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Friday, February 23, 2007

Urban schools success stories? Or not?

So here’s the question. Why does everyone like to hear success stories from inner-city, overwhelming minority public schools? I suppose Democrats like to hear these stories because it confirms their beliefs that non-whites without money can be academically successful, and Republicans like to hear them because they are usually examples of spectacular achievement without massive government programs.

But no, that’s not really the question. The real question is whether the stories are even true. I don’t mean that those who tell them are lying; I just mean that the successes may be short-lived and therefore misleading. There was a provocative report on Weekend All Things Considered on February 17 dealing with this issue. Susan Eaton, author of The Children in Room E4, talked about this issue in the context of a successful teacher in “what was supposedly the best school in inner-city Hartford” [interviewer’s words in italics]:
The children in Room E4 had the same problems as many children in high-poverty, racially segregated urban school districts, but...

... Given the conditions in which Miss Luddy was working, she actually achieved remarkable success... Her school got the blue ribbon from the Education Department. She had high test scores...
She’s an amazing person, but she’s also an exception. Saintly geniuses are in really short supply. But I think one of the things our American culture does is that we love to focus on the exceptions, the kind of hero miracle teacher who does a few projects with the kids and gets them to achieve at high levels and defies everybody’s expectations...

Those stories are absolutely true, and they’re worth celebrating, but I think we often celebrate them at the expense of understanding the true mess that’s out there and the huge and vast inequalities that show up no place better than our public schools.

If a school like this does show that it can achieve, isn’t that enough? It hasn’t achieved. It achieved at the very small, discrete task of nudging up test scores for a tiny portion of children over four or five years. The year after they won this blue-ribbon award, and they were one of six models for urban education in the country, the test scores plummeted...

The high test scores came at a price of, for example, no recess. Children eight and nine years old, sitting on their butts from 8:30 until 5:00 at night drilling for tests...

Are you making the case that it is not possible to have a high-performing inner-city school over the long haul?... ...No, I know that it can happen, but through all the years of trying, there is no one school system that has been able to achieve any measure of equality with predominantly middle-class school systems. And we’re talking about a huge country here. We focus incessantly on the exceptions, we focus incessantly on the so-called beat-the-odds schools. Some of these stories are true, some of them aren’t; I happened to land in a place where the story was not true, and someone has got to stand up and say it. No one in Hartford wanted to say it. Everybody kept pushing the miracle... Racial isolation, economic isolation, and poverty are still the central issues, and no one is doing anything about it. No one wants to listen, because we all want to believe in miracles.
I’ll have to read the book. I wonder to what extent it’s specific to this one classroom in Hartford, and to what extent it generalizes to urban education elsewhere.

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