Category Archives: Race

Achievement Gaps Shrunk Faster in the 70s and 80s than Over the Past Decade

Yesterday I noticed Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post and Matt Yglesias of Slate tweeting that there is proof education reform is working. They cited this set of charts of NAEP score improvements since 1996, posted by Mac LeBuhn, a policy analyst at Democrats for Education Reform. 

I hate to be a downer, but attributing this good news to recent reform pushes, like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and new teacher accountability schemes is extremely iffy, just as Stephen Sawchuck of Ed Week pointed out. Here's why: It just so happens that we have NAEP scores since 1971, and in the area of 8th grade math, which LeBuhn highlighted, the increase in raw scores and reduction of the achievement gap is actually a longterm trend. Take a look:

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In fact, achievement gaps shrunk much faster during the 1970s and 1980s than they have over the past decade, essentially because of skyrocketing performance from black children while white children remained relatively stagnant. Was this because of education reforms predominant back them, like school desegregation? Or because of demographic changes, since a more diverse group of students with more challenging backgrounds take the exam today? There are endless hypotheses, but no proof that any one kind of reform, or even reform itself, has led to these changes.

The New New Fatherhood

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 2.33.45 PMThe old "New Fatherhood" was about mainstream, middle-class American men redefining masculinity to encompass spending more time talking to, playing with, and caring for children. Today at the Daily Beast, I write about the New New Fatherhood, as depicted by the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson in their important book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner CityThe study is a follow-up to one of the books I recommend most often: Edin's Promises I Can Keep, which pretty much demolished the myth of the "welfare mom."

The new book questions the stereotype of the "deadbeat dad." It describes how low-income fathers love and yearn to spend time with their children. But instead of seeing "quality time" as an add-on to the traditional expectation of the father as provider — as in the New Fatherhood ideal — single dads in economically depressed neighborhoods have argued that quality time and emotional connection are a fair substitute for earning and contributing financially to a child's core needs. This is the New New Fatherhood.

I write:

"The problem with this vision of 'doing the best I can' is that it really isn’t good enough. It leaves all the most difficult responsibilities of parenthood, financial and disciplinary, up to mothers. Edin and Nelson conclude that 'lower-class fathers have tried to bargain for a wholesale reversal of gender roles,' in which dads are the 'soft,' emotional parents and moms are the tough, pragmatic ones. If this were true, however—if poor fathers were becoming traditional “moms”—they would be living with their children and performing all the domestic labor involved with their care and feeding. This, of course, is not the case. In Edin and Nelson’s study, the vast majority of single dads are noncustodial parents and seem to prize buying their children ice cream or watching TV with them—the fun stuff—over helping with homework or taking them to doctor’s appointments.

Make no mistake: this isn’t only a poor-people’s problem."

Read the whole piece.

In New York’s Mayoral Race, Who Will the Teachers’ Union Endorse?

Update 2, 5:50 pm: The UFT has endorsed Bill Thompson.

Update 1, 5 p.m: The UFT executive board has recommended Bill Thompson for mayor. Now the 3,400 Delegate Assembly will vote.

This evening, the United Federation of Teachers, the nation's largest teachers' union, will endorse a candidate for mayor of New York City. Most close observers believe the pick will be either Bill Thompson or Bill de Blasio. Thompson is the former city controllor and former head of the now defunct Board of Education, which was abolished when Mike Bloomberg gained mayoral control of the city's schools. In 2009, Thompson shocked New York politicos when he came within just a few points of defeating Mayor Mike Bloomberg in his bid for a third term. Yesterday, Thompson was endorsed by the principals' union, and he had already won the support of Randi Weingarten, the president of the national American Federation of Teachers, to which the city UFT belongs. Bill de Blasio is the current city public advocate and a former member of a Brooklyn community school district board — another body abolished by mayoral control. He is running generally to the left of the rest of the field, and has already received a major union endorsement from SEIU 1199. (The candidate with a modest lead in the polls, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, has been booed at UFT events, and is seen as overly aligned with union foe Bloomberg.)

