The Undisputed Truth – ” Smiling Faces” (click to listen or download)
To bolster their case and push their agendas, advocates for market-based education reform and market-based policies in general tout “miracle schools” that have supposedly produced amazing results . Urban Prep in Chicago is often exhibit A.
As Diane Ravitch wrote of Urban Prep and other ed deform favorites ” the only miracle at these schools was a triumph of public relations.”
Locally, backers of the Madison Preparatory Academy have incorporated much of the Urban Prep model in their plan and have repeatedly cited the “success” of that school as evidence of the soundness of their proposal. Just this weekend Derrell Connor was quoted as saying in relation to Madison Prep “We are using Urban Prep (in Chicago) as an example, which for the last four years has a 100 percent graduation rate and all those kids have gone on to college.” As I pointed out in a back-and-forth in the comments on that interview, the actual Urban Prep graduation rate is far below 100% (62.6% is the correct figure, my mistakes in the comments, also there have only been two graduating classes, not four) .
While this is better than the figures for African American Males in Chicago and Madison, I tend to discount graduation rates as a metric for autonomous and semi-autonomous schools where what constitutes passing isn’t closely monitored and all involved have a vested interest in higher numbers. Similar interests are present with the college admissions figures that are at the center of Urban Prep’s marketing campaign. Often a counterfactual is employed: “better at Urban Prep or college than in prison,” but there is no way to establish that without Urban Prep these particular students would be headed toward prison and given the family/self selection, many reasons to believe that they would not. All of this distracts from a a consideration of the desirability of a model that sends under-prepared students to college where at best they receive remediation paid for by scarce family or scholarship funds or student loans. Also lost is the fact that the vast majority of post-secondary institutions have minimal admissions requirements and that almost all motivated high school graduates (and even GED takers) can gain admission.
That back-and-forth directly prompted this post (it was one of many that have been simmering and was moved to the front burner). As the title indicates, I want to dig beyond the hype and look at what has and has not been achieved at Urban Prep. I also want to explore a bit how the hype has distorted and damaged discussions and deliberations about education and education policy.
This most definitely is not a rejoinder to Mr. Connor, but since I did mention him, I will say up front that in both the interview and the comments, I sensed from his words — more than I have from many others — a willingness to acknowledge the complexity of the issues and the limitations of any one educational program. This is important, because — as addressed below — I see much of the negative impact of the “miracle school” myth as being due to denial of complexity and limitations.
Some Truth About Urban Prep (Numbers and Charts)
First the caveats. I don’t now and never will believe that test score data gives anything like a true or full picture of a school (or district or state). Standardized tests are at best a limited snapshot, designed to sort students, not measure what they know; and so much else of what goes on in schools — both good and bad — and contributes to or detracts from personal development is not and cannot be quantified with any degree of confidence. So “some truth,” from some test score data, not the whole truth. One more caveat is that all numbers are from the Englewood Campus (the others are too new to have posted data).
Gary Rubenstein and others have done the basic work of delineating the abysmal test scores at Urban Prep. You can view the interactive school Report Card here. There really is no way to spin 17% of the students meeting state standards as a “success,” (nor is there any way to look at the 29% meeting standards in the Chicago Public Schools and not demand change of one sort or another). The idea that Urban Prep is a success to be emulated is absurd. Further examination of the record only reinforces this conclusion.
What I want to do here is look a deeper at the differences in achievement (gaps) between “easier to educate” and “harder to educate students at Urban Prep, specifically around poverty. One more caveat: looking at gaps based on broad categories like poverty, special education and race also distorts the realities of schools and students, all poverty is not the same (for a fine macro take on this see this from Bruce Baker), special education students have a wide variety of abilities and the of salience race is not simple or constant.
Still, much of the case being made in favor of Urban Prep and Madison Prep is based on standardized test achievement gaps, so looking at the gaps that exist at Urban Prep is reasonable.
Poverty matters and the gaps based on poverty — as measured by Free or Reduced Lunch status — at the almost entirely African American Urban Prep are eye-opening and further puncture the myth that this school has the answers.
The first chart shows composite percentage meeting (none exceeded) state standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), all PSAE data from here.
As bad as the scores are for the school as a whole, they are much, much worse for the students in poverty. In the most recent year the gap is 19.7% and only 11.7% of students in poverty meet the standards.
Similar,gaps on the ACT (raw data here).
This shows the percentage of students who achieved a composite score of 20 or greater, a measure of “college readiness,” but not the official ACT version (both measures are problematic for a variety of reasons). The poverty gap was 18.2 in 2011, with only 5.3% of students in poverty scoring a composite of 20 or greater.
One more from the ACT, this one shows composite means.
The point differences aren’t that great, but the gap is there and neither the 17.7 (for non FRL) nor the 15.5 (for FRL) inspires confidence. When you learn that Urban Prep has partnered with a for profit ACT Prep company, these scores look even worse.
Whatever might be working at Urban Prep (by these measures), is working much better for non Free/Reduced Lunch students than it is for students in poverty. It should also be noted that on most of these measures and for most years, with one exception, the gaps have grown. Poverty matters.
(Some of) Why This Matters
The Big, Big Picture: Structural Inequality
The Big, Big Picture is about structural change in our society and how the myths of “miracle schools” and equality of opportunity via education work against those changes. The”schools and schools alone can overcome inequality, ” teacher and teacher union bashing corporate reform crowd associated with the Education Equality Project — signatories include Kaleem Caire, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Rhee, Whitney Tilson (of DFER), Dr. Beverly L. Hall (the disgraced former Atlanta Superintendent), Eric Hanushek (of the Hoover Institute)…you get the idea — make extensive use of the supposed miracle schools to advance their agendas. They don’t want the myths exposed, they don’t want structural inequality examined.
