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YOU KNOW THE DRILL (PART 4)! How did Highland get those high scores? Hedrick Smith doesn’t quite ask: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2005

SCHLESINGER GETS IT RIGHT: We strongly recommend this Huffington post by Robert Schlesinger. And we recommend that you read the comments, in which highly tribalist readers complain about Schlesinger’s “nit-picking” work. No, General Shinseki wasn’t “fired” by the Bush Admin, although it feels very good to say so. When Nancy Pelosi inaccurately says this, we think Schlesinger is right to complain.

We’ve said it many times before. At this point, if you have to stretch the facts to make a case against Bush, you ought to get out of the case-making business. Misstatements like this betray lack of discipline—a problem that plagues the work of major Dem leaders. Indeed: Earlier this year, Pelosi was actually making public jokes about the way Al Gore said he invented the Internet, and she floundered horribly on Sunday shows when questioned about Bush’s SS plan. Dems and libs should stop accepting this level of incompetence from party leaders. The Democratic message machine is a mess. Pelosi may have misspoken about Shinseki. But the pattern should not be excused.

READ KRUGMAN: Paul Krugman’s column today is familiar but important. We’ll offer a related story next week.

Special report: You know the drill!

PART 4—HIGH SCORES AT HIGHLAND: Should all fifth-graders be taught “fifth grade math?” More broadly, should all fifth-graders be taught a single “fifth grade” curriculum? It’s an enduring notion, driven by an appealing image of order. Indeed, it’s how we recall our own grade school days, at Mystic Elementary School in Winchester, Mass. How were we taught at Mystic School? We recall thirty kids at thirty desks, holding thirty copies of the same textbook, all open to the same page—page thirty. It’s a dreary way to run a classroom, but at least it seems to make a type of good sense. And it would make a type of sense—if kids would be more alike than they actually are! Indeed, we think this image is driving the discourse when Hedrick Smith asks Jovetta Dennis how her school—Charlotte’s Highland Elementary—uses those data from the Drill-Down to plan the school’s instruction (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/1/05):

HEDRICK SMITH: When you look at these results and it says the group is not mastering whatever it is—multiplication, fractions, decimals—what’s that saying that you’ve got to do?

DENNIS: The report lets me know who mastered it, who partially mastered it and who did not master it at all. If, say, 80 percent did not master it that tells us, “Okay, teacher, you go back and teach it to everyone.” And those children that did not master it at all—make sure they’re in tutoring or in a small group. Hit it again with them.

If someone doesn’t master some skill, you pull him aside and give extra help. This image is presented, in more detail, in a supplementary essay on the Making Schools Work web site, written by someone named Corey Ford. Ford is never identified further:
FORD: Even more critical is the [Drill-Down’s] Group Mastery Report, which lists every child in the class and describes all students' level of mastery on each objective. In a glance, the teacher sees the weak spots in her class.

“She gets a view of her classroom,” says [assistant superintendent Susan] Agruso. “Do I have a group of students who are struggling with fractions? I need to work with this group. Do I have a child who doesn't understand fractions? I have to figure out some ways to give him some extra help. Or is my whole class missing this concept? I have to build in some tutorial work for them so that they can do better on fractions.”

Later, Ford provides more detail. “Students who need intense intervention receive one-on-one attention from the teacher who teaches the concept best...A separate time period is dedicated to this re-teaching, allowing the regular class to stay on pace.” In short, lagging children get extra help with a skill, while the class as a whole “stays on pace.” The class keeps moving through the fifth-grade curriculum. Kids who need some extra help on some skill are brought up to speed in separate sessions.

This orderly image would make perfect sense—if the kids were all pretty much alike. If all the kids were roughly on “grade level,” this system would make perfect sense. But what if a bunch of kids in your class are several years behind in their math? What if the image from that latest new study obtains inside your classroom?