On education, Thompson and de Blasio have staked out many similar positions. Both are in favor of continuing mayoral control, but with checks and balances from a more independent Panel for Education Policy. Both are skeptical of standardized testing and are in favor of "moratoriums" on school closings and charter school co-locations within public school buildings. Both have said they would end the Bloombergian practice of appointing school chancellors who built their reputations in fields other than education. Both say they might continue the experiment in weighing student test scores in teachers' evaluations, but in reality, this is not a city-level issue; New York State's new teacher evaluation law, crafted in response to President Obama's Race to the Top competition, requires that student data be included. Thompson's campaign chairwoman is Merryl Tisch, a state education official who strongly supports Race to the Top. 

The candidates' divergences on education policy are ideologically idiosyncratic. De Blasio says generously endowed charter school networks, like Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies, should pay rent if they use space in public school buildings, a position in line with a failed lawsuit filed in 2011 by a group of parent activists who often ally with the teachers' union. Thompson opposes rent for charter schools. But de Blasio also supports ending seniority-based teacher layoffs. Here, he is agreeing with the education reform movement embodied by Mayor Bloomberg and often opposed by the union. Thompson's position on seniority remains unclear. 

To my mind, the major education policy difference between Thompson and de Blasio is that de Blasio supports raising taxes on city residents who earn more than $500,000 annually — from 3.86 to 4.3 percent – which could theoretically provide a way to fund the many education extras he is proposing, such as universal pre-K, community and health services within public school buildings, and more arts education. Thompson, on the other hand, has said, "Let me be blunt, so there’s no misunderstanding: I’m not raising taxes."

You'd think this would swing the UFT endorsement toward de Blasio, but that may not be the case. For one thing, only Albany has the power to raise taxes, and there is scant evidence that Republicans and moderates there would be willing to take the lead of a progressive Democratic mayor on this issue. Last week I interviewed Peter Goodman, a veteran UFT teacher, organizer, and staffer, who remains active in the union's retiree chapter. Within the UFT, there is a concern that should de Blasio win the Democratic nomination, it could strike so much fear in the city's tax-averse corporate elite that "they would pump money" toward the campaign of Joe Lhota, the leading Republican, Goodman said. Union leaders are also cogniszant of the coalition-building that could come from allying with a strong, black Democratic mayor. "Having an African American candidate is a good idea," said Goodman, who was a strike leader in 1967 and 1968, when the city schools convulsed with conflict between union teachers and black and Latino activists and civil rights groups, who supported more parent control over schools. 

"If you look at Tweed," Goodman said, the headquarters of the Department of Education, "and who works there, they are very white. And I think things like that, you have to be very sensitive to. To ignore it is at your own peril, and I think this [Bloomberg administration] leadership has done that. To me, that’s one of the great failings. This is an enormously multi-ethnic city and demographics are destiny."

Civil rights organizations are split in their approach to teachers' unions. The NAACP, for example, has joined the UFT in suing New York City to stop school closures and charter school expansions in low-income neighborhoods. From Washington, however, national civil rights-oriented advocacy groups, like Education Trust and the Children's Defense Fund, have been more supportive of charter schools and the push for teacher accountability. 

New York's mayoral election will have big implications for school reform nationwide. Have parent activist opponents of standardized testing and charter schools — who generally support "millionaire's taxes" to fund community schools — organized themselves into a force strong enough to sway a major union endorsement toward a left candidate like Bill de Blasio? Or will pragmatism prevail? The shape of the race will be clearer after tonight's UFT endorsement. 

For more: Read Philissa Cramer on the union's endorsement process.

Joseph Massad’s Stunningly Ignorant Al-Jazeera Essay on Zionism and Anti-Semitism

I've been excited about Al Jazeera's expansion in the U.S. market, but this poorly-written, rambling essay by Columbia professor Joseph Massad, calling Zionists anti-Semitic, is as bad as its critics allege. Yes: The Israeli government's repeated claim to speak on behalf of all Jews, worldwide, is deeply problematic, especially given Israel's deplorable ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands. But Massad takes this observation and pads it with ignorant misreadings of history and religious belief, as well as a breezy, ahistoric, and anti-Semitic conflation of Zionism with Nazism. I have neither the time nor the inclination to rebut the piece point by point, but here are a few obvious flaws:

1. Massad claims the Jewish longing for Israel dates back only to the 18th century rise of Protestant nationalism in Europe. Hogwash. Much of the Jewish liturgy, dating back two milennia, is built around mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the hope that we will congregate in the Holy Land in a figurative "next year," returning there permanently after the coming of the Messiah.

