Daily Howler logo
MAKING SCHOOLS (SEEM TO) WORK! Smith’s team wants a revolution. In Chicago, we don’t think they found it: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 4, 2005

POSTPONING ENABLING BROOKS: (Till tomorrow.) Last night, even Senator Straight-Talk said it, appearing on Larry King Live:
KING (11/3/05): With Senator John McCain, author of Character is Destiny. Is the Senate going to have a full investigation of what led up to Iraq?

MCCAIN: Well, Larry, I think that we have investigations going on and we have had investigations. I was on a commission of weapons of mass destruction where we reached several conclusions, including the obvious one that there was a colossal intelligence failure but also that every intelligence agency in the world believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and he did a pretty good job of convincing his own generals that he had them.

Other countries believed there were WMD! Why, even President Clinton said it! These ubiquitous talking-points drove David Brooks’ appalling New York Times column on Thursday. To keep the partisan stuff away from the schools, we’ll discuss this matter tomorrow. But the fault, dear liberals, lies not in the stars. The fault for Brooks’ column—and for this irrelevant point—lies, inevitably, with us.

Special report: Making schools (seem to) work!

PART 3—SAY THEY WANT A REVOLUTION: It’s strange to think that Making Schools Work would start with Centennial Elementary (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/3/05). Hedrick Smith spends fourteen minutes at the school, located in Mount Vernon, Washington; during that time, it becomes obvious that Centennial, a low-income school, has a decent, caring, deeply-involved staff—and a gaggle of glorious kids. But the school’s test scores do not suggest that “a small revolution in our schools” is taking place, or that the school’s performance has “enormous implications for public schools nationwide,” the claims which appear on the program’s web site and which animate Smith’s discussion. Indeed, Centennial’s reading scores seem to lag far behind those of Washington state as a whole, and it seems that the scores have actually been in decline since the school introduced “Success for All,” the tightly-scripted reading program which Making Schools Work is at pains to promote. And that’s why Centennial’s inclusion seems odd. “Nationwide, more than 650,000 children in 1,300 schools are using Success for All—and making gains,” Smith says, near the end of his segment on Centennial. Why, then, would this be the school used to display the program’s wonders? If children are making real gains in so many schools, couldn’t Smith’s team have found a school whose test scores did suggest revolution? Apparently not. Instead, they came to Centennial—and seemed to gimmick the data a bit. Weak Iowa scores at third and sixth grade disappeared down the memory hole. Slightly better WASL scores (at fourth grade only) were taken to represent the entire school—and even there, the program fails to note that the WASL scores fall far below the norm for the state as a whole. Question: If this is the best “Success for All” has produced, why in the world would anyone else use want to use the ballyhooed program? And why would anyone want to represent it as “a small revolution in our schools?” Back in March, Andrew Wolf noted this general problem with Making Schools Work in a tangy New York Sun commentary on the then-developing show; quite mordantly, Wolf chided Making Schools Work for highlighting educational programs which “have already been demonstrated to have failed in the very districts being highlighted.” We don’t necessarily agree with every observation Wolf made in this piece, but his aggressive skepticism is amazingly rare among journalists who write about public schools, and he is right to suggest that Smith’s program often seems to focus on “revolutions” which already seem to have failed. Is Centennial hatching a “small revolution?” It seems odd to claim that it is—and odder yet to hail the school as a sign that Success for All should be spread to other classrooms. As The Band once didn’t quite sing: But oh what kind of revolution is this, which goes from bad to worse?

But then, the revolutions being hatched in other featured schools also seem less than revolutionary. From Centennial, Smith moves on to an urban school—Jordan Elementary Community School, located on the north side of Chicago. (The school, which seems to be slightly misnamed, serves grades pre-K through 8.) According to Smith, Jordan serves “a raw neighborhood called Rogers Park, with a tense mixture of African-Americans and Latinos—first home in America for many new immigrants from Mexico, Haiti and Africa.” In the 2004-2005 school year, the school’s student population was 55 percent Hispanic and 44 percent African-American. According to the Illinois State Report Card, 95 percent of the students were “low-income,” compared with 40 percent of the state’s population as a whole. According to stats from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 37 percent of Illinois students receive free or reduced price lunch. Jordan is a true “high-poverty” school, where the number approaches 100 percent.