STUDY BY THE CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting. By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
What if you’re teaching some fifth-grade kids who “started school without having gained important school readiness skills?” And what if these kids are now working “about three grade levels behind non-poor students” in both reading and math? All of a sudden, that sensible image from our own distant past doesn’t make all that much sense any more. Sorry, but no: If kids are several years behind “grade level,” you can’t expect them to handle a fifth-grade curriculum just because you give them a little “extra help;” if kids are years behind in their math, they will be swamped by a grade-level course of study, and all the “extra help” in the world won’t change that essential fact. But then, in our experience, this is the hard reality of teaching in high-poverty schools. For this reason, we were surprised by the statements of Charlotte administrators as we sat and watched Making Schools Work. In Charlotte, are all fifth-grade kids really taught a uniform fifth-grade math curriculum, as former superintendent Eric Smith seems to suggest in the PBS program? We can’t imagine how that would work—although the system would be quite orderly. But alas; perhaps you know the familiar old drill. These explanations made sense to Hedrick Smith, so he never asked the questions which might have explained how Charlotte’s schools really work. For forty years, this is how it has tended to go when relatively inexperienced journalists go looking for urban “schools that work.” Every explanation seems to make sense, even those that are actually rather puzzling.

What’s happening in Charlotte’s high-poverty schools? Because Hedrick Smith doesn’t ask the right questions, we don’t feel all that sure. But for the record, Smith does visit one Charlotte school where the test scores do seem to be promising. That school is Highland Renaissance Academy, whose snooty name shouldn’t obscure some key facts. Highland is in an inner-city neighborhood; its students are about 85 percent black or Hispanic; and it was once among the lowest-achieving schools in all of North Carolina. How bad was Highland as of the mid-90s? In Making Schools Work, Hedrick Smith asks former principal Jenell Bovis to describe the way she found the school when she began there in 1998:

HEDRICK SMITH: Talk to me a little bit about the school when you came here. What was Highland like and what was the state of academics here?

BOVIS: It was the lowest in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and it was either the lowest or next to lowest in the state of North Carolina.

Yikes! But Highland’s test scores soon took off. “In six years, Highland went from a failing school to a North Carolina school of distinction,” Smith says, seeming to relate Highland’s score gains to Superintendent Eric Smith’s reforms. And make no mistake—those test scores did rise. For example, Highland’s black students now out-perform black kids statewide in all tested grades, in both reading and math. Indeed, here are the percentages who scored “proficient” on the North Carolina end-of-grade tests in reading this past spring:
Passing rates, North Carolina end-of-grade reading tests, black students, spring 2005
Grade 3: Highland, 90.9 percent. Statewide, 72.6 percent.
Grade 4: Highland, 85.1 percent. Statewide, 72.7 percent.
Grade 5: Highland, 92.5 percent. Statewide, 82.8 percent.
Clearly, Highland’s black kids are outperforming their peers state-wide. (In math, they exceed the state at every grade level, but by much narrower margins.) And needless to say, Smith and Smith are quick to chalk this up to Charlotte’s brilliant reforms. In some detail, here’s Superintendent Eric Smith’s explanation in his extended interview:
HEDRICK SMITH: Talk about Highland Elementary school when you first arrived.

SUPERINTENDENT ERIC SMITH: Highland was the definition of a mess. The facility was terrible. It had had a string of building principals, each one bringing in their own special intervention to solve the world's problems. It had every intervention ever thought of in America. Teachers that had been there forever were confused, as could be expected. Others were just turning over, year after year. Teachers really didn't believe they could make a difference. Parents had given up hope.

That school turned around and really turned out to be one of the very best in Charlotte and has been one of the best in the state of North Carolina. It didn't change population. It served the same kids as it always served. And I think again it speaks to the issue of success and not looking for blame.

The principal that we brought in to manage the change at Highland didn't ask for a single teacher to be transferred out, didn't ask for any reassignments. She took the teachers that she had when she got there and she changed what she asked teachers to do.

She did the things that we have prescribed. Once the teachers started to feel success and knew that they could do the job that was being asked of them and felt confident about that, once the kids started feeling confident in their ability to do it, there was no holding that school back.

HEDRICK SMITH: What do you think turned Highland around?

SUPERINTENDENT ERIC SMITH: It goes back to the science of teaching and providing the opportunity to do rigorous and demanding course-work. It's good leadership and making sure they had the things that they needed.

