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WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED? What actually happened at 126? More important: Could it happen somewhere else? // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2005

DRUM’S WORTHWHILE QUESTIONS: Shorter Kevin Drum: Won’t someone please start an “education blog” before Bob Somerby does it?

Less mordantly, Kevin raises worthwhile questions about our current education posts. We’ll try to answer those question on Monday, then return on Tuesday to Making Schools Work, for another week of posts—maybe two. Given liberal and press indifference over the course of the past three decades, a great deal of background has to be laid before (back to mordancy) we can enjoy the easy-reader posts Kevin says he wants on this subject. On Monday, we’ll offer a fuller discussion of these questions. In the meantime, over the weekend, won’t someone please start that new blog?

DRUM GETS IT RIGHT: Much less mordantly, we strongly recommend this right-on post, in which Drum defines how liberals should frame discussions about the economy. In our view, this is exactly the sort of thing we should be doing on the liberal web. We should:

  1. Help frame the way major issues get discussed.
  2. Identify facts which deserve wide exposure.
  3. Identify basic talking- or spin-points which deserve to get shot down.
We think Kevin’s post is right on target. Liberals have suffered in recent decades because the other side has more capable message machines. In this post, Kevin explains how libs should approach “arguments about the economy.” We think he got it flat-out right—as Clinton did when he said he’d serve those who “work hard and play by the rules.”

RASPBERRY GETS IT RIGHT: William Raspberry has written about this project before—about his effort to teach young, low-income parents about preschool, in-the-home education. We’ve never formally studied this topic, but we’ll return to it when we explore possible ways to help low-income kids succeed in school. “More talking, please!” Raspberry says. We’ll guess he’s on target too.

Special report: Where are standards?

PART 4—WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: Does anyone care about low-income schools? Care enough to try to find out what may actually “work” in such venues? It would be hard to tell from the way District 2 has been treated in the national press. Advocates say a “miracle” occurred during Anthony Alvarado’s tenure as superintendent (1987-1998). More specifically, Hedrick Smith’s PBS program, Making Schools Work, claims a substantial rise in District 2 reading rates during that period, from 56 percent of kids on grade level to a healthier 73 percent (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/9/05). But does anyone actually care about this—care enough that they’ll try to find out if these claims are really on-target? We can find no record that the New York Times ever examined the “District 2 miracle;” and Making Schools Work doesn’t try very hard to figure out if those score gains really mean what they seem. Did the passing rate rise by 17 points? That sounds good, if perhaps less than revolutionary. But what if five points of that gain derived from an easier test; five points came from a change in demographics; and what if two or three points came from teachers cheating on the tests? (Such conduct has been widespread, all over the country, in the past thirty years—especially in schools and school districts which place special stress on score gains.) Or what if three points came from simpler tests, and eight points came from student demographics? How would the district’s score gains look then? Such questions aren’t raised in this show by Smith’s team—a team which has already bungled test score analysis in other schools by the time their program hits District 2. Does anyone care about low-income schools—care enough to really analyze pleasing claims and feel-good stories? With all the talk about District 2, the mainstream press has taken a pass on such efforts. One can’t help but ask the question: Readers, where are standards?

And Smith’s team takes a pass somewhere else. What happened at P.S. 126 shortly after Alvarado’s tenure ended? Yes, Smith’s program makes a big deal out of 126; indeed, it features the school’s improved test scores, producing a crazily bungled chronology which makes it seem that these major score gains occurred during Alvarado’s eleven-year tenure (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/7/05). The reality is different, but impressive nonetheless; principal Daria Rigney took over the school in the fall of 1998, just after Alvarado left New York, and the school’s test scores shot up during her five-year tenure. According to this chart, 23 percent of the school’s students (grades 3-8) passed city and state reading tests in 1999, the end of Rigney’s first year as principal; by 2003, her final year, that number had jumped to 68 percent. And on the elementary levels, the gains are even more impressive—in fourth grade, the passing rate went from 26 to 75 percent; in fifth grade, from 24 up to 83. And this compares Rigney’s first year with her last; we can’t find records of where things stood in the year before Rigney took over. (New York City/State test reporting tends to be jumbled, chaotic, frustrating.) And yes, the scores at 126 stand out; nothing resembling this sort of progress was being recorded on any wide basis during the period in question. By all accounts, Rigney was a superlative principal (more below), and it seems that her tenure did produce the massive gains described in Making Schools Work. Again, here is the passage in which Alvarado’s successor, Elaine Fink, describes that rise in test scores:

FINK: Daria did great things. Look at that school. It had some of the lowest performance in all of Chinatown. Also started out in the ’20s, with kids performing on grade level. And Daria has—

SMITH: You mean 20 percent of the—

FINK: Twenty percent of the students. And Daria has taken it over 70 percent of the kids are now performing at very high standards. It’s just been incredible and it’s holding.