Yes, Jordan is a classic urban school, serving a population of deserving low-income, minority kids—kids whose performance in public schools has routinely lagged far behind that of the nation. But has Jordan achieved a “small revolution,” with “enormous implications for public schools nationwide?” Like Centennial, Jordan clearly has a deeply committed staff, starting with its long-time principal, Maurice Harvey, and extending to its genial (former) social worker, Chris Griffin, a large, smiley bear of a man who speaks at length about the efforts Jordan’s staff has made to serve the school’s feisty kids. But has Jordan Elementary staged a small revolution? Again, the data suggest it has not—that this claim is wishful thinking, a significant stretch, in ways we must all come to terms with.

Jordan doesn’t use Success for All. Instead, the school is featured in Making Schools Work because, at some point in the mid-1990s, it “adopted a strategy for running the school called The Comer Process, developed by Yale University child psychiatrist James Comer,” Smith reports. The Comer Process “is not an academic curriculum like Success for All,” Smith explains, “but rather a strategy for creating a positive climate for learning.” Smith and Principal Harvey explain why such an effort was needed:

SMITH (10/5/05): Maurice Harvey’s troubles began on Day One [in 1993, when Jordan opened]. The students brought the conflicts and ethnic hostilities of the neighborhood right into the school.

HARVEY: They could not solve problems without arguing or fighting with one another. Their social skills were very low. But their aggressive behavior was very high.

Making Schools Work describes the efforts of Harvey, Griffin and Jordan’s whole staff—efforts which, using The Comer Process, improved the social climate at Jordan. “Over time, you could sort of see the expectations change,” Griffin says. “This is a school that does not expect fights.” Smith continues: “To [Professor] Comer, Chris Griffin was doing more than keeping the peace. He was creating a positive environment that would enable kids to develop and learn.” And, according to Smith, the improved social climate at the school did produce improved academics. He speaks with Barbara Eason-Watkins, an enthusiastic official:
SMITH: Just as Comer predicted, as behavior improved, so did the academics. Over a decade, the school has risen from only 19 percent of students on grade level or above in math and only 12 percent in reading to roughly 50 percent in both subjects. Chicago school authorities are enthusiastic.

EASON-WATKINS: We have about 10 or 12 schools that are actively involved in the Comer Process and we’ve been very, very pleased with the results that we have seen over the past few years.

As the segment ends, Comer says that his goals involve more than just “rais[ing] test scores” or “academic learning.” Comer speaks: “The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow—develop—in ways that they can be successful in school and, later, successful adults.” We agree with every word in that statement. But to state the obvious, low-income children do need “academic learning” if they’re going to proceed successfully in the larger world that awaits. And as we’ve seen him do for Spaugh Middle School (in North Carolina; link below) and Centennial Elementary (in Washington), we see Smith vouch, in the passage above, for growth in Jordan’s academic achievements. Over a decade, the school has risen from very low levels to the point where “roughly 50 percent” are on grade level in reading and math, he says.

As we’ve seen, such claims can sometimes be misleading, whether that’s the intention or not. (We have no doubt of Smith’s good intentions.) How good are Jordan’s achievement levels today? How much progress has the school really made? If we care about low-income kids, we’ll want to find hard-headed answers to such basic questions.

