Photo courtesy of the Texas Tribune

A recent New York Times piece strikes me as emblematic of a tendency – which I’ve written about previously – by some education writers not to engage with the research on evaluations of students, teachers, and schools. The article, “When Grading is Degrading,” makes a point with which a lot of people agree: Schools should not be judged on test scores alone. But in making this argument the author, journalist Michael Brick, who spent a year at Reagan High School, a low-performing school in Austin, Texas and the subject of Brick’s Book, Saving the School, attempts — and fails to make — a broad indictment of the school reform movement itself.

Brick declares that for the last three decades, presidential administrations have attempted to use competition in order to “fix America’s troubled schools”. This statement isn’t exactly so. While charter schools and vouchers have been aspects of the school reform efforts of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, they haven’t exactly been centerpieces. Bush’s signature reform effort, the No Child Left Behind Act, focuses mostly on holding districts and schools accountable for performance (including on test scores and graduation rates), while Obama’s signature effort, Race to the Top, has focused on teacher quality alongside the expansion of charters.

Brick then makes a false statement by writing that “Mr. Obama has put up billions of dollars for his Race to the Top program a federal sweepstakes where state educational systems are judged head-to-head largely on the basis of test scores.” The Times ought to issue a correction for the record. Race to the Top judges states based on voluntary reforms efforts, not test scores. I have no idea where that assertion comes from. It’s also important to note that the initial funding for Race to the Top was just $4.4 billion — little more than four percent of $95 billion in stimulus funding out of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Yes, the administration is spending money on accountability- and choice-based reform, but it’s still spending quite a bit of money on traditional education initiatives.

Brick then compounds the error by proclaiming that Texas was “nobody’s model for educational excellence”. Perhaps this is too nit-picky to point out, but Texas schools are actually pretty good. Perhaps Brick is playing on the bias of some Times readers because tTexas is, well, Southern and Republican. But even Matt DiCarlo of the American Federation of Teachers-backed Albert Shanker Institute, in an analysis of  eighth grade reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to measure school quality by state, accounting for poverty, found Texas to be above average. [Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle has criticized the Lone State’s governor, Rick Perry, for not being as aggressive as predecessors Ann Richards and George W. Bush; but the state has at least been committed to systemic overhaul.] Texas also has a solid high school graduation rate, and strong NAEP scores for African-American and Hispanic students.

Brick also complains that “competition has achieved little more than re-segregation, long charter school waiting lists and the same anemic international rankings in science, math and literacy we’ve had for years.” Really? I think it’s remarkable that Brick would argue that “competition” has led to “re-segregation” — and uses a 2003 article to make that claim instead of citing any kind of recent data. Unfortunately, our schools have always had some degree of segregation. But it’s particularly feeble to cite a 2003 study in claiming competition has led to further segregation. In 2003, 74 percent of all students attended an assigned public school, while just 15 percent went to a charter or magnet school, according to a U.S. Department of Education study. (The remainder of students attended private schools.) By 2007, the percentage creeped up slightly to only 16 percent — with only two percent of all students attended charters. This is not a system infiltrated with competition! [Editor’s Note: As Dropout Nation has noted, segregation itself is more-indicative of Zip Code Education policies that restrict choice than anything else.]

Even now, with the federal Race to the Top program helping to spur the expansion of school choice, competition is just starting to seep in. Charters account for just 5 percent of all public schools were charters. And vouchers programs, while expanding, serve even fewer students. As for Brick’s argument that the problem with charter schools is waiting lists for them? If anything, this suggests that charter schools are working – otherwise there wouldn’t be such strong demand – and that we need more charters in order to meet the demand.

Brick then argues that segregation occurred in Reagan High School in Austin when in 1994 the state began “applying its boilerplate [evaluation] labels, which became shorthand for real estate agents.” I think segregation, particularly socioeconomic segregation, is a real issue in our public schools today. I also suppose it’s possible that labeling schools gives parents of means more incentives to flee failing schools, leaving lower-income students behind. But Brick doesn’t provide evidence for this hypothesis, asides from offering the sample size of a single school.

[Editor’s Note: Brick also fails to consider that both Reagan High School and its operator, the Austin Independent School District, have never been all that diverse. The percentage of black, Latino, Asian, and American Indian students making up Reagan’s enrollment increased from 82 percent in 1994-1995 to 98 percent in 2010-2011, according to a Dropout Nation  analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data, while the percentage of minorities enrolled in the district overall increased from 61 percent to 73 percent in that same period. The only difference is that the dominant minority group in Reagan High has shifted from blacks to Latinos between 1994-1995 and 2010-2011, with Latinos increasing from 33 percent to 73 percent in that period, while the percentage of black students declined from 47 percent to 23 percent. Latinos has also replaced whites as the dominant student enrollment group district-wide.]

Just as important to remember is that school segregation exists in states and cities that don’t grade their schools. (Here’s one example.) The research on this appears to be sparse, but I think the onus is on Brick to produce some evidence beyond a single school before he makes such a claim.

Finally, Brick chronicles the plight of Reagan High after the state of Texas deemed it academically unacceptable, and the staff attempted to buck that label. At this point, Brick wildly contradicts himself. On the one hand, he opines, “In 2009, I watched the teachers at Reagan High raise test scores just enough to stave off a closure order, working against a one-year deadline. Teachers ‘taught to the test’ and did their best to game a broken system.” In the next breath, he writes, “Most of all, though, their efforts focused on something more difficult to quantify. Together, they gave families a reason to embrace a place long dominated by tension, violence and the endless tedium of standardized test drilling. They improved the numbers. Mostly, they did it through passion, intelligence, grit and love. No longer ‘Academically Unacceptable,’ Reagan High has started to reclaim its proud stature, though it still serves a disproportionate number of poor families.

Let’s sum up Brick’s argument: Texas graded and identified Reagan High School as failing in order to incentivize the school to turn around. Through the hard work of staff and students who paid attention to the rating, the school improved. Therefore identifying and grading (or what some people call labeling) schools is wrong.

In the end, Brick appears to misunderstand the point of grading schools and bringing competition to American public education through expanding school choice. The policies aren’t supposed to keep bad schools mediocre or desert children in those schools or scrap the public school in favor of charters. Instead, the point is too lift all boats; to hold schools accountable for their performance; to empower parents to make choices for their children; to help improve low-performing schools. It is  encouraging to see those policies work at Reagan High – even if some don’t realize it.