Author: Matt Barnum

Matt Barnum: Testing is Good for Teachers and Children

One can easily surmise that the role of standardized testing — especially in using longitudinal test score growth data in evaluating teacher performance — is increasingly the biggest fault line…

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One can easily surmise that the role of standardized testing — especially in using longitudinal test score growth data in evaluating teacher performance — is increasingly the biggest fault line between reformers and traditionalists. For some traditionalists, most-notably Diane Ravitch, testing (especially so-called high stakes testing used for accountability purposes) is in their minds the “most damaging things happening today”. [Editor’s Note: It is even at the heart of the opposition among some hardcore traditionalists and movement conservatives to the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, which will involve phasing in new assessments developed by two coalitions of states and ACT.] As both a teacher and a reformer, I have to admit that I’m baffled by the belief because it doesn’t bear out to be true either objectively or in my own experience.

voiceslogoI”ll start with my experience. I taught in a school district that was very reform-minded. We were regularly evaluated by principals and half of our evaluation was based on student performance from as much as five standardized assessments a year for each subject. In fact, the district’s former superintendent, F. Mike Miles (now chief executive of the Dallas Independent School District) even wrote a report for the Fordham Institute on the evaluation system used. Certainly I have issues with the district’s evaluation system, and I’ve written about them elsewhere. But the amount of testing done every year was, in my view, a good thing. As teachers, we knew where we stood in terms of performance, and so did our students.

Again, this is my experience. But what surprises me most about the opposition among traditionalists to testing (and the backlash against testing by some parents and others) is that there is little research to back up their arguments. Folks such as Gary Rubinstein say that they don’t “put a lot of stake into standardized tests“. But what evidence do they offer for this other than their intuition and personal experiences?

Take a look at the research. The well-known study by Raj Chetty and John Friedman of Harvard and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University, found that increased standardized test scores correlated with better life outcomes. The Scholastic Aptitude Test has been a powerful predictor of students’ first-year college grade point average, correlating about as well as high-school GPA, which is pretty impressive in my view. There’s also strong evidence that the SAT is a good predictor of a student’s likelihood of graduating college. Standardized tests aren’t perfect metrics, but they are useful ones. [Editor‘s Note: There’s also the decades of evidence that shows that student test score growth data over time indicates how well or poorly teachers are doing in improving student achievement, as well as revealing that, in general, a teacher is no more successful in improving student achievement after 25 years of teaching than an instructor working for four years, according to a report by Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen of the Center for Reinventing Public Education.]

Traditionalists sometimes act as if preparing for a standardized test is a useless activity. Not so. Whether you like it or not, if you want to enter a profession, you will have to be successful at taking some form of standardized test. As a teacher, I had to pass a test to become certified as a teacher in Colorado; I’m now in law school and had to take the LSAT and will have to take the bar. Sure, there’s an argument that test prep has gone too far – and I would guess that that’s true in some schools and districts –but there should also be an acknowledgement that the ability to take a test has many real-world uses. [Editor’s Note: Testing is also critical in helping students achieve mastery in their subjects by helping students learn from and improve on their mistakes, as well as helps teachers and schools diagnose and address learning issues. If anything, students actually benefit from taking more tests than fewer of them, especially in online and blended learning environments in which more of our children will be learning.] 

As Paul Bruno has pointed out, it is bizarre that many teachers are so opposed to testing when in fact they give quizzes and tests that are hold as many stakes for their students as standardized tests administered by states and districts do for children and teachers alike. There’s no fundamental difference between classroom tests and standardized tests. So why do traditionalists treat them that way? American Federations of Teachers’ Chicago local president Karen Lewis declared a few months ago in her opposition to standardized testing that “My students aren’t standardized!” That got some applause and head nods, but does that really make sense? When she was a teacher, did she not give all students the same tests? Every teacher gives their students the same tests regardless of differences in ability. That is standardized testing in a nutshell. This is also true if you’re a ninth-grade algebra teacher and you come together with your colleagues to design a test given to all of your ninth-grade algebra students, and used the data to judge your performances as instructors as well as find areas of your weaknesses and that of your students.

Traditionalists would find no problem with teachers coming together to do this on their own. [Editor’s NoteIn fact, in some states, such tests account for a portion of teacher evaluations.]. I see standardized tests as a scaling of what we do in classrooms every day.