2. Massad points out that both Zionists and Christian anti-Semites believed Jews did not belong in Europe. Does it follow that Zionists are as anti-Semitic as Nazis were, as Massad shockingly claims? Of course not. Many disempowered people have created separatist movements. In the American context, think of black nationalism and separatism. Were Marus Garvey or Amiri Baraka adherents of the same ideology as 19th century "Back to Africa" whites, like Lyman Beecher? No. Zora Neale Hurston opposed Brown v. Board of Education, not because she felt blacks were inferior to whites and thus should attend separate schools, but because she believed integration would damage "the self-respect of my people" by forcing them to closely associate with racists. 

3. Massad writes that almost all those Jews who opposed or were skeptical of Zionism were killed during the Holocaust, leaving a monolithic group of rabidly Zionist (and also anti-Semitic?) Jews. In fact, a number of prominent Jews and Jewish organizations remained critical of Zionism after the war; Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt obviously come to mind. In his book The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart discusses how organized American Jewry was actually rather slow to embrace Zionism as a central cause. Massad also asserts that "Orthodox and Reform Jews, Socialist and Communist Jews, cosmopolitan and Yiddishkeit cultural Jews" were opponents of Zionism. In fact, members of all the aforementioned groups were sometimes strongly Zionist, whether they lived in Europe, Palestine, or the United States. For example, many of the earliest Zionist Jewish settlers in Palestine came from European cities and were socialists. They created kibbutzim to reconnect Jews to the land in a communiatarian way. 

Al-Jazeera can do better.

What We Talk About When We Talk About “IQ:” Algebra and School Quality

The now-unemployed Jason Richwine is portraying himself as a numbers-driven policy wonk who has been unfairly pilloried for a nuanced, intellectually sophisticated Harvard dissertation, whose only crime was questioning liberal pieties on race and IQ. Byron York:

Richwine and others also pointed to the fact that his ideas were expressed most completely in a dissertation done at Harvard, of all places, under the supervision of a group of distinguished scholars, and that the dissertation was accepted and Richwine was awarded a Ph.D. It seems unlikely that a Harvard dissertation, finished in 2009, would qualify as hate speech, his defenders contend. But that is how it was portrayed in the controversy.

Over the past several days, I dove more deeply into Richwine's dissertation arguing that Hispanics are innately less intelligent than whites, and thus should not be granted citizenship. Let me acknowledge at the outset that I disagree profoundly with Richwine's conclusion. I find it inhumane to argue that political rights be conditioned on a test score. Richwine and the Heritage Foundation also downplay the reality that many important jobs in our economy–picking tomatoes, delivering food, cleaning buildings–require little formal education or demonstrated intellectual ability, and that native-born Americans will not do them

But what I want to address here, at greater length, is the attention this controversy has put on IQ testing as a means of judging innate intelligence. What do measurements of IQ actually consist of? Does Richwine's analytic work stand up to scrutiny? He argues that education can do very little to help Hispanic immigrants achieve. So does he demonstrate familiarity with the educational and economic research on poverty, schools, and human capacity? 

Richwine's dissertation may not be hate speech, but I emerged from it surprised that this document garnered a Ph.D from the nation's preeminent university. Richwine fails to grasp the difference between testing academic achievement and testing innate cognitive ability, claiming that an exam that includes algebra can be used to draw conclusions about inherited IQ. He explicitly ignores the well-documented, historically persistent reality of educational inequality across the United States, assuming that the only "environmental" factors that affect a child's test score are ones inside the home.

In Chapter 2 of the dissertation, Richwine acknowledges that the "language bias" in most American IQ tests makes it difficult to assess the intelligence of native Spanish speakers or those who grow up in Spanish-dominant homes. He therefore argues that gaps between Hispanic and white performance in math provide the strongest evidence of innate ability differences between the two groups. He draws many of his conclusions from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which collected IQ scores from nearly 12,000 individuals who took the Armed Forces Qualification Test.

