What About the Crazy Talk of “Moving Students into High Quality Seats”?

These days, as part of the rhetoric of technocratic school reform, you often hear people talk about the goal of moving more students into high quality seats.  It’s a puzzling way of talking, as though education is purely a function of any student’s placement–part of the idea that moving kids around from school to school via school choice will make up for a state’s failure to invest enough money to ensure that every school has excellent teachers, a full curriculum, and a range of co-curricular opportunities. Such talk is a symptom of a lack of public generosity. School districts intent on moving  kids to “high quality seats” invest lots of money in exclusive magnets and boutique charters instead of the even more expensive project of investing enough in the traditional neighborhood elementary and middle schools and the comprehensive high schools that serve the mass of any school district’s students. By selecting some children for elite schools, the school district will be able to boast about high scores at “successful” schools and graduation rates at the elite high schools.

In Chicago, due to affirmative action policies at the elite high schools, a significant number of students from families with low income have now been admitted. Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research just conducted a study to test how poorer students at selective-admissions high schools are faring.  Here are the assumptions researchers set out to examine:  “High-quality public schools may be a lever for closing the gap by providing equitable educational opportunities for students who have fewer economic resources at home. We know that low-income students can succeed in school, but many who are high-performing in elementary school fail to make it to college, suggesting that high-achieving, low-income students may lack good high school options or that there are barriers to entry into high-performing high schools for students who have fewer resources. If selective public schools improve student outcomes for low-income students by a greater amount than they improve outcomes for high-income students, then selective public schools may help close achievement gaps by family income.”

The study’s findings do not confirm the assumptions. “Overall, we find little effect on test scores or educational attainment, but students admitted to selective schools have lower grade point averages (GPAs)… Looking at estimates by neighborhood SES, we find no evidence that admission to elite public schools in Chicago helps close the achievement gap between students from high- and low-poverty neighborhoods.  Selective high school admission has no effect on test scores, regardless of neighborhood SES….  When it comes to grades, the negative effect of selective high school admission on GPAs is larger for students from low-SES neighborhoods than for students from high-SES neighborhoods… (W)e find that students from low-SES neighborhoods who are admitted to a selective high school are 13 percentage points less likely to attend a selective college than students from low-SES neighbohoods who just miss the admission cutoff.”

The researchers explain why Chicago’s unique affirmative admissions policies make it important to study the effects of selective high schools on low-income students in Chicago: “Selective enrollment high schools command a lot of attention—they generally serve the most academically successful students, the seats are highly coveted as there are many more applicants than available slots, and they are often hailed as the best schools in the system.  These schools also receive criticism for serving student bodies that are much less racially diverse than the district in which they are situated.  The affirmative action admission policy in Chicago, reserving seats for students from low-SES neighborhoods, makes selective schools the most racially diverse public high schools in the city. This feature also allows us to look at separate effects for students from different SES backgrounds.”

Here is what the new study says about students’ test scores: “We find that when it comes to test scores, attending a SEHS (Selective  Enrollment High School) has no statistically significant impact. Simply put, on average, these students would have performed well on tests with or without selective schools.  This finding is consistent with previous studies of selective schools in the U.S. This paper extends the scope of prior work by allowing the effect of selective school admission to differ by students’ neighborhood SES status. Nevertheless, even for students from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, we find no positive impact on test scores.”

What about college admissions?  “High school GPA is another important academic outcome that affects both college admissions and college scholarship eligibility.  We find negative effects of being admitted to a SEHS on GPA, and this effect is primarily driven by the large, negative impact on GPA for students from more disadvantaged neighborhoods.  The negative impacts on GPA in combination with unaffected test scores do not translate into a decreased likelihood that SEHS students enroll in college…. Our results suggest that admission to a SEHS reduces the probability that a student from a low-SES neighborhood attends a selective college, while potentially increasing the probability that a student from a high-SES neighborhood attends a selective college. This finding is particularly troubling.”

Competition, as usual, favors the privileged; the researchers conclude that poorer students are not losing ground academically even though their grades are lower than their wealthier peers: “We do not believe that it is the case that students from low-SES neighborhoods cannot do well in elite public school programs.  In fact, there is no evidence of learning declines, as test scores for less affluent students are unaffected.”