I’ve spent a good deal of my life studying and working for equality of educational opportunity and strongly believe that public education is the best tool we have for combating inequality, but “social” equality (“social” as in TH Marshall’s conception of “Social Citizenship” see Linda Gordon and Nancy Fraser for more) and even real equality of educational opportunity requires something much Broader and Bolder than school reform can bring (click the link, I’m a signatory there).
Yet it is incontrovertible that no school or teacher can fully erase the educational advantages that the children of the educated and the wealthy have over children without books in their homes or even homes at all. Even at a school like Urban prep, where likely no students are wealthy but many are poor, the differences are pronounced.
In more subtle ways the myths of meritocracy and educational opportunity have worked against the fuller enactment of social provisions found in most Western nations and continue to obscure and distract from confronting the structures that reproduce inequality.
I have another post germinating that will cover some of this, so I’m going to keep working to expand Opportunities to Learn and set this analysis aside for now (related thoughts from Diane Ravitch here).
The Big Picture: Educational Policy
In terms of educational decision-making, a big problem with these myths is that they are false and false premises poison the process.
Because the myths are as attractive as they are false, getting past this is difficult. People want to believe in miracles. Add to that they are being spread via a very, very well-funded marketing and lobbying campaigns and the problem is compounded. A credulous media doesn’t help either; miracles make great stories ( see ” “Misinformed charter punditry doesn’t help anyone (especially charters!)” by Bruce Baker for a somewhat different take on this).
The reality of expanding opportunities and extending attainment is not as simple or as marketable. Lists of “proven” policies — like adequate funding, smaller classes, differentiated resource allocations (poverty aids); differentiated instruction; Quality early childhood education; experienced; well prepared and compensated staff (not just teachers, but social workers, EAs. librarians, psychologists, counselors, all in adequate numbers to assure that students get the attention they need); high expectations and challenging academic work for all students, quality and culturally relevant instructional materials, school and classroom diversity, professional learning communities where educators have a respected voice in policy and practices, flexible pedagogy, well designed and frequent interventions for those falling behind, parental and community involvement — don’t have the same appeal.
When you add to these an acknowledged need to attempt to address factors beyond the control of the schools, like mobility, developmental environment, peer cultures, health and medical issues (including but not limited to those like lead poisoning and fetal alcohol syndrome that directly effect learning and disproportionately impact minorities and those in poverty), food insecurity, housing insecurity,…..you’ve lost most of your audience.
If anyone is still listening or reading, you will almost certainly lose them if you honestly end by saying “these are some of the things we should be doing and they will help many, but even with these we won’t achieve equality and maybe not even quality education for all.” Complex, multifaceted, expensive and uncertain is a hard sell.
Closer to Home
As long as the myths and narratives of advocates like those pushing Madison Prep remain largely unexamined, the false but attractive stories of simplistic miracles will have an advantage. Even the “if not this, what’s the alternative” response to questions and evidence leaves the public relations deck stacked in their favor. They have an easily marketed “tight package” but reality isn’t so tight and neither are good education policy and practice.
Just for the record, my answer to “if not this what” would begin with the above lists, include a call to implement the recommendations of the Equity Task Force and extend to seeking better understandings of how multiple factors such as mobility, race, poverty, disabilities, language…interact among students in MMSD, and how to and address these (one of my big complaints with the Madison Prep sales pitch is the simplistic framing of achievement as an exclusively racial issue, and the even more simplistic conflation of the experiences of African Americans and Latinos) . I’d also recommend “Why Does the Gap Persist?” by Paul E. Barton as a good starting point on the state of research-based knowledge (along with the Better Bolder materials linked above and …..and….). Not very tight or marketable, but the kind of things I think we should be talking about instead spreading or busting the myths of Urban Prep and the like.
Many people have said that it is good that Madison Prep has forced our community to have a conversation about the education of students who are failing/being failed. I wish we were having that conversation but we aren’t. There has been more heat than light and more myth than fact.
Much about the way Madison Prep has been presented has worked against the kind of deliberation I think our students and community would benefit from. Perhaps the most basic part of this is the fact that months into the marketing campaign and weeks before the vote on the proposal, the educational program for Madison Prep is still very much an outline (the basic requirements under for a “detailed” proposal” under MMSD policy have yet to be satisfied) and it certainly has not been given much scrutiny.
The educational program should be central to the conversation. Many communities spend months or years considering in great detail the pros and cons of single aspects of the Madison Prep plan, such as extended time, International Baccalaureate (perhaps relevant to this is the fact that despite claiming an Advanced Placement program Urban Prep students have not taken a single AP exam), single-sex education (another Urban prep practice), “no excuses” policies (Urban Prep again), extended school day (yep, Urban Prep and like so much of this not supported by research)….With the clock ticking, we’ve spent almost no time on any of these, singly or in combination (as I’ve said repeatedly, the combination matters because the whole could be less –or more — than the sum of the parts).
The clock is ticking, but it isn’t too late. I have faith that the Board of Education will at least attempt to deliberate based on facts and not myths, as well as some hope that a significant portion of the community, including some supporters of Madison Prep, will welcome and engage in this process. Some hope.
Thomas J. Mertz