07/23/2014 06:01 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2014

Why Neo-Plessyism Failed to Improve Chicago Schools


The market-driven school reform movement intentionally uses test, punish, choice, and no-holds-barred competition to sort and separate students and educators. They scoff at the social science that explains the need for trusting relationships and diversity in schools, as they use the stress of tests and competition to supposedly overcome the stress of poverty.

Reformers ridicule calls for collaboration and integration, as they use segregation by choice to undo the legacy of segregation by economics and race!?!? Then they are shocked, shocked, that their campaign to separate leads to increased segregation.

Reformers in New Orleans, New York City, and Chicago have been especially determined to reward schools that recruit the easier-to-educate, while punishing those schools that are left with even greater percentages of children from extreme poverty, who have endured severe trauma. But, now Mayor Rahm Emanuel supposedly claims that he did not intend to worsen segregation. Perhaps Emanuel is so uninformed about education research and history that he didn't understand that increased sorting would be the inevitable result of his policies.

Reporter Linda Lutton and a study by Chicago's WBEZ public radio shows that the opening of dozens of new Chicago high schools since 2004 has increased sorting in high and low performing schools. Chicago has followed the same pattern as the reforms in New Orleans where, as researcher Andrew McEachin discovered, "High performing students tend to go to high-performing schools, and low-performing students tend to go to low-performing schools."

Chicago followed the same dynamics as reforms in New York City where researcher Sean Corcoran determined, "high achieving kids tended to cluster together and low achieving kids cluster together as well."

The WBEZ investigation found that 15 percent of Chicago's high schools are populated with vastly disproportionate numbers of low-performing students. Black students "are doubly segregated, first by race, then by achievement." Even kids in the so-called middle find places in the types of schools they are supposed to land in, with greater percentages of "average" kids and "slightly below average" going to charters.

The first reason why this neo-Plessyism is the inevitable result of corporate reform is that the teens know the drill. As Lutton reports, "students know the hierarchy." They know the places that are being set for them. The pain they suffer by being pigeon-holed is intense, and it can be educationally debilitating. Tragically, but understandably, too many young people who find themselves in the lowest-performing schools respond "if that is what 'they' think of me, I'll show them."

Lutton's report and other Hechinger Institute analyses are exceptionally astute in weaving the various strands of the tragic tale, explaining why the segregation encouraged by reformers is becoming more intense. Students with higher achievement come from homes with more resources, and more ability to take advantage of their choices.

The effect of sorting on school climate is huge. Since "the biggest predictor of whether a school is safe and orderly is students' academic achievement, " Lutton explains "having top performers makes an entire school easier to run."

As was also explained in a recent study by the Chicago Consortium on School Research, the more challenging schools have more teacher turnover. This deepens the divide between advantaged and challenging schools in terms of teacher experience and quality.

I saw the same story when reform turned my run-of-the-mill 3/4ths low-income inner city school into a dysfunctional 100% low-income high school. I would add another point about the ways that test-driven policies make all of these dynamics worse. This policy was once known as "earned autonomy." The name was so ugly that reformers stopped using the words, even as they continued to issue the same mandates.

Choice-driven systems aren't about to micromanage and impose soul-killing scripted instruction on more advantaged schools - the ones they have selected for success. Their autonomy is respected and favored schools are encouraged to develop holistic and engaging lessons.

Low-performing schools have to earn their autonomy, however. Until they can prove an ability to raise test scores, teach-to-the-test is imposed on them. That creates a downward cycle where basic skills instruction, test prep, and worksheet-driven teaching are demanded in a desperate attempt to jack up test scores, (so that the school can throw off the mandates.) But that educational malpractice drives down student performance, inviting even more repressive micromanaging. This further undermines the schools' learning cultures, drives out top teachers and higher-achieving students, and encourages more troubled teens to act out their pain through violence and disruptive behavior.

WBEZ concludes with the wisdom of Elaine Allensworth of the Chicago Consortium who "says Chicago needs to decide what it wants -- a system that sorts students, or a system that mixes them together more." Allensworth says, "The solution is thinking about where we want to be as a society -- what kind of system do we want." says Allensworth.

I may be naïve, but I don't believe that reformers wanted to resegregate our schools in such a disgusting matter. I don't believe they intended to inflict more divisiveness on society. I suspect they just imposed their opinions on systems without having a clue about the way that they function. What I find incomprehensible is their failure to consider the excellent scholarship of the CCSR and other social scientists before imposing their theories on schools.

The eminent CCSR scholar Allensworth says:

Researchers already know one thing: whatever approach Chicago chooses, schools need to increase supports for the lowest performing students. If kids are mixed, lower achievers need help keeping up so they don't get frustrated and give up, and so they don't hold back their high-flying peers. And if Chicago decides to keep sorting students by achievement, then the schools filled with the lowest performers are going to need a lot of extra resources.

Perhaps that addresses much of my concern. Reformers care about kids trapped in the most challenging schools. They just didn't care enough about the complexity of the task they volunteered to take over. They were in too much of a hurry to tackle the challenge of providing and coordinating systems of support for the lowest performing students. So, they somehow convinced themselves that test, punish, choice and competition was a viable, cheaper and easier shortcut for improving urban schools.