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Excuses for the “No Excuses” Reformers…

July 8, 2011

Excellent article in the NYTimes, by Paul Tough.  In the 2 page article Paul talks about how the school reformers all spoke about having “no excuses” for students no matter what background they came from:

In the early days of the education-reform movement, a decade or so ago, you’d often hear from reformers a powerful rallying cry: “No excuses.” For too long, they said, poverty had been used as an excuse by complacent educators and bureaucrats who refused to believe that poor students could achieve at high levels. Reform-minded school leaders took the opposite approach, insisting that students in the South Bronx should be held to the same standards as kids in Scarsdale.

Then, something odd happened.  Enter Diane Ravitch and her criticisms of schools which have been lauded for their achievements by this administration.

Last month, Diane Ravitch, an education scholar who has emerged as the most potent critic of the reform movement, wrote an Op-Ed for this newspaper arguing that raising high-poverty schools to consistently high levels of proficiency is much more difficult and less common than reformers make it out to be. When politicians hold up specific schools in low-income neighborhoods as success stories, Ravitch wrote, those successes often turn out, on closer examination, to be less spectacular than they appear. She mentioned the Bruce Randolph School in Denver, which President Obama singled out in his 2011 State of the Union address as an example of “what good schools can do,” and the Urban Prep Academy in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, which the education secretary, Arne Duncan, praised in a speech in February. Each school graduates a very high percentage of its seniors, but, Ravitch said, test scores at those schools suggested that students were below average in the basic academic skills necessary for success in college and in life.

The backlash was quick and intense. Duncan said that Ravitch was “insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day.” Jonathan Alter, a columnist for Bloomberg View, wrote that she was “sliming reformers” and later, when he and Ravitch appeared together on a Denver radio show, accused her of “abusing statistics” in her analysis of the schools’ achievement-test scores.

Now all of a sudden, the “reformers” are crying that you can’t compare apples to oranges.  That poor, ethnic students cannot be compared to middle class white and Asian students.  Funny, to me, those sound like excuses for the “no excuses” crowd.

The Bruce Randolph school, Alter explained, “should not be compared to other Colorado schools in affluent neighborhoods”; to consider Randolph’s scores alongside those of white, middle-class schools was like “comparing apples and oranges.” Instead, he argued, the school should be judged on the “stunning” fact that its ninth-grade writing-proficiency rates had doubled since 2007, improving to 15 percent of the class from 7 percent, and that its ninth-grade math-proficiency rates had risen to 14 percent of the class from 5 percent.

A week later, the founder of Urban Prep, Tim King, took to The Huffington Post to defend his school against Ravitch’s charges. King acknowledged that just 17 percent of his 11th-grade students passed the statewide achievement test last year, while in the Chicago public schools as a whole, the comparable figure was 29 percent. But echoing Alter’s fruit metaphor, he wrote that Ravitch was comparing “apples to grapefruits” by holding the students at Urban Prep, who are almost all black males from low-income families, to the standards of “children from all across Chicago.”

To point out the obvious: These are excuses. In fact, they are the very same excuses for failure that the education-reform movement was founded to oppose. (If early reformers believed in anything, it was that every student is an apple.) And not only are they excuses; they aren’t even particularly persuasive ones. By any reasonable measure, students at Bruce Randolph are doing very badly. The average ACT score at Randolph last year was 14, the second-lowest average of any high school in Denver, placing students in the bottom 10 percent of ACT test-takers nationwide. In the middle school, composite scores on state tests put students at the first percentile in reading and writing (meaning that at 99 percent of Colorado schools, students are scoring better), and at the fifth percentile in math. As for Urban Prep: demographic data show that the school’s students are not, in fact, disadvantaged grapefruits among well-to-do apples when compared with the city’s student population as a whole; 84 percent of its students are low-income and 99.8 percent are nonwhite, while in Chicago public schools, 86 percent of students are low-income and 91 percent are nonwhite.

Look, trying to turnaround schools where children are struggling is very important, but to attack the “excuses” of educators and say we need a “no excuses” approach, and then turn around and use “excuses” to explain why kids aren’t achieving certain levels is just disingenuous.


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