Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Chasing Waterfalls

One of the latest "miracle stories" in education reform concerns Chicago's Urban Prep Academy.
Urban Prep Academies is a nonprofit organization founded in 2002 by Tim King and a group of African-American education, business and civic leaders. Its mission is straightforward: to provide young men with a comprehensive, high-quality college-preparatory education that results in graduates succeeding in college.
 And what do you know, it seems to be an incredible success.  A Google search provides pages of nearly unanimous journalistic praise:
"The school started with kids whose futures had been left for dead by their public schools: Only four percent of the school's incoming freshmen were reading at grade level when they arrived on campus. But by sending all of their graduating seniors to college, they've not only gotten these kids up to speed, they've allowed them to zip past every other public school in the entire United States."
I'm always skeptical about these stories because they are often difficult to verify. In other words, just going from the news stories, which are almost always terribly ignorant of the many factors that go into education, it's hard to get all the facts. That said, great things do indeed happen. Of course, they happen at public schools too. Much of what goes into success at poor school is often a synchronicity of school culture, good leadership, good staff, good organization, etc. But just because these occasionally happens, it doesn't mean it is a model that can be replicated. (Back to my analogy about giving soldiers resources if we want them all to succeed).

So, the first thing I always look at is selection; is it the case that certain types of families are being drawn to this school? Not all poor, black males have the same levels of social capital. I've taught many poor students at regular high school who simply refuse to show up to class, complete their homework, or even do work in class. When you call home, often times the parent simply says they don't know what to do.

From one story, Tim King, the head of the school:

Fortunately, King said, his students come from stronger families -- the kind of families that are smart and committed enough to enroll a son at Urban Prep.

I'm trying to find articles asking or answering skeptical questions about the school but there seem to be very few. Everyone seems to think it's some kind of miracle - proof that poor black kids can be educated! Yet what exactly are they doing different than other schools - many of whom have longer hours, strict dress codes or disciplines, yet have have been found on average to be marginally more successful at best.

Diane Ravitch's recent piece in the Times critized the hype around a few of these seemingly to-good-to-be-true school success stories.
Gary Rubinstein, an education blogger and Teach for America alumnus who has been critical of the program, checked Mr. Duncan’s claims about Urban Prep. Of 166 students who entered as ninth graders, only 107 graduated. Astonishingly, the state Web site showed that only 17 percent passed state tests, compared to 64 percent in the low-performing Chicago public school district.
My main skepticism in all this is not that educating the poor can't be done. But that it is incredibly hard, there are no easy answers, and - and maybe this my biggest concern - that if we fool ourselves into chasing after false-solutions - we are wasting time and resources that could be better spent looking for real, lasting solutions. I don't pretend to have the answers. But the history of education is rife with miracle stories that turn out to have been little more than wishful thinking, often peddled by some or another politician or advocate eager to sell the public on his particular brand of ideological magic.

Last thought: talk to anyone involve din educating the poor (all the poor, not just those with the highest social capital) at the ground level, and they will tell you the biggest problem is the student's family. How do we attack that problem? I have some ideas. But they are based on small-scale studies and projects. I'm not sure how scalable or effective they'd really be. But I'm convinced that's the key to closing the achievement gap.

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