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Failing Schools Fail Fact Check

By Richard Rothstein

Source:  The Economic Policy Institute

Education “reformers” have a common playbook. First, assert without
evidence that regular public schools are “failing” and that large numbers of
regular (unionized) public school teachers are incompetent. Provide no
documentation for this claim other than that the test score gap between
minority and white children remains large. Then propose so-called reforms to
address the unproven problem – charter schools to escape teacher
unionization and the mechanistic use of student scores on low-quality and
corrupted tests to identify teachers who should be fired.

The mantra has been endlessly repeated by Secretary of Education Arne
Duncan, and by “reform” leaders like former Washington and New York
schools chancellors Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein. Bill Gates’ foundation
gives generous grants to school systems and private education advocates
who adopt the analysis. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel makes the
argument, and in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has frequently sung
the same tune.

And now, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has joined in. On Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr.’s birthday last week, the governor cast attacks on unionized
teachers as a defense of minority students against the adult bureaucracy. “It’
s about the children,” Mr. Cuomo said. Because of failing public schools,
“the great equalizer that was supposed to be the public education system
can now be the great discriminator.”

But this applause line about school failure is an “urban myth.” The governor,
mayor and other policymakers have neglected to check facts they assume to
be true. As a result, they may be obsessed with the wrong challenges, while
exacerbating real, but overlooked problems.

Careful examination discloses that disadvantaged students have made
spectacular progress in the last generation, in regular public schools, with
ordinary teachers. Not only have regular public schools not been “the great
discriminator” – they continue to make remarkable gains for minority children
at a time when our increasingly unequal social and economic systems seem
determined to abandon them.

We have only one accurate performance measure. The government
administers periodic reading and math tests to samples of fourth, eighth and
12th graders. Called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP,
pronounced “nape”), it is less subject to corruption than standardized tests
now legally required of all schoolchildren.

NAEP samples are only large enough to produce reliable national and (for
fourth and eighth graders) state estimates, but not for classrooms or
schools. Thus, principals or teachers suffer no consequences for poor NAEP
scores, giving them no incentive to steal time from instruction to drill on
NAEP-type questions.

Not every selected student gets identical NAEP questions. Scores aggregate
answers from different students’ booklets, covering different topics from the
math and reading curriculums. In contrast, state and city standardized tests
change little each year; teachers can predict which of many topics will likely
appear, and focus instruction on those.

Here’s what NAEP shows: Average black fourth graders’ math performance in
regular public schools has improved so much that it now exceeds average
white performance as recently as 1992. The improvement has been greatest
for the lowest achievers, those in the bottom 10 percent. Eighth graders
show similar, though less dramatic trends. The black-white gap has narrowed
little because whites have also improved.

These irrefutable facts characterize both the nation as a whole, and New
York State specifically. In fact, New York State’s black children made
enormous gains in the 1990s, and much slower gains once the federal No
Child Left Behind, and Mayor Bloomberg’s and Chancellor Klein’s test-based
reforms kicked in. From 1992 to 2003, for example, black fourth graders’ math
performance jumped 22 scale points (about two-thirds of a standard
deviation). From 2003 to 2011, the gain was only 5 scale points.

There is something perverse about using Dr. King’s  birthday as the
occasion for an accusation that schools have been the “great
discriminators” when those schools have been boosting the achievement of
African Americans at a far more rapid rate than they’ve been able to boost
the achievement of whites.

Overall, the national and New York State data are hard to reconcile with a
story that schools are filled with teachers having low expectations, poor
training, and complacency arising from excessive job security, and the way
to fix public schools is more accountability for student test scores.

There are certainly ineffective teachers, and schools should do better at
removing them. But data suggest that this problem, while real, is relatively
small compared to others we ignore. Here are two: There has been
substantial reading improvement at the fourth but not eighth grade; and no
comparable improvement, even in math, for 12th graders.

Assuming systemic failure to justify a frenzy of ill-considered reforms, we’ve
spent almost no time investigating what caused these trends. We can only

Plausibly, schools have more influence on math. Reading, especially for
older children, results more from exposure to vocabulary and complex
language at home, and to visiting museums, libraries, and zoos, to gain
context for the written word.

We do know that the verbal gap between middle class and disadvantaged
children is well established by age 3. We can improve reading scores for
fourth graders by drilling basic skills, but not for older children whose
reading depends more on relating text to the world beyond.

Popular reforms, holding schools and teachers accountable for test scores,
are consistent with the facts only if we believe that most teachers work hard
to teach math, but not reading. More plausible is that elementary schools do
at least a passable job, and we should focus reform instead on establishing
early childhood centers that give disadvantaged children greater verbal
exposure and the breadth of experience that affluent children typically

Rather than spending such energy imagining how schools have failed, so we
can fix them, we might devote attention to investigating what schools have
done well, so we can do more of it.

High schools’ apparent lack of improvement for disadvantaged youth
remains puzzling. Here, too, we should consider some factors outside of
schools, where racially isolated communities with concentrated poverty and
few jobs can demoralize adolescents. We might get greater academic
success by creating more after-school and summer programs that provide
enriching experiences, competing with adverse neighborhood influences.

Systems cannot improve if prescriptions rely on flawed diagnoses. The
governor and mayor should now step back, take a deep breath, and try to
follow facts rather than ignore them.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute
and senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social
Policy at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Law. He is the
author of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (Teachers College
Press and EPI, 2008) and Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and
Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (Teachers
College Press 2004). He is also the author of The Way We Were? Myths and
Realities of America’s Student Achievement (1998). Other recent books
include The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment
and Achievement (co-authored in 2005); and All Else Equal: Are Public and
Private Schools Different? (co-authored in 2003).  Richard Rothstein can be
reached at