the fact that at the high school level, Bruce Randolph is a school of choice, meaning students must apply to get in. (For the middle school, students attend based on a traditional school attendance zone.)

In another measure used by the accountability system in Colorado, Bruce Randolph high school also lags: The average ACT score in Colorado is a 20, while the average score for students at Bruce Randolph is a 14.4.

Obvious questions for reporters and editors are:

Q. Why do school reformers cite Miami Central High School, and Urban Prep in Chicago, and now Bruce Randolph in Denver, as prime examples of turnaround achievement, or even “miracle schools?”

Q. Are these schools, currently receiving national recognition, the best that "Race to the Top" and "Waiting for Superman" aficionados can aspire to? Surely the President would not be knowingly highlighting a school with such dismal scores, right?

Q. Why has there been almost no national discussion about the actual student achievement scores at these schools? Can it be that our leaders simply don't look at actual achievement scores in their model schools, but instead only use such measures to criticize and condemn those public schools that aren't adhering to their models?

Q. Who, if anyone, benefits when poorly performing schools are designated “turnarounds” or “miracle schools?” Is it a case where reporters need to follow the money?

Q. Shouldn’t the media be asking why schools that are failing to meet even minimal standards are highlighted as success stories?

The overwhelming evidence is that academic achievement is the result of a complex weaving of home, community, and school factors. I don’t mean in any way to condemn Bruce Randolph Middle School or others that have been highlighted but do poorly on closer examination. Bruce Randolph Middle School had a high "mobility rate" – 53 percent in the year when it was described as being one of the worst schools in the state. Obviously, it is extremely difficult for teachers to effectively meet the needs of such transient youngsters. 

My point is not to criticize these schools, but to draw attention to those who claim sudden success stories and miracle schools, as determined by "percentages" of test score "improvements" and other achievements that don’t hold up under examination. These so-called reformers are looking at schools through very selective lenses. Their misleading conclusions can only be convincing as long as the news media accept the distortions without looking into them. 

At a minimum, the media need to hold the favored schools to the same standards as failing schools. Bruce Randolph Middle School was not transformed into a high-performing school, and the data clearly demonstrate that. Urban Prep Charter School in Chicago, with only 17 percent of the students passing the reading and math standards, is not the success the media and politicians claim. Miami Central, with only 16 percent of the students passing the reading standard, is not a miracle school.

Another school – Booker T. Washington in Memphis – has now been singled out for praise, with President Obama citing improvement in its graduation rate. But the AP story I read didn’t look an inch beyond what the president said. Perhaps the metamorphosis there will also be illusory, for it remains on the Watch List in Tennessee.

What’s going on too often is a swindle in which politically elite cliques, some of them no doubt true believers, use test scores and other data selectively to make the case that schools alone – regardless of a child’s family and community circumstances – determine educational success or failure. Schools with stern principals and teachers who accept no excuses are said to overcome all challenges. Yet the more you look at these schools, the more you see that academic achievement is still very much impacted, as it always has been, by "out of school" factors.

How do patterns of poverty, of television viewing, of the number of books in the homes, predict and impact student achievement? The data are out there, but the reformers are doing their best to hide them. The research done by Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute, and Paul Barton at the Policy Information Center at Education Testing Service, illuminate many of the factors that impact student achievement.

The media could play a key role in helping communities deal with these factors and ultimately improve student achievement, and more importantly, students’ lives. As long as the public is led to believe that the answers lie in miracles or superheroes, and totally within schools, there will be little motivation for citizens to learn the truth about out-of-school factors impacting student achievement.

Awareness and recognition of the roles families and communities play in the preparation of young children for a life of learning is perhaps the most important reform needed in communities across our nation.  This is not a new theory, but it has been swept aside to a great extent by school reformers whose own standards for measuring achievement keep shifting , and by the failure of the press to take much of a look at all.

© 2011, all rights reserved by Noel Hammatt, independent education researcher


Posted by Edward Ott
05/26/2011, 10:32 AM

Mr Hammat is correct, and i do believe that it is lazy journalism that is to blame. Hopefully we will see this article be sited.

Media, Please Open Your Eyes
Posted by M Washington
05/26/2011, 02:38 PM

The media needs to check the facts about “miracle schools”; otherwise, the education community will chase yet another empty wagon of solutions to the complicated problem of educating our children of poverty. Weed out the lies and highlight only those schools that have not used smoke and mirror to manipulate the data about student and school performance. Additionally, our schools need families and communities to place high premium on the education of all students—not just in word, but in deed.

Thank you, Mr. Hammet. Continue to shed the light on these falsehoods that are perpetrated on American citizens.

Where to begin?
Posted by Jeanne T
05/26/2011, 04:55 PM

I agree with Mr. Hammatt on a number of levels highlighted in this article. Particularly, I find it is peculiar how these so-called Turn-Around or "Miracle Schools" are literally failing but are heralded as much improved without question by the mainstream media. Why in the world would someone praise a system that is obviously not working???? Also, I am a firm believer in family support for kids to succeed in school but if the local culture where failure is acceptable much less praised as our president has done in these mentioned cases, family support is, well, not there like it should. Are these more instances where the local culture doesn't care or have the folks in these areas been failing so long that they don't know how to succeed or even what success looks like in part because of skewed numbers and praise for what should be a major concern? Do the people in these communities expect that they are responsible for their futures or is someone else(the government) expected to take care of them, so really an education doesn't matter anyway...so why make it a priority? This obviously a huge complicated issue that will take massive initiative from many COMPETENT people. Where to begin?

Posted by Scott Johnson
05/30/2011, 09:09 PM

An easy path to travel is one that has a lot of signs. There are signs that direct you here, there; not here, but there. But, too often, blind support, ill prepared commentary, and poor logic is printed or published and becomes a representative standard. We as consumers of media, that has a trajectory of exponential growth, digest with little thought the pearls of information we encounter in said media. Mr Hammat has become known for an incisive and oft uncanny knack to illustrate the too regular occasion for published commentary rife with misrepresented facts, and erroneous conclusions. Too many public figures have unleashed “facts” to the consumer that were misrepresented at best. Fair warning. If you see Mr. Hammat coming, do a data review.

retired teacher, retired Okla. House of Rep.
Posted by joe eddins
06/07/2011, 05:24 PM

The test scores of children scoring below the 15th percentile do not give enough information to evaluate. It is politically impossible to even talk about these things. TDhank you for your use of data.

Posted by Teacher x
06/27/2011, 12:10 AM

notably, the principal has been promoted to the position of assistant superintendent for innovation and reform....

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