As elite magnet schools do not seem to be expanding equal opportunity for their students’ college admissions, the researchers wonder whether the Chicago School District should eliminate its elite magnet high schools?  The advantages of maintaining such schools, according to these researchers, derive to the reputation of the district itself, not to the competitive edge of students being admitted to elite high schools through affirmative admissions programs. First, at a time when school segregation is increasing everywhere, their affirmative admissions policies have turned the elite high schools into Chicago’s most diverse high schools, economically and racially.  And the elite high schools increase the school district’s tax base and what the researchers call the “overall social capital” of families in the school district by serving as an incentive for families who “would otherwise leave the district for private schools or suburban districts.”

However, the researchers do find one advantage for poorer students who have been admitted to the elite high schools: the students believe their school experience is more positive. Selective high schools “have a positive effect on students’ perceptions of the high school experience. When it comes to relationships with students and teachers, SEHS students are more positive than their counterparts in non-SEHSs.  Students in SEHSs also report a greater sense of safety—they are less likely to worry about crime, violence, and bullying…. Perhaps it is factors like these that make SEHSs highly desirable to students and families—more so than the potential to improve test scores and college outcomes.”

All this leads one to contemplate the moral implications in a school district like Chicago where school funding has been in crisis for decades and where Standard & Poor’s just dropped the school district’s credit rating again this month. Investing generously in all of a city’s high schools is far more expensive than creating elite institutions where a city’s brightest students are educated. What would it take to make it possible for every high school in Chicago to ensure small classes so that every student is known and the student’s learning needs accommodated? What would it take to hire enough counselors and social workers and college and career guidance staff to support every student?  What would it take to support a band and orchestra in every high school along with classes in drawing, sculpture and art appreciation and with a full range of sports and other co-curriculars? For years now charters and elite magnet schools have been designed as escapes for academic stars and students whose motivated parents know how to work the system. What would be required to provide a climate of safety and support in all of Chicago’s high schools?

Last month the national NAACP passed a resolution demanding a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools—that public funds not be diverted to charter schools at the expense of the traditional public system, and that the charter schools “cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”  The NAACP’s demands speak to the role of selective magnet high schools as well as their privatized but publicly funded charter cousins.

A system of public schools has been understood historically as our society’s moral responsibility for all of our students. Public schools have also traditionally been understood as the path by which society can benefit from the academic gifts, the skills, and the talents of every student.  The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s prophetic words come to mind once again: “There are those who would make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

All the mechanical talk about attracting students to “high quality seats” through school choice only makes it easier to forget about our broader obligation to the personal and academic needs of the mass of children and adolescents who fill our public schools.

Noticing and Helping Our Poorest Children and Their Public Schools

If you take a driving vacation and you use a laptop instead of a smartphone, you soon learn that the best place to find Wi-Fi in little towns is in the parking lot of the public library.  You don’t have to arrive during the hours when the library is open, and you can even sit in your car to check your e-mail or the news as long as you park very near the building, because the library’s Wi-Fi service is accessible beyond the walls of the building. I know this from long experience looking at e-mail in public library parking lots from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Red Lodge, Montana, to Laurelville, Ohio.  In our family, of course, we have broadband service at home and we need to use the library parking lot only on special occasions. But what about the people who lack this basic service?

In the New York Times last week, Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library wrote about internet access as a necessity. He explains that last year, the Federal Communications Commission declared: “Access to broadband is necessary to be a productive member of society. In June, a federal appeals court upheld the commission’s authority to regulate the internet as a public utility.”  But Marx, writing from New York City, describes what life is like for children in families who cannot afford the internet: “Here in the world’s information capital, New Yorkers are still scrounging for a few bars of web access, dropped like crumbs from a table. With broadband costing on average $55 per month, 25 percent of all households and 50 percent of those making less than $20,000 lack this service at home.”  Marx describes New York City’s children from his perspective at the library: “All summer, kids have been hanging out in front of the Morris Park Library in the Bronx, before opening hours and after closing.  They bring their computers to pick up the Wi-Fi signal that is leaking out of the building, because they can’t afford internet access at home. They’re there during the school year, too, even during the winter—it’s the only way they can complete their online math homework… People line up, sometimes for hours, to use the library system’s free computers. Go into any library in the nation and you’ll most likely see the same thing. They come to do what so many of us take for granted: apply for government services, study or do research, talk with family or friends, inform themselves as voters, and just participate in our society and culture—so much of which now takes place online.”