Yes, we need to be careful with incentives when linking pay to test scores, we need to make sure tests are fair and accurate, we need to avoid narrowing the curriculum, and we need to ensure that teachers have a part in designing the tests (which my old district did to its credit). Of course there’s a lot of work still to be done on these matters, but it is work that can be done. These are issues that can be solved, not ones that warrant trashing high-stakes, standardized tests altogether.

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When Will School Reformers Take On School Discipline?

Imagine punishing a child for not eating his broccoli by prohibiting him from eating broccoli for a week. Such is the logic that pervades school discipline, where students are punished…

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Imagine punishing a child for not eating his broccoli by prohibiting him from eating broccoli for a week. Such is the logic that pervades school discipline, where students are punished for misbehaving in school by being suspended or expelled from school. It’s something that’s not much talked about among school reformers these days, and traditionalists talk around it too. So I was thrilled to see Education Week put together a comprehensive examination of the issue of school discipline and culture.But in the month since EdWeek ran that compendium, the response from the education community — especially from reformers — has been nothing.  Perhaps I missed it, but I saw almost no discussion in response to the fantastic report. 

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngFor all the good reformers are doing, the lack of effort on their part on changing how we discipline students without condemning them to the school-to-prison pipeline is an inexcusable oversight. Dropout Nation is one of the few outlets spotlighting this issue and on a constant basis. Peter Meyer, formerly of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has also devoted attention to this issue. Other publications of a reform-minded bent — and reformers in general — say little at all. This is a problem. The troubles of our current approaches to school discipline pervade our struggling schools, debilitating principals, teachers and students, corroding working conditions, and harming student achievement. It’s high time school reformers and education policymakers start talking about it.

I know this problem personally. My last two years teaching in a low-income school were a stunning introduction to the constant discipline issues and the culture that they sow in thousands of schools. During my two years, I was called names that can’t be reprinted and sworn at; yelled at and ignored; given the middle finger and lied to. Desks and textbooks were vandalized; my personal supplies were stolen. A fight once broke out in my classroom; fights constantly happened throughout the school.

I didn’t leave the teaching profession because of salaries, or career ladders, or being over-regulated, or “poor working conditions”, or lack of resources. It definitely wasn’t because of testing, or narrowing of curriculum, or because I wasn’t treated like a professional. In short, I didn’t leave for any of the reasons traditionally cited as the causes of teacher attrition. I left teaching in large part because the requirements of school discipline – the constant exhaustion, the feeling of always being on edge – were too much for me.

During my first year on the job, I was among the weakest teachers at my school in terms of managing student behavior, but I was hardly the only one. In my second year, I was probably average, but still struggling. Veteran teachers were better than newcomers on average, but many older teachers had the same problems. One who was a constant target of student disrespect, had hand sanitizer poured into her coffee mug one year; a year later a different student spit into her coffee.

During my first year, the principal at the school I taught at took a hands-off approach. She discouraged office referrals, blamed teachers and expected them to handle their own discipline. One time I wrote a referral for a student who threw a desk and was shouting to the point that I couldn’t teach. The student was sent back to my room ten minutes later; the referral had been rejected because it did not constitute a high enough offense, such as fighting or stealing.  After one student called me an awful name, the principal pulled me aside and said, “It’s not them. It’s you.” As difficult as it was to hear, she had a point.

My second year, the principal changed and so did disciplinary policies. Referrals were encouraged if students were inhibiting instruction. It’s hard to say how well this plan worked. Teachers, myself included, felt vastly more supported, and I suspect that many classrooms, including my own, saw increased learning. But office referrals increased dramatically, as did suspensions. The administrators were inundated and overwhelmed. Students and a handful of parents complained that the school had turned into a prison.

Both approaches are problematic, and teacher surveys show how dire it is. A recent EdWeek survey found that only 14 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools said that “students are well-behaved.” It’s no surprise that the recent study on the KIPP network found that one of the best predictors of individual schools’ success was whether the principal reported a “comprehensive school-wide behavior system.”