Is the AFQT an accurate measure of genetic cognitive ability, as Richwine claims — as distinct from academic achievement?

As Richwine writes, the AFQT "was designed for 17 and 18-year olds who speak English and have taken algebra." Some students in the data set may not yet have enrolled in algebra when they took the exam, so Richwine adjusts for school-entry cutoff birth dates. This ensures, he writes, that his entire sample has completed the same number of years of schooling, and thus their cognitive abilities can be accurately compared to one another using this test that includes algebra.

Here I was taken aback. I don't know about you, but I was not born knowing how to solve for x. It was taught to me at school, by teachers. Was Richwine truly claiming that 12 years of schooling in Scarsdale, for example, was equal in quality to 12 years of schooling in East New York? Was he claiming that there is no significant inequality in schooling across the the United States that could help explain differences in scores on a math test? As I continued to read, this did, in fact, emerge as Richwine's argument. From pages 65-66:

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Sure, academic standards are more uniform today than they were 100 years ago, and we give schools more funding, even in the "inner city." But to claim that school quality no longer "varies enormously" is shockingly ignorant. Affirmative action in college and private school admissions does nothing to guarantee the typical young Hispanic child access to effective preK-12 schools or teachers; in fact, in recent decades, American schools have become more segregated by race and class, with the poorest children most likely to be stuck in low-quality schools. We know these children do much better when we get them into better schools and classrooms, because we've tried it. Poor kids score higher than their racially and socioeconomically identical peers when they are enrolled in schools with middle-class students. Teachers who are good at raising their students' test scores (like, in algebra) are also good at helping them graduate high school, avoid teen pregnancy, and get higher-paying jobs — all those achievements that can supposedly be attributed to genetic IQ. Economists have been demonstrating for 15 years that somewhere between five percent and a third of the achievement gap can be attributed to poor children's lack of access to effective K-12 teachers.

So while Richwine does acknowledge that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to IQ, he locates environmental variability almost solely in the home, as if there were no inequality in contact with good teachers, orderly classrooms, up-to-date textbooks, and engaging curricula. He praises only one school-based intervention, the Abcedarian pre-school project, which he admits demonstrated "modest, tentative" IQ score gains that merit "further research." He quickly moves on, however and his overall elision of school as a factor allows him to claim that "environment" itself is a function of low IQ, with poor parents too unintelligent to provide a stimulating environment for their kids, who inherit the genetic deficit. He does not seem to know or care that such families have, through no fault of their own, unequal access to good schools that can and do raise student achievement in algebra and many other areas.

I've written extensively about how difficult it is for schools to overcome the academic affects of poverty. Yet we know good schooling does make a significant, potentially life-changing difference, and that poor children, including Hispanic immigrants and their descendents, do not have equal access to good schools. When people obsess about IQ in the face of these obvious inequalities and the vast research literature dissecting them, one has to wonder: What is the motivation? Ta-Nehisi Coates takes some guesses here. So does Jamelle Bouie.

Att. Jason Richwine: You’re Not the First Guy to (Wrongly) Believe Immigrants are Dumb

It turns out that the deliciously-named Jason Richwine, author of an anti-immigration reform paper from the Heritage Foundation, is also the author of a 2009 Harvard public policy dissertation called "IQ and Immigration Policy," which claims that because Latinos are genetically intellectually inferior to whites and Asians, their immigration to the U.S. should be tightly restricted. Richwine has also contributed to a white nationalist website called 

The human brain remains, in many crucial aspects, a mystery to science. So what is IQ? It is a measure of the capacity to learn in the linear fashion prized by Western culture, and we know that it is partially determined by genetics. Yet in the life of the average, individual human, those "innate" genes are vastly, vastly overpowered by the effects of environment: decent nutrition; an emotionally stable, vocabulary-rich home life; physically and emotionally attentive parents; good schools and teachers. Those factors tend to be in shorter supply among high-poverty populations. Claiming that such populations are genetically inferior ignores about a century of research and writing on the malleability of IQ and the proper uses of intelligence assessments.