How good are Jordan’s achievement levels? As a matter of fact, not all that good—although we’ll stress again that Jordan serves a very low-income population. By their very nature, testing data are limited measures—but Jordan’s achievement levels are very much like those of Chicago as a whole, and they fall substantially below the levels achieved by Illinois kids statewide. The state of Illinois gives annual, high-stakes tests called the ISATs—and in the past several years, Jordan’s passing rates on these tests have fallen far below those for the state as a whole. Grade-group passing rates for a single school tend to jump around year-to-year, in part due to the relatively small numbers of students involved. But this spring, 40 percent of Jordan’s fifth graders passed the ISAT Grade 5 reading test. This matched Chicago’s city-wide passing rate, but it fell far below the state passing rate; 60 percent of fifth graders passed in Illinois as a whole. And one year earlier, results were worse; in 2004, only 30.5 percent of Jordan fifth-graders passed, compared to 61 percent in Illinois as a whole. This year, Jordan’s third-graders did relatively well (ISAT reading tests are given in grades 3 and 5, skipping grades 4 and 6); 55 percent passed the Grade 3 reading test, compared to 67 percent in Illinois as a whole. But in 2004, the numbers were worse. Only 42 percent of Jordan third-graders passed; this matched the Chicago passing rate (41 percent), but fell far short of the state as a whole, where 65 percent passed the test.

These scores do not suggest that Jordan has achieved “a small revolution” with “enormous implications,” not, at least, in the way a casual PBS viewer might reasonably think from those words. It’s hard to track Smith’s claims about growth over time; the ISAT program began in 1999, and Jordan’s publicly-available scores on the Iowa Tests only go back to 1997. For the record, the school’s Iowa scores are up since then, but not by gigantic margins; and however poorly the school may have tested in the first few years it was open, the reality is this: After a decade of The Comer Process, the school’s Iowa scores—like its scores on the ISATs—closely match those of Chicago as a whole. In reading, here are the median scores (in percentiles) for Jordan kids versus those of Chicago as a whole:

Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, reading, 2005; percentiles
Grade 3: Jordan 39 (Chicago 39)
Grade 4: Jordan 50 (Chicago 45)
Grade 5: Jordan 45 (Chicago 47)
Grade 6: Jordan 38 (Chicago 42)
Jordan slightly exceeded the city in grade 4, was slightly behind it in grades 5 and 6. In short, if Jordan has achieved “a small revolution,” so has Chicago as a whole. (Warning: On a test like this, percentiles are tricky to interpret. In this case, there are no statewide results to serve as a basis for comparison.)

After ten years of The Comer Process, Jordan’s achievement levels closely track those of Chicago as a whole. And they seem to lag far behind those of the state of Illinois. Given Jordan’s high-poverty status, it may be seen as an achievement when this the school matches Chicago’s overall passing rates; it would take a detailed statistical analysis to make such a judgment. But has Jordan achieved “a small revolution”—one that has “enormous implications for public schools nationwide?” Again, we’d have to say it has not—not if we’re seeking a world in which deserving low-income kids really achieve in their schoolwork. Jordan has achieved “a small revolution”—if our standards are set rather low. Indeed, Jordan’s scores—matching the city, far behind the state—seem to define the very problem the nation said it wanted t o solve starting four decades ago. Now, for some reason, we get a PBS show which declareS the same sorts of scores to be some sort of solution.

Are Jordan, Spaugh and Centennial “working?” Are they effecting “a small revolution” with “enormous implications for public schools nationwide?” Wishful thinking tells us yes. Actual test scores seem to say no. Despite the efforts of their superlative staffs, reality seems to say something different—and, to our mind, this problem (and others) only continue as Smith examines entire school districts. Next week, we’ll return with Smith to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools—and yes, we’ll be off with Smith to New York. What will we find when we look at those districts? In part, we’ll find Charlotte’s Highland Renaissance Academy—a school where the test scores are high.

MONDAY: A puzzling narrative.

SMITH ON SPAUGH: Last week, we discussed Smith’s claims about Charlotte’s Spaugh Middle School. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/05.

WOLF ON SMITH: We don’t necessarily agree with every point. But we do strongly recommend Wolf’s column. We’ll return to some of its contents next week.

Extra credit: Wolf wrote a second piece about Making Schools Work. But so far, we can’t find a link.