New York

Nix on Nick Kristof’s Claims

Nicholas Kristof has discovered education. Health care is no longer our greatest national shame—education is. skoolboy thinks that responsible op-ed reporting can’t be far behind. Breathlessly, Kristof reports in Sunday’s New York Times that teachers are “astonishingly important.” “It turns out that having a great teacher is far more important than being in a small class, or going to a good school with a mediocre teacher,” he writes. “A Los Angeles study suggested that four consecutive years of having a teacher from the top 25 percent of the pool would erase the black-white testing gap.” Wow, erasing the black-white testing gap in four years sounds like a pretty good deal. And just from being taught by some really great teachers! There must be some evidence of this for it to show up in the New York Times, wouldn’t you think? Some study somewhere that actually showed that black students exposed to teachers in the top quarter of the teacher effectiveness distribution for four years in a row can routinely move from the 16th percentile in the test score distribution (roughly the black average) to the 50th percentile (roughly the white average)? Maybe that Los Angeles study will show the way. Nah, that’s just a “suggestion” by Robert Gordon, Tom Kane, and Doug Staiger that the five percentage point increment in performance from having a teacher in the top quartile, and the five percentage point decrement from having a teacher in the bottom quartile, could cumulate over time—a 10 percentage point swing for four years in a row would more than close the 34 percentage point gap between the average black student and the average white student.
New York

Toward a new definition of “creaming”

What’s creaming, and why does it matter? This topic gained some momentum earlier this week in a comment by Seth Andrew, the head of the Democracy Prep Charter School, a relatively new 6-12 secondary school in Harlem, on a GothamSchools post on KIPP. Pointing to the use of standardized tests for admission to New York City’s citywide specialized high schools and citywide gifted and talented programs, he wrote, “traditional public schools are far more guilty of ‘creaming’ (both in terms of aggressiveness and quantity of students effected) than charters could ever be. We have a legal mandate to enroll by a random lottery.” I’m going to hazard a guess that Andrew has a particular image of creaming in mind: the intentional and systematic use of selection criteria to choose which students attend a school. But there’s another view which I’d like to put forward: creaming is any selection process, intentional or unintentional, that results in the students within a school being more likely to succeed due to their differences from the broader population of students from which they were drawn. Andrew’s definition helps to illuminate the intentions and actions of school leaders; but I think mine is more useful in making comparisons among schools both in terms of the kinds of students they serve and their relative effectiveness in promoting student outcomes. I’ll use Democracy Prep as an example, but want to make clear that I am not criticizing the school or its practices. Democracy Prep, like most charter schools, is staffed with talented, hard-working people who are trying to promote the best outcomes for their students, and they are doing so within the provisions of the rules governing charter schools.