First Person

Closing the Credibility Gap

I’ll admit it: When I hear the phrase “charter school miracle,” my antennae go up. It’s not that I think that charter schools can’t possibly be good schools, or that they cannot surpass traditional public schools in the measured achievements of their students. The evidence is pretty clear that there are many fine charter schools, just as there are many struggling charter schools.

No, it’s that I think miracles are exceedingly rare phenomena. And the current narrative about miracles in school reform relies heavily on a “great man” theory, replete with outsized personalities. Witness the contemporary stage, on the cusp of the release of Waiting for “Superman”: Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, even — God help us — Bill Gates and Joel Klein being anointed as miracle-workers who, by dint of their commitments, hard work and personalities, are overcoming entrenched bureaucracies and transforming the life-chances of poor and minority children across America’s urban landscape.

It was against this backdrop that I read Caitlin Flanagan’s stirring op-ed that graced the gatefold of Sunday’s New York Daily News. Flanagan, a former prep-school teacher who now writes for The Atlantic and other publications, singles out Mike Piscal, who founded a charter management organization called the Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF) that now operates 15 elementary, middle and high schools in south Los Angeles. Flanagan and Piscal were colleagues, once upon a time, in the English department of the elite Harvard-Westlake School.

Flanagan’s argument goes something like this: the ICEF schools are extraordinarily high-performing; in fact, the elementary schools have eliminated the achievement gap. But the educational bureaucracy is trying to close them down. These fine schools were unable to benefit from the Race to the Top funds they should have received because California’s RttT application was scuttled by a lack of teacher-union support. These teachers unions, therefore, deserve our scorn: they are single-handedly preventing inner-city children from succeeding.

The gaps in logic are breathtaking. It’s not at all obvious that ICEF charter schools would have gotten a cent if California’s RttT application had been funded. As is true of most RttT applications, California’s emphasized developing new standards and assessments, providing high-quality professional development to principals and teachers, expanding the state’s longitudinal data system and improving its lowest-performing public schools.

Basic operational support for existing schools was never the purpose of the competition. Moreover, California lost more points in the RttT judging for its failure to fully implement a longitudinal data system than for not securing the support of a broad group of stakeholders for its plan. (And teachers unions were not the only stakeholders who were lukewarm about the state’s application.)

But I was most intrigued by Flanagan’s claims about how the ICEF schools have closed the achievement gap. Time and time again, such claims have been shown to be exaggerated. We’d all like to believe the story of how great people, working hard, can overcome the powerful forces that structure inequality in American society. Can it be true?

Here’s what Flanagan wrote: “ICEF has done what we are always told is impossible. All five of its elementary schools have eliminated the achievement gap in reading for its African American students. Eliminated it. That fact alone should cause the Department of Education to send a team of researchers to ICEF this afternoon to keep them there until they learn what Mike’s doing.”

How much of this is true? Well, there are five ICEF elementary schools. Beyond that …

flanagan-fig-1I compared the average performance of students in these five schools on the 2010 statewide California Standards Tests (CST) with the average performance of white students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, expressing the gap as a fraction of a standard deviation. (I estimated the 2010 standard deviations as the average of the 2008 and 2009 standard deviations.) Figure 1 shows the data for English Language Arts for grades 2 through 5. Across the Los Angeles Unified School District, black students score about .85 to .90 standard deviations below white students, on average. A gap of this magnitude indicates that roughly 80 percent of all white students score above the typical black student.

If the achievement gap had been eliminated in the five elementary schools, then the columns expressing the gap should have no height – they’d be at zero. Clearly, that’s not the case. On average, students in ICEF elementary schools have made some progress in closing the achievement gap in reading test performance, but that’s driven primarily by the performance of students at a single school, View Park Prep.

Second-graders at View Park Prep are outscoring the typical white student in Los Angeles, and that’s a remarkable accomplishment. But if one wanted to cherry-pick results to make a point, it would be just as easy to point out that the fourth-grade students at Vista are performing 1.1 standard deviations below the typical white student in L.A. (More than 75 percent of the students at Vista are Hispanic or Latino; there aren’t even enough black students for the state to report their performance on the CST, which makes me wonder why Flanagan felt that she could say that “all five” of the ICEF elementary schools had eliminated the achievement gap in reading for African-American students.)

flanagan-fig-2The story is much the same in mathematics. Figure 2 reports the math achievement gaps for the five ICEF elementary schools. As is true in reading, the district-wide black-white achievement gap in mathematics is substantial – on the order of .9 standard deviations. The ICEF elementary schools have made some progress in closing the gap, and that’s commendable.

But no one looking at this figure would conclude that the ICEF elementary schools have come close to eliminating the achievement gap that separates the test scores of African-American and Latino children from white children in Los Angeles. Test scores are, to be sure, a very narrow representation of what children are learning in school, and I would never want to base a judgment about the quality of ICEF schools, or any other schools for that matter, solely on test scores. But Flanagan flew the achievement-gap flag, and her claims don’t hold up under scrutiny.

I like a good story as much as the next guy. But when it comes to swaying opinion on important matters of public policy, we should demand more. Perhaps Caitlin Flanagan has access to other data that provide more support for her claim that all five of the ICEF elementary schools have eliminated the black-white achievement gap in reading. But until she goes beyond a bald, unsupported assertion, she’s got a credibility gap.

This post also appeared on Eye on Education, Pallas’s column at The Hechinger Report.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.