What are we to do? A reformer might simply point to teacher quality, arguing that if we recruit and retain great teachers, schools will necessarily have fewer discipline issues. This certainly has a lot of truth. During my first year, I worked on a grade-level team with three exceptional veteran educators. When we had team meetings, and I recounted behavior issues with a certain student, the other three would all say cheerily, “He’s fine for me!” This was demoralizing at the time, but it made clear what reformers already know: great teachers can achieve great things in their classrooms, even with challenging students. At the same time, we just can’t rely on high-quality teaching to stem student misbehavior. Even some excellent ones face too much student misbehavior – or expend too much effort preventing such misbehavior – and there are far too many teachers who could be excellent but are inhibited by a lack of classroom management. [Editor’s Note: Which is why the nation’s ed schools must move away from filling the minds of aspiring teachers with useless pedagogy to providing real-life training on how to run classrooms.]

There’s also the matter of how to address the achievement gaps at the heart of student misbehavior. One of the consequences of achievement gaps is a discipline gap, in which lower-income students and students of color achieve at lower level and are far more likely to face school discipline. Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study of children from low-income households, third-grade reading performance is strongly associated with social skills; a third-grader who is functionally illiterate is more-likely to end up engaging in the kind of aggressive behavior that leads to suspension and expulsion; in fact, low literacy in third grade is predictive of school discipline issues two years later in fifth grade.  [Editor’s Note: This is also why intensive reading remediation in the early grades, which would help stem many issues related to discipline, is also important to put in place.]

Something needs to give.We can’t suspend and expel students into better behavior. We can’t continue keep putting our kids onto the school-to-prison pipeline. The need to change the paradigm on school discipline demands as much attention from reformers as they put into changing the paradigm when it comes to teacher compensation. I don’t know the answers. But I know we should find them. 

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Matt Barnum: Families Don’t Care What Traditionalists Think About Their Choices

High performing charter school have long been criticized for what some consider to be oppressive school discipline and cultures. I’ve noticed these arguments have cropped up again semi-recently, with a…

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High performing charter school have long been criticized for what some consider to be oppressive school discipline and cultures. I’ve noticed these arguments have cropped up again semi-recently, with a post by EduShyster, linked to by Diane Ravitch. Although I myself do not find the KIPP-style philosophy particularly problematic, I’m not going to offer a defense of it here. Rather the more significant point is that the ability of successful charters to implement particularized pedagogies is one of the important benefits of school choice for a simple reason: every student at such charters is there because of an affirmative choice made by his or her parents. There’s almost no doubt that parents know, by and large, what goes on in the school – it’s fair to assume that kids are eager to tell – and yet parents are nevertheless willing choose that sort of education for their children.

parentpowerlogoAccording to Diane Ravitch reformers “say that black children need a ‘different’ kind of education, an education where they are taught to obey, to conform, to listen in silence, and to do as they are told without question. [Reformers] think that days on end of test prep is the right kind of education for black children, but not for their own.” Actually, she’s got it backwards. Insofar as the issue applies to charter schools (or any school of choice), it’s not reformers who are determining the type of education “black children need” – it is those children’s parents. Indeed, traditionalists like Ravitch are the ones who are trying to override parents’ decisions and determine the type of education that other people’s children receive. And have been attempting to do so for quite some time.

Let me be clear: I’m not arguing that parental decisions are always good – that’s a separate point – but when traditionalists criticize certain charters’ education model, they’re also implicitly criticizing parents’ choices for what’s best for their kids. That’s fine, but such a view should be explicit. (For an example of this, see Alfie Kohn’s provocative Answer Sheet blog post, in which he argues that parental involvement is not always positive. Fair enough, though his view is really that parental involvement is only good if parents happen to hold the exact same views on education as him.)

Substantively, it’s hard for me to see how questioning parents’ choices makes much sense. Are parents not rationale in believing that a more structured – and perhaps more disciplined – environment is preferable for some children? Maybe some parents believe that such discipline is not ideal, but then what are the alternatives? Aren’t parents in the best position to weight school options for their own child?

Traditionalists, by and large, are not all that interested in offering alternatives to failing public schools (or, as Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle points out, even interested in giving families the power to transform the very failing schools in their own neighborhoods); instead, they’re more concerned with telling parents that, no, no, don’t worry, our schools aren’t that bad after all, that they can’t really be improved, or that poverty is the problem. To be fair, many traditionalists are genuinely committed to improving neighborhood public schools; others sincerely believe that schools cannot be fixed until poverty is ended; still others raise legitimate questions about the quality of charters as a group. Regardless, I can’t accept glibly dismissing a parent’s choice to send their child to a school that could significantly improve that child’s life trajectory.