SMITH: But what really got people’s attention was Alvarado’s success in all kinds of schools—higher scores in reading and math all across the board...

Oops! There we go again, with Smith’s thumb on the scale just a tad. No, Alvarado didn’t produce “across the board” gains which in any way resemble those of 126. (Smith doesn’t tell you this on the show—only in his web site’s background materials. Those sky-rocket numbers from 126 are the only ones cited on the show.) But massive score gains did occur at P.S. 126 during Rigney’s tenure. This seems to lead to two obvious questions: What actually happened at 126? And can it be done somewhere else?

What actually happened at 126? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea. In the New York Sun, Andrew Wolf offered an attempt at debunking, although we don’t know if his claim is accurate. “The school Mr. Smith highlights as making incredible gains is in Chinatown,” Wolf wrote (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/9/05). “There is no miracle at play in coaxing high performance from a school with an increasing population of Asian students.” Did 126’s student population change a great deal during Rigney’s tenure? We don’t know; New York wasn’t providing such data in 1998, although it does so now, in compliance with the No Child Left Behind law. (In one recent tabulation, the school was 41 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 34 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American, 4 percent white. Despite Fink’s statement, test scores seem to have dropped a fair bit in the two years since Rigney departed.) What actually happened at 126? Making Schools Work offers interviews with Rigney and with one of her teachers, but the program’s attempt to explain what led to these major score gains is, in a compound word, paper-thin. But as we’ve said, Rigney’s brilliance seems to be widely praised. For example, parents and former students gush about Rigney and 126 on the Insideschools.org web site. Here are some of those comments, along with the dates they were given:

INSIDESCHOOLS.ORG: A student who will graduate this year writes, "The school is a wonderful place to be. The teachers are caring." She says she hopes that a recent change in leadership won't change the school too much. (June 2004)

"This school is the best," writes a student. "I'm going to high school [next year], but I will never forget the memories I had in this school" (October 2003)

A parent, whose son transferred to the PS 126 after struggling in all subjects, writes, "His reading habits, his writing, his vocabulary, his determination—everything about him changed. He became a new and improved child." She praises his 5th-grade teacher, Mrs. Foley, who provided one-on-one tutoring as part of the school's extended day program, and Principal Daria Rigney for "inspiring the teachers to inspire our children to learn and flourish." (June 2003)

By all accounts, Rigney was a superlative, inspiring leader. But uh-oh! Strange as it seems, that’s part of the problem with using this school as an example of reform.

What actually happened at 126? Test scores soared during Rigney’s five-year tenure. Did some of that come from a change in demographics? Did some of that come from some change in the tests? Did a teacher (or two, or three) play a few games with some testing procedures? You’d think we’d struggle to learn these things—if we actually care about low-income children. Did something happen in that school which could be transferred to other schools? You’d think a school with scores like that would be swarming with journalists and academics. But we can’t find any sign that anyone has ever really analyzed that jump in test scores. And Smith’s show badly mishandles the topic. It presents 126 as part of an inexcusably bungled chronology; it allows Fink to misstate the school’s recent record; and yes, it makes very little real attempt to determine what actually led to those test scores. 126 does look like a semi-miracle—but no one seems to care enough to figure out what made it happen.

Did something happen at 126 which could happen in other low-income schools? We don’t know, but part of the problem lies in these words of highest praise from Alvarado. The superintendent speaks during his background interview with Smith:

SMITH: Talk to me a moment about P.S. 126 and Daria Rigney. I think it was Elaine [Fink] who actually made Daria the principal at P.S. 126. What was it about Daria Rigney that made you believe that she was going to be the kind of educational leader that you needed in District 2?

ALVARADO: The first thing about Daria was she knew teaching, particularly the teaching of literacy at a level of granular detail that was extraordinary. She knew how to coach teachers; she had been a staff developer in our district. She had come through the ranks as someone who improved instruction. She was not someone who had to be taught how to improve instruction. She knew how to do that deeply. Second, she had an extraordinarily human quality that would engage people. Daria's letters to her teachers, the book that she's in the process of writing or has published as we speak is a book where she would communicate to teachers on a weekly basis, often on a daily basis about what was happening in the school, about what she saw, about what they were doing, about what was working, about what she would do. This was a person who cared deeply, knew much about the instructional process and knew the content.

Here’s what we say: God bless Daria Rigney for her devotion and her “extraordinarily human quality.” But did P.S. 126 flourish because Rigney was extraordinarily capable and devoted? Because uh-oh! That sort of thing can’t really be taught (or replicated); therefore, that sort of thing isn’t exactly “reform.” Did something happen at P.S. 126—something that could be transferred to other failing schools? Making Schools Work is so busy building feel-good tales that it makes little attempt to find out. It’s a problem we’ll see again next week, when Mr. Smith goes to Charlotte.

NEXT WEEK: What actually happened in Charlotte’s schools? What actually happened at Highland?