Alfred Binet, the French psychologist who invented IQ testing, made quite clear that his exams could not draw conclusions about the difference in innate ability between two individuals from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Little has changed. In 1995, after the tempest around Charles Murray's The Bell Curve, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman summarized what is known about intelligence, race, class, and heritability. The consensus is that IQ can help distinguish between the capacities of "within-group" individuals–for example, two upper-middle class American Jewish girls who attended good public schools and then Brown University. However:

1. IQ supremacists claim IQ is a measure of innate ability. Yet IQ tests are actually achievement exams, which, in Heckman's words, can be "manipulated by educational interventions." If a child is asked during an IQ assessment to memorize and repeat a long string of numbers, she will do a better job if she has an excellent math teacher or if her dad helps her with her math homework at night — if, in other words, she has had the opportunity to gain confidence around numbers.

2. If two race-similar individuals are compared, the person with the higher IQ will often have superior social outcomes. He is more likely to graduate high school or get a high-paying job. Yet the evidence suggests that IQ itself–as opposed to all the other social factors correlated with IQ, like parental income–is responsible for only a small fraction of this difference in achievement. Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but correlation does not imply causation. 

3. IQ is one predictor of success on the labor market, but it is not the only or even the most important factor. Social skills and work ethic are not measured by IQ, yet can be substantially improved through education and training, especially if that training is received in childhood. 

4. We know socioeconomic factors influence intelligence, but our measures of those factors are crude. For example, a nutritious diet increases cognitive function, but we don't know by exactly how much. If we get better at isolating and measuring such effects, it might turn out that genetic intelligence is even less important than we assume. 

One of the books I recommend most often is The Big Test by Nick Lemann. He shows how wave after wave of new immigrants, including white immigrants, were assumed to be innately stupid, in part because of their initial bad scores on IQ exams. This is true even of those groups, like Jews, whom we think of as "smart" today. Here Lemann writes about IQ tests given to World War I recruits, and the way the scores were intepreted by Carl Campbell Brigham, a Princeton psychologist who became an author of the SAT:

On the Army IQ tests, Nordics scored higher than Alpines, who scored higher than Mediterraneans. The test results as a whole were like a photograph of American culture, so faithfully did they reproduce the social order. Officers scored higher than enlisted men, the native-born scored higher than the foreign-born, less recent immigrants scored higher than more recent immigrants, and whites scored higher than Negroes. There were ironclad natural laws at work here, Brigham felt, and he warned that wishful thinkers who pretended otherwise were deluding themselves–writing, for example, "Our figures, then, would rather tend to disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent." Brigham's stern conclusion was this: "American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive…These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows." 

The social and cognitive science has improved since then. But somehow, Richwine didn't get the memo, so we keep rehashing these noxious old arguments.

Update: Via Twitter, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross points out that in his dissertation, Richwine does discuss the Brigham research. He concludes that Brigham unfairly discriminated against certain white immigrant groups, since those groups, like Italians, now perform equally to Northern European Americans on today's more sophisticated IQ tests. This is from page 20:

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Richwine recognizes Brigham's bias toward certain white people. Yet he assumes that innate genetic traits are responsible for Latino's lower IQ scores over the past several decades, as opposed to the many socioeconomic realities described above and acknowledged as far-greater predictors of IQ. Richwine writes that since Asians are both poor and do well on IQ tests, this destroys the argument that poverty accounts for Latino's lower scores. Yet poverty is not a monolithic phenomenon. It differs culturally, across the globe, in terms of how much emphasis is put on academic learning. Ex; Until Reconstruction, it was illegal in the American south to teach black people to read. Chinese culture has emphasized success on written civil service examinations for over a millenium. Some Latino teenagers arrive in American public schools nearly illiterate in Spanish; they come from agricultural communities in countries where anything beyond an elementary education is off-limits to the very poor. Comparing Asians to Latinos is thus exactly the sort of "out-group" analysis that Heckman and Binet warned about.

An Activist Teacher, a Struggling School, and the School Closure Movement: A Story from L.A.

In the hallway at Crenshaw High, spring 2011.