I generally view schools choice as a means – a delivery method – to an end – improving educational quality. But there are reasons why choice is good in and of itself. Unlike traditional public schools, a choice system gives parents meaningful options regarding how their children are educated. If traditionalists or certain parents don’t like a “No Excuses”–style philosophy, that’s a powerful argument not for contracting school choice, but for expanding it.

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There Are Achievement Gaps — and There’s Nothing Wrong with Saying So

  Most recently, I co-authored a piece for Teach For America’s Pass the Chalk  (and Good.is)with my good friend Lauren Buller on the socioeconomic achievement gaps at the heart of the…

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Most recently, I co-authored a piece for Teach For America’s Pass the Chalk  (and Good.is)with my good friend Lauren Buller on the socioeconomic achievement gaps at the heart of the nation’s education crisis. In it, we defended the use of the phrase ‘the achievement gap’ against charges by fellow TFA alum and education professor Camika Royal that using the term is racist and offensive (and thus, should not be used at all). The article speaks for itself. But from where I sit, some of the arguments over what to call the achievement gap and how it should be defined – part of a much-wider argument over whether to even address the educational issues facing many of our children — remain misguided.

voiceslogoOne deeply misguided article by five TFA alumni and staff who defend Royal’s original argument, argues that dialogue about what to call the achievement gap was “silenced”. Basing their views on a theory on education policymaking first articulated by Lisa Delpit and others, Victor Diaz, Anasstassia Baichorova, Molly BrysonJamie Jenkins, and Tamara Urqhart contend that Royal is part of the “voices of the oppressed and marginalized” and that she was “silenced” because others “contradict, attack, or ignore” her arguments. [Editor’s Note: This is a rather interesting argument given that Royal is higher education faculty, and thus, what some would call part of the elite and “powerful”.]

In fact, the evidence suggests that the exact opposite happened. Royal’s article was much talked about, commented on, tweeted about, and discussed. Teach For America ran on its blog a five-piece series on the subject, in which all but one post (my own) looked unfavorably on the use of the term “achievement gap”. Royal subsequently was part of a conference call – the most listened to in TFA’s history – with Matthew Kramer, the organization’s president. What happened here is the opposite of a silenced dialogue.

Indeed, it was these writers themselves who seemed to want to silence dialogue. In their view, those who disagreed with Royal’s conclusions believed that “10 minutes of reading and reflection somehow trump Royal’s years of lived experience and doctoral training.” My view is that discussions are not card games in which one person wins by playing the doctorate or “lived experience” trump card. I am confident that these are five thoughtful people who care about education, but I would challenge them to think carefully and look at the evidence before throwing out allegations that others’ “responses exist along lines or race, class and gender, and along lines of power.” It is assertions such as these that can genuinely silence dialogue.

Another, more engaged response, appeared on “Pass the Chalk” as part of the achievement-gap series. In it, Shani Dowell makes an appealing argument: “I want my child’s successes and opportunities to be defined based on an absolute bar that will ensure every opportunity she wants and deserves – not based on how she performs relative to another ethnic or socioeconomic group.” Her point is that any gap should not be defined by race versus race, but using some sort of absolute standard. The problem, of course, is setting this bar. And even if we were to come up with such a standard, what happens if a certain under-performing group meets that bar but is still being vastly outperformed other groups? Isn’t this still very problematic? I would argue that it is.

Finally, one has to question Royal’s choice to follow-up on her original piece with one on Diane Ravitch’s eponymous blog. After Royal’s first piece, Ravitch pounced, writing: “This phrase  (‘the achievement gap’) is used cynically by self-proclaimed ‘reformers’ who have no genuine interest in closing the opportunity gap or the wealth gap…They say that black children need a ‘different’ kind of education, an education where they are taught to obey, to conform, to listen in silence, and to do as they are told without question. They think that days on end of test prep is the right kind of education for black children, but not for their own.”