I thought about Marx’s column in conjunction with two other articles in the New York Times last week.  In The Millions of Americans Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Barely Mention: The Poor,  Binyamin Appelbaum explains that the presidential candidates’ “platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, (but) the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs; neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.”  Appelbaum quotes Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond: “We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda.”

Then there was Susan Dynarski’s piece that explores the way our society uses imprecise data to measure poverty among students at school: “A closer look reveals that the standard measure of economic disadvantage—whether a child is eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch in school masks the magnitude of the learning gap between the richest and poorest children.  Nearly half of students nationwide are eligible for a subsidized meal in school. Children whose families earn less than 185 percent of the poverty threshold are eligible for a reduced-price lunch, while those below 130 percent get a free lunch. For a family of four, the cutoffs are $32,000 for a free lunch and $45,000 for a reduced price one. By way of comparison, median household income in the United States was about $54,000 in 2014… The National Assessment of Education Progress, often called the Nation’s Report Card, publishes students’ scores by eligibility for subsidized meals. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, districts have reported scores separately for disadvantaged children, with eligibility for subsidized meals serving as the standard measure of disadvantage.”

Dynarski is a professor at the University of Michigan, and she describes student poverty in her state: “In Michigan, as in the rest of the country, about half of eighth graders in public schools receive a free or reduced-price lunch. But when we look more closely, we see that just 14 percent have been eligible for subsidized meals every year since kindergarten. These children are the poorest of the poor—the persistently disadvantaged… (I)n fact, there is a nearly linear, negative relationship between the number of years of economic disadvantage and math scores in eighth grade… It appears that years spent eligible for subsidized school meals serves as a good proxy for the depth of disadvantage. When we look back on the early childhood of persistently disadvantaged eighth graders, we see that by kindergarten they were already far poorer than their classmates.” Dynarkski recommends that we find a more accurate way to identify the children whose needs are greatest.

In his introduction to an issue of the  Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences that focuses on severe deprivation in America, Matthew Desmond aims to be more precise in defining degrees of poverty in our society: “Poverty is qualitatively different from ‘deep poverty’ (half below the poverty line), which in turn is a world apart from ‘extreme poverty’ (living on $2 a day)… There is poverty and then there is poverty… By ‘severe deprivation,’ we mean economic hardship that is (1) acute, (2) compounded, and (3) persistent.” Desmond adds that most of our public policy to address poverty was developed so long ago that it fails to address today’s realities: “Most research is rooted in theories now a few decades old…. developed before the United States began incarcerating more of its citizens than any other nation; before urban rents soared and poor families began dedicating the majority of their income to housing; before welfare reform caused caseloads to plummet….  In recent years, the very nature of poverty in America has changed, especially at the very bottom.”

Susan Dynarsky is not the first researcher to explore the importance of accurately measuring and addressing extreme poverty in public schools.  In the 2010 book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research studied Chicago’s public schools to locate the particular schools that serve many children who are experiencing what Dynarski and Desmond describe as persistent and severe deprivation. Here are the characteristics of the 46 schools they identified in Chicago that were far more severely challenged than surrounding schools (many of which serve relatively poor neighborhoods). Truly disadvantaged schools were 90-100 percent African American. “These schools served neighborhoods characterized by extreme rates of poverty.  On average, 70 percent of residents living in the neighborhoods around these 46 schools had incomes below the poverty line, and the median family income in 1990 was only $9,480.  In 6 out of 10 of these schools, more than 50 percent of the students lived in pubic housing.” The schools featured what the researchers call a “consolidation of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.”  “Many confronted an extraordinary concentration of student needs, including students who were homeless, in foster care, or living in contexts of neglect, abuse, and domestic violence.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp 23-24)

So… what are today’s federal prescriptions for such schools—the schools in every city that serve the very poorest children?  For the past two decades the demanded reforms have included closing the school and turning it over to a charter school or a management company, firing the principal and many teachers, and considering the students’ test scores as a good part of the formal teacher evaluation mechanism.  Many of these same punishments have become the accepted strategies for school reform across our big cities, and are likely to continue even though in the Every Student Succeeds Act the federal government is stepping back a bit from dictating mandatory prescriptions.