On Monday, half the teachers at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles found out they had been dismissed from their jobs as part of a "conversion" process. Among them was Alex Caputo-Pearl, who I first met two years ago when I reported on Crenshaw. Caputo-Pearl was a member of the very first class of Teach for America recruits, in 1990. He has spent two decades teaching in high-poverty L.A.-area schools, first in Compton and then at Crenshaw, where he helped craft a reform plan known as the Extended Learning Cultural Model. ELCM won sizable grants from the Obama administration, the Ford Foundation, and other philanthropies to pursue school improvement driven by the higher expectations of the Common Core, yet built around a curriculum tied to addressing the challenges of the low-income South L.A. neighborhood where Crenshaw resides. Here's an example of some of the work expected from 10th graders enrolled in Crenshaw's Social Justice and Law Academy, the themed small school-within-a-school founded by Caputo-Pearl and some of his colleagues, who have also been dismissed:

For their final project, students had to analyze a data set that included test scores at various schools; neighborhood income levels; school truancy rates; and incarceration rates.

In math, students graphed the relationship between income and social opportunity in various south L.A. neighborhoods. In social studies, they read conservative and liberal proposals for school reform and practiced citing data in their own written arguments about how to improve education. In science, students designed experiments that could test policy hypotheses about how to improve education. And in English class, they read Our America, a work of narrative non-fiction about life in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago.

In addition, some Crenshaw students were placed in paid community-service internships. Others worked with local colleges to conduct research on South L.A. Click here to read more about the research that backs this reform vision.

Teachers like Caputo-Pearl led the turnaround work at Crenshaw, in part because the school has seen massive management turnover — over 30 different administrators in seven years. Test scores remain below district averages, though they have shown some growth, especially for African American and disabled students. I've reported here on some of the unique demographic challenges Crenshaw faces, including higher-than-average numbers of students living in foster care.

Yet despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and philanthropic support for the Extended Learning Cultural Model, L.A. Superintendent John Deasy announced in November that Crenshaw's work would be halted and the school would be reconstituted as a magnet, with a focus on expanding Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings. Teachers were required to reapply to their jobs. The Social Justice and Law Academy will be done away with; three new magnet programs will be organized around the arts, entrepreneurship, and STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. 

Cresnhaw's union chair, Cathy Garcia, wrote in a letter to supporters that the district seems to have targeted for dismissal Caputo-Pearl and other teachers who led the Social Justice and Law Academy. A district spokesperson responded, "Students, parents, alumni and community members helped to create the criteria used during the selection process for candidates and educational programs. The district, as well as the school’s staff, believe the changes will establish rigorous academics, allowing all Crenshaw students to graduate college- and career-ready.”  

According to Crenshaw sources who have seen a list of dismissed teachers, 21 of the 33 are African American, and 27 have over 10 years of experience. These teachers will be placed into a candidate pool and will be allowed to apply for open positions at other schools. But for educators who have dedicated their careers to improving Crenshaw, and who have deep well-springs of support among parents and students, the dismissals are devastating. 

This isn't the first time the district has attempted to remove Caputo-Pearl, an outspoken activist, from Crenshaw. In 2006, as he was organizing neighborhood parents to fight for better school resources, such as up-to-date computers, he was forcibly transfered to a more affluent school across town. Parents complained and he was eventually reinstated. Caputo-Pearl is part of a dissident, left caucus within the L.A. teachers' union, and he has written in the New York Times about why he has become a critic of Teach for America. He opposes tying teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores, and is critical of the expansion of the charter school sector.

He says his next step is advocating for the Crenshaw students who will be affected by the school's reorganization. Those children will not be automatically re-enrolled in one of the new magnet schools inside the Crenshaw building; instead, they or their parents will need to fill out a "Choices" application, which looks like this. This barrier can be a signfiicant one for children in foster care, or whose parents are not aware of what the process entails. Many students "feel unsure of what school they will be at next year," Caputo-Pearl said. "Our immediate priority has to be ensuring all students have the right to a neighborhood school in the Crenshaw area, and the right to equitable treatment at that school."

