THE BLOG
09/04/2007 04:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Being Done. Oh, Really?

One response of the poverty-is-no-excuse crowd is to find schools with high poverty enrollments or high minority enrollments or both, but which also have high test scores. This is not easy. The Education Trust a few years back announced it had found "high flying schools" -- school which fit the demographics of high poverty or high minority or both but whose test scores put them in the upper third of their states. It found 15.6% of all high poverty schools were high flying and 10.4% of high poverty, high minority schools attained that status.

Some people, though, found the criteria by the Trust a bit light -- if any grade made the upper third for one year in either reading or math, the whole school received the high-flying designation. When Douglas Harris of Florida State University reanalyzed the data requiring two subjects, two grade and two years, only 1.1% of high-poverty schools came in as high flying and only 0.3% of high poverty, high minority schools made it.

A new book, It's Being Done by education writer Karin Chenoweth, identified 15 schools where you might not expect high achievement. Chenoweth visited these schools on multiple occasions to see what makes them tick. What follows I initially wrote as an email to a friend, but I think it serves well as a general, skeptical look at Chenoweth's book.

I do not believe that demography is destiny. I do believe it's much harder to get high achievement in high poverty schools than outfits like the Education Trust contend (with whom Chenoweth has been affiliated). In this instance, a number of the schools in Chenoweth's group have advantages that give them an enormous leg up over the typical inner city school found in NYC, Detroit, DC., etc.

If you grant Karin everything, you still have only 15 schools out of what, 15,000 impoverished schools? None of her schools are in NYC, LA, Philly, Chicago, Detroit or DC. Those are the schools I have in mind when I talk about the impact of poverty. The schools where teachers tell Kozol [Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of the Nation] that's the first white kid I've seen in three years. Frankford, DE is only 27% black, 38% Latino and 34% white. East Millsboro, DE is 60% white. Only half are eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

Most of of these schools are in towns. They're not in places where kids walk out of school into drive-by shootings, druggies, homeless, whores, gangs... etc. (a Website for Millsboro, DE indicates it hasn't had a murder in at least 5 years). Consider the two schools in Delaware. One is in a town of 750, the other a town of 2,500. The size of the town alone gives them a big leg up -- and the schools are not big either. The people in the schools talk about the computers and Smartboards and stuff that I imagine kids and teachers in South Central and East Harlem don't even know about. In DC a few years back, they found dozens of computers in a closet; this year there were thousands of textbooks in a building and apparently no intent, or no plan anyway, to deliver them to schools. And you've probably got a stability in both the teaching cadre and the kids that urban schools would kill for.

In addition, Karin only reports percent of kids attaining standards or percent proficient. I've written over and over and over that that's a terrible metric [My Huffington Post blog of January 2, 2007, "One Reason (Among Many Why NCLB Cannot Work" discusses the problem]. If the proficient barrier is four feet high, you learn how many kids can jump at least four feet in the air. But kids who leap 6, 7 or 8 feet high also get credit only for 4 feet (but you don't know if there are any such kids -- the percent proficient hides that info).

In some of the numbers for Frankford in Delaware that aren't in the book, black kids score a lot lower than whites and at the state website the 2007 data are up [the book only goes through 2006] and it looks like black kids got run over by a truck. Some of the averages don't even contain black or Hispanic kids because there are not enough for a minimal group size -- there are only 45-55 kids per grade.

Similarly, West Jasper has 313 kids in 6 grades, 43% of whom are white. While overall, 89% of 4th graders in 2006 met Alabama standards in reading and 84 met them in grade 4 math, national percentile ranks on the SAT10 ranged from 46 in science to 59 in reading [SAT10 = Stanford Achievement Test, Edition 10, a nationally normed standardized test). OK numbers, but not numbers I would use to say "It's being done." Interestingly, 4th graders scores are always substantially above 5th graders the following year. And they're much higher in 4th grade than in 3rd grade the preceding year.

Is there a premium on 4th grade test scores in Alabama?

From the vignettes I've read, the schools all look to have good, concerned, competent principals. But those principals don't look to me to be up against the things that Tina McKnight is up against in Tested. And, Tina's school is a school where it's "being done" but would you call it a good school? It's a good school a couple of months a year -- after the state test is given.