Policymakers who proclaim miraculous progress in education don’t usually have their facts straight.
It should be clear, on its face, that “miracles” have no place in education policy. Webster’s defines a miracle as “an unusual or wonderful event that is believed to be caused by the power of God.” No one seeking to improve education would rely on God or on “an unusual or wonderful event,” right? Wrong. High-profile policymakers not only have proclaimed to have produced or witnessed “miracles,” but have suggested that these other-worldly happenings ought to be the basis for widespread policy change. We have subsequently watched as each proved to be less than miraculous and, often, a disaster.
Let’s start with Texas, where it could be argued that our current education woes began. When campaigning for president in 2000, George W. Bush glowingly touted the “Texas Miracle,” echoing assertions that new state testing and accountability measures had led to rapid large increases in standardized test scores. Indeed, this motivated Bush’s proposal for No Child Left Behind, which replaced the civil rights-oriented Elementary and Secondary Education Act with requirements that every state achieve 100 percent proficiency across reading and math through annual testing of every third-through-eighth grader.
It was soon clear that Texas students had made gains no larger, on average, than those of students in other states – i.e., there was no miracle – but the damaging wheels were set in motion. Indeed, a careful analysis of what has transpired in Texas should have raised alarm bells. As per the Education Policy Analysis Archives, “problems of missing students and other mirages in Texas enrollment statistics … profoundly affect both reported dropout statistics and test scores,” and test scores and graduation rates for minority students continue to be abysmally low more than 20 years later. Eerily similar problems have arisen as other states and districts adopt the Texas model.
One of the highest-profile such districts, New York City, pioneered efforts to make test scores the basis for numerous decisions, including rating, restructuring and even closing schools. In 2011, eight years after initiating these reforms under his control of the schools, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed another miracle: “We have closed the gap between black and Latino kids and white and Asian kids … We have cut it in half.” It turned out that, when the (26.2 point) 2011 gap was rounded to the nearest whole number, it had not budged from 2003 (25.8), but it’s hard to change the perception of a miracle, post-proclamation.
Miracles also happen at the school level. In Chicago, Urban Prep won accolades for graduating 100 percent of its students. Attaining that miracle, however, required Urban Prep to lose fully half of its students – those who couldn’t graduate — between freshman and senior year. And while it got all graduates into four-year colleges, only one third met the college readiness benchmark in English, and a mere 12 percent met the reading benchmark. Similar charter school miracles have been sighted elsewhere.
The most recent miracle is perhaps the most disturbing. Remember how Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan? He cited Tulane University Cowen Institute’s report of “miraculous” gains among students in the Recovery School District, which had been designed to be all-charter post-Katrina, as an example of how charters can turn around bad school districts. In early October, however, after years of increasingly vocal criticism of its data and methodology, Cowen issued a full retraction, removing from its website the report on the district’s miracles. Executive Director John Ayers has acknowledged that “Officials determined the report’s methodology was flawed, making its conclusions inaccurate,” and said that “we apologize for this mistake.”
To say that this apology is too little too late is an understatement. After nearly a decade, the best the Recovery School District miracle could deliver was eighth graders who ranked at the 45th percentile in math among all state school districts. Fourth graders made it only to the 15th percentile in reading, 13th in social studies, and the eighth in science.
We need to establish some new ground rules, starting with the fact that miracles hardly ever happen. And that they should not and cannot be the basis for real, sustained improvements in education. Saying this loud and clear might prevent more such claims from people making important policy decisions, like that of our secretary of education, who asserted that the huge jump in National Assessment of Educational Progress scores among District of Columbia Public School students between 2011 and 2013 is attributable largely to Race to the Top-driven teacher evaluations. A half-standard-deviation bump in two years is more likely due to an oddity in the data. In this case, that blip may be due to a change in how the district reports which students qualify for subsidized school meals – and are thus considered “low-income” for the purposes of test-taking, as well.
We should likewise insist that slow and steady change is what really works. As Kavitha Kardoza’s recent documentary on successes among military schools illustrates, it takes a village. And that village must attend to students’ social and emotional needs, ensure sustained support for teachers, including resources that enable them to deliver high-quality curriculum, and invest in high-quality, round-the-clock early care and education.
For the sake of our schools, and our children, we must stop counting on the next miracle.
Elaine Weiss has served as the national coordinator for the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) since 2011, in which capacity she works with three co-chairs, a high-level task force, and multiple coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive. Major publications for BBA include two 2013 reports, Market-Oriented Education Reforms’ Rhetoric Trumps Reality and Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement. She has also authored over two dozen blogs for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post Answer Sheet, and other publications, and been interviewed for numerous radio shows..
This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We thank the Author, Elaine Weiss for her kindness, observations, research and for being forever a source for what matters in education.