What's happening at Crenshaw is representative of the death of the large, urban comprehensive high school all across the country. In New York, research from the New School suggests that Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to break up large, underperforming high schools have, in fact, led to the founding of higher-quality schools. The problem is that students whose schools close may not end up enrolled in those better schools; instead, a significant number of them will be enrolled by default in the nearest large high school that is still open, which itself has extremely low test scores. That school, in turn, will eventually be shut down, creating what the New School researchers call a "domino effect," in which the most disadvantaged teenagers are shuttled from failing school to failing school, while those with more active, involved parents win spots at new schools. 

In Chicago, only 6 percent of students whose schools are shut down end up enrolled in a school within the top achievement quartile, and 40 percent of students from closed schools ended up at schools on academic probation. 

If smaller, themed schools are better for kids — and there is significant evidence they are — the question then becomes, how can districts transition to such a system without leaving behind those students who most need help? Crenshaw was already pursuing a themed school-within-a-school reform plan, and it is discouraging, I think, that the Social Justice and Law Academy, whose work was politically and intellectually challenging, will be discontinued, with its leaders dispersed. 

After the jump, I am posting a statement from Alex Caputo-Pearl, as well as the letter from union reps Cathy Garcia and Joseph Zeccola.

Continue reading

On the Atlanta Cheating Scandal

I've written a new explainer for Slate on the indictments of 35 Atlanta educators for inflating students' test scores: What does it tell us about national education reform? For previous coverage of my thoughts on Atlanta and standardized test-based accountability, see this 2011 piece.

And here is my Martin Bashir segment on the same topic, from yesterday:


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On “Innovation” in Social Policy, and “Solutionism” in Education

The following was written by the Princeton sociologist Melvin Tumin, in 1973. Tumin was thinking about the Teacher Corps, a Great Society program that was a sort of lefty precursor to Teach for America, in which intern teachers arrived in disadvantaged schools eager to close achievement gaps and — because it was the sixties — also build racial pride, improve student self-esteem, and overhaul the curriculum to better reflect African American history and culture. Most Teacher Corps interns grew frustrated by the slow pace of change within schools; most veteran educators were suspcious of the interns' intentions and ideology. As Tumin points out, this inevitable culture clash is a key finding of research in organizational theory, and helps explain why it is so difficult for small social programs to impact bureaucracies:

…one of the most important factors that made the Program difficult to implement was that it could not promise the members of agencies and institutions whose cooperation was needed that it would be worth their while. Innovation is a charming word, beguiling and rousing. But it is like other terms such as relevance, concern, sensitivity. One cannot be against these on principle. But they are almost always privately read as warning signs that there is trouble ahead for those who are fulfilling their accustomed routines. Moreover, since most innovation efforts fail sooner or later, wise masters of ongoing enterprises have learned to live and wait until such innovations speed themselves to their ultimate demise. While not many other earthly travails can be safely waited out, with any hope of relief, innovative programs do have that special quality of a high probability of failure, so that “this too shall pass” is a reasonably sound prediction about most of them. 

I read this just after I returned from SXSWedu, and it seemed particularly relevant to the (almost total lack of) dialogue between social entrepreneurs who want to use software to disrupt traditional classroom practices in ways that are supposed to benefit poor children, and the majority of teachers and administrators who might be enthusiastic about specific technologies, but who simply do not see the lack of technology as the key barrier preventing schools from better serving all students. Educators are more likely to point to teacher quality, or to the content of the curriculum, or to factors stemming from the home and family. And sure, technology may be able to address many of these challenges. Yet tech-hypers lose credibility when they ignore the fact that inequalities outside the realm of access to technology remain the primary drivers of disparate educational outcomes.

Evgeny Morozov's recent essay on technological "solutionism" is certainly applicable to the tendency to mistake the technocratic measurement of educational problems, using software, as the very same thing as coming up with solutions to those problems. It should be obvious–yet at SWSWedu, it rarely was–that the quantification of inequality, whether in student achievement scores or ratings of teacher effectiveness, is only a jumping off point for complex political, policy, and social debates over how to use such data, and whether and how to close achievement gaps. The collection of "Big Data" does not, in and of itself, guarantee the formulation of effective solutions to problems.