“It’s good leadership,” Eric Smith said, patting himself on the back, as always. The school’s new principal “did the things that we have prescribed.” And the superintendent went out of his way to say that the school’s population hadn’t changed as its test scores rose so notably. “It didn't change population,” he said. “It served the same kids as it always served.” If this is true, then researchers and academics should be crawling all over Highland, trying to figure out what’s being done at this relatively high-scoring school.

But uh-oh! Eric Smith’s statement doesn’t seem to be true. We have no doubt that Highland is an excellent school, or that Bovis was an excellent principal. Indeed, the Highland web site testifies to an energetic mix of activities—programs offered to deserving kids by a dedicated staff and teams of volunteers. (Highland offers “literacy and enrichment activities supported by volunteers from Covenant Church, The Urban League, Children's Theatre, The Junior League, Christ Church, Charlotte's Web, and local businesses and organizations,” its web site says. It also offers “a strong emphasis on reading and math with enrichment activities using the Accelerated Reader and Accelerated Math Programs.”) But uh-oh! Amid all this evidence of teacher devotion, we learn something else from the site; we learn that Highland’s population almost surely has changed in the past five or six years, in ways that would likely affect its test scores. “Highland Renaissance Academy, which opened in 2001, serves approximately 600 students in the Green Choice Zone,” the web site says. This is a reference to the school’s impressive new plant—and to its current status as a “Charlotte-Mecklenburg Theme School,” a school which attracts kids from outside its neighborhood by virtue of its special programs. Indeed, a few weeks ago, we asked the Charlotte public information office: How many kids come to Highland from outside its neighborhood, drawn by the school’s ambitious academic curriculum? We never got an answer back (then again, we never called back ourselves), but when a school’s population becomes self-selected—when kids are drawn to a school by an ambitious academic program—it’s no longer possible to make simple comparisons with the average neighborhood school. This doesn’t detract from Highland’s apparent high quality. But it does detract, once again, from Making Schools Work, and from the apparent quality of Superintendent Eric Smith’s presentations. Alas! When PBS viewers go to Spaugh Middle School, they’re told that the students there are “thriving”—although test score suggest that they’re clearly not. And when PBS viewers go to Highland, they’re told that the school’s population hasn’t changed—although that doesn’t seem accurate either. If we really care about what is true—if we really care about low-income kids—we’ll try to avoid such feel-good misstatements. But this kind of thing has gone on for decades. By now, you may know this old drill.

Who knows? At Highland Renaissance Academy, you may not find large numbers of kids who are several years below grade level. “By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students,” that new study warns. For ourselves, we had such kids every year we taught—deserving kids who deserved good instruction. In our view (and, we would have thought, in the view of most experts), you can’t ask a fifth-grader who is three years behind to tough it out with a fifth-grade curriculum—and we’d be surprised to learn that urban systems are returning to such a model. But easy images of orderly conduct always seem to drive efforts like Making Schools Work. These programs always seem to make it sound easy. But then, by now you may feel that you know this familiar, unhelpful old drill.

STILL COMING: Final thoughts about Making Schools Work—and we look to a new daily web site.

NOTE: It may be that Highland has found great ways to work with below-grade-level kids. If we actually cared about these matters, schools like Highland would be crawling with researchers—with experienced observers trying to see if some “small revolution” is under way there. (Or might this school have a self-selected, above-average student body? At THE HOWLER, we simply can’t tell you.) Instead, we get handed Making Schools Work, a program filled with pleasing images—and with apparent misleading statements. No, the kids at Spaugh don’t seem to be thriving. And what’s happening at Highland? Who knows?

Final note: For the record, Highland’s black kids score roughly as well as North Carolina’s white kids do statewide. Here are the “proficiency” rates for white kids, statewide:

Passing rates, North Carolina end-of-grade reading tests, white students, statewide, spring 2005
Grade 3: 90.1 percent
Grade 4: 90.1 percent [sic]
Grade 5: 94.7 percent
Highland’s black kids did slightly better at grade 3, slightly less well at grades 4 and 5 (see data above). If Highland is achieving these scores with an average, un-selective group of black kids, why aren’t researchers all over that school, trying to see how it’s happening?

To check test data, click here.