Anyone who regularly reads Ravitch’s blog know that this sort demeaning rhetoric is par for the course, though I found this specific rant particularly stunning and spiteful. Ravitch is saying, in essence, that some people who have dedicated their professional lives to improving public schools are knowing racists who don’t care about the children they’re purporting to help. I don’t see any other reading of this.

To my knowledge, Royal has not condemned or disowned Ravitch’s distortion (I assume it’s a distortion) of her writing. Needless to say, Royal has no obligation to track down and condemn every misguided commentary on the internet. But Royal’s choice to write on Ravitch’s blog without denouncing Ravitch’s malicious invective suggests that she has no problem with it.

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School Reformers Can’t Be Rodney Kings (Or Why We Can’t Just Get Along with Traditionalists)

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, is the name of liberal historian Howard Zinn’s biography. The book’s title speaks to its message, and it’s a message that some…

The school reform movement needs more Margaret Thatchers. Not less.

The school reform movement needs more Margaret Thatchers. Not less.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, is the name of liberal historian Howard Zinn’s biography. The book’s title speaks to its message, and it’s a message that some in the education movement should take to heart. Some in education, with the best-intentions, would argue that the key to reforming schools is for all stakeholders to come together, work together, and do – say it, together – “what’s best for kids.” This idea has a simple, intuitive appeal. But it is also wrong.

transformersThis philosophy is typified by Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, whom, as an alum, I think has done so much for the school reform movement and to whom I  owe my own involvement in education. Most recently, in response to an open letter penned by TFA alum and education traditionalist Gary Rubinstein, Kopp wrote: “Education leaders and districts across the country have shown us that we can bridge traditional divides and work together to do what’s best for kids. But we have to stop thinking of ourselves as locked in an ideological battle and focus on doing everything in our power to give students today the education they deserve.”

A post on the TFA blog by an alum and Chicago Public Schools administrator offered a similar perspective regarding the Chicago teachers’ strike: “[W]hat I’ve learned more than anything over the past decade was that we are on the same team. We have to be, or else we won’t solve this… We need to do what’s best for kids.”

Everyone – from Diane Ravitch to Michelle Rhee – can agree with these sentiments: that we should “do what’s best for kids” and “give students the education they deserve.’” The fact that these statements can garner such widespread agreement shows just how content-less they are. They beg the questions: What type of education do students deserve? What is best for kids?

It’s particularly problematic that Kopp seems to create a dichotomy between ideologues –those “locked in an ideological battle” – on the one hand, and those who want to do what’s best for kids, on the other. In actuality, ideologues not only want what’s best for kids, they actually have ideas – some good, some bad – for how to achieve results. Reformers emphasize school choice, parental empowerment, and teacher quality; traditionalists focus on class size, early-childhood education, and wrap-around services. [Editor’s Note: Kopp also fails to understand the historical and intellectual importance of conflict and being divisive in driving movements that have improved the lives of all people.]

It seems to me that part of the problem in education is not too many, but rather, too few ideologues. It’s not ideological, perhaps, to be okay with the status quo; it’s not ideological to lack strong opinions or avoid advocating for any change; it’s not ideological to go along to get along. Indeed, Teach For America’s mission is at bottom an ideological one – specifically, the ideology, which some people still disagree with, that talented young people can help improve schools and education policy.

If Kopp is focusing on the increasingly vicious attacks by the likes of traditionalists Diane Ravitch and Karen Lewis or some of the harmful and distasteful rhetoric on the reform side, then I agree. I favor engagement over name-calling, substance over shouting, discussing ideas over demeaning people.

In fact, it’s completely appropriate for Kopp, as the leader of a diverse, high-profile organization, to avoid taking stances on divisive issues. That’s fine, and I agree that TFA’s role should be to foster discussion about rather than provide answers to these tough questions. With that in mind though, it’s equally inappropriate for Kopp to critique the “ideological battle” or to peddle the non-substantive “do what’s right for kids” model.

There are times when compromise may be necessary and effective. But not always, and not necessarily. The desire to compromise can lead to stagnant policies, Pyrrhic victories, and the compromising of the powerful ideal that TFA espouses: “that one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”

It’s possible that this vision can be reached by bridging old divides and coming together. But just likely is that an uncompromising, ideological vision of change to our education system may, in fact, be what’s best for kids.

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Michael Brick’s Shoddy Thinking — and Arguing — Against Reform in the New York Times

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…

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.

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