As Susan Dynarski explains, despite our capacity now days to make education data-driven, we haven’t even instituted a precise way to measure childhood poverty. And as Matthew Desmond points out, our public policies are not designed to address the real crisis of today’s childhood poverty.  A discussion of these very painful and controversial matters is not really part of the political agenda of either of our major political parties.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research outlines very concrete school improvement strategies to support the people working in the most stressed schools.  Many school districts are also expanding the number of full-service, wraparound Community Schools designed to house medical, dental, and mental health services, after school enrichment for children, job training for parents—social and medical services—right in the school building. We need to recognize that these are an excellent beginning.

But we also need to recognize that local institutions like public libraries and public elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are struggling to support children trapped in a level of poverty invisible to many of us unless we happen to walk by a public library where, at 7 o’clock in the morning, children are sitting on the steps trying to finish their homework with the Wi-Fi access they can find right outside the library.

Chicago Again Imposes ‘Reconstitution’ As Though It Will Cure School Ills

The school board in Chicago will turn three more schools over to the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), its contractor of choice, when the turnaround ax falls this spring.  Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, began his career in Chicago, where he launched the turnaround options that have now been prescribed for the public schools across the country that score in the bottom 5 percent: reconstitution, closure, charterization, and one gentler option, transformation.  Last year Chicago used closure—of 50 schools.

This year it is reconstitution. The Chicago Sun Times reports, “Staff—down to janitors and lunchroom workers—must reapply for their positions…”  The principal must leave, and in most instances the entire staff will be replaced.  Three Chicago schools are being reconstituted because of low standardized test scores and low attendance rates.

But turnarounds by reconstitution haven’t always worked, according to a recent investigation by Catalyst-Chicago: “In CPS, however, more than half of turnaround schools are still among the lowest-performing schools. Some started badly and had to undergo another turnaround.  Others have improved more than other schools, yet are still far from meeting district averages, much less the statewide averages.   What’s more, large chunks of the new staff—teachers who were hand-picked and spent weeks over the summer getting to know each other, becoming a team and learning how to spark improvement when the school reopened—leave within a few years.”

AUSL is awarded extra money to turn around a school, reports the Sun Times.  The district awards  AUSL an additional $300,000 for start-up and an extra $420 per-student, per-year for five years.

Diane Ravitch devotes six pages of Reign of Error (pp. 214-219) to examining the school reforms launched in Chicago when Arne Duncan ran the school district.  She examines two very well known 2012 studies that tracked the impact of school reconstitution.  The first by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that schools that had been turned around with significant investment and new staff did improve, though not nearly as significantly as had been promised by AUSL.  The second investigation by Designs for Change found that while schools turned around by AUSL improved, a significant number of neighborhood schools that lacked the enormous financial investment provided for AUSL turnarounds but that were governed by very effective Local School Councils—involving community members, parents, teachers, and administrators working collaboratively—improved even more.  Designs for Change titled its 2012 report, Chicago’s Democratically-Led Elementary Schools Far Out-Perform Chicago’s ‘Turnaround Schools.’

Today as Catalyst-Chicago is reporting new data about ongoing staff turnover at schools that have been reconstituted by AUSL, the conclusion of the Designs for Change report seems especially prophetic: “Given the meager academic progress of Elementary Turnaround Schools and their high teacher turnover rate, which undermines the basic culture of the school, the researchers conclude that the resources devoted to Turnaround Schools can be better spent by supporting the alternative research-based strategies.”

One of the essays in a Harvard-published collection edited by Thomas Timar, Narrowing the Achievement Gap (2012) speaks to the challenges in Chicago and other communities where schools struggle in neighborhoods with intensely concentrated poverty.  In “Reframing the Ecology of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps: Why ‘No Excuses’ Reforms Have Failed to Narrow Student Group Differences in Educational Outcomes,” the researchers Robert Ream, Sarah Ryan, and Jose Espinoza remind us:

“The plain fact is that the gaps between minority or poor students and otherwise socially enfranchised children is already at roughly a year with regard to educational outcomes for math and reading by the time children enter kindergarten.  These differences at the group level remain fairly constant between the first and the twelfth grades, so it is safe to say that it is not generally the schools themselves that create or even foster the inequity.  Indeed, while children are in school, the gap typically narrows, but when they’re outside the classroom, it widens.  In short, there is no getting around that fact that children are beings embedded in social networks, nested in families, navigating relatively complex social lives with peers, and functioning as members of neighborhoods and communities in which school is one important social institution among many shaping their reality.” (pp. 39-40)