Urban progress? Scores are very low

Some big-city districts are making progress, according to the new NAEP TUDA (Trial Urban District Assessments) results released by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Despite the “cheerleading,” gains are minimal and scores are very low for low-income and minority students, responds Fordham’s Andy Smarick.

In fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading, and eighth-grade math, about one out of every four students reaches proficiency in the average large city. The brightest spot is fourth-grade math, where one in three are proficient. Specific examples: In Baltimore, 16 percent of eighth graders read proficiently. In Philadelphia, 18 percent of eighth graders score proficient in math.

. . . Only eight of 21 cities had even one statistically significant gain; two saw a drop in one area; and 11 cities made no significant gain whatsoever.

Washington, D.C. improved the most, followed by Los Angeles and Fresno. But all three remain below the urban average.

Detroit is the lowest performing city in all four categories (fourth and eighth grade reading and math) and it’s getting worse. In eighth grade, 3 percent of student are proficient in math and 9 percent in reading.

Cleveland is next worst with Milwaukee in third place. “We should all hang our heads in shame if we don’t dramatically intervene in these districts,” writes Smarick.

“White students in these cities do quite well—even better than white students elsewhere,” Smarick observes. “They and non-poor students significantly pull up district averages. For example, 71 percent of Atlanta’s white eighth graders are proficient readers.” Low-income, black and Latino students are way, way behind.

Charlotte, North Carolina schools do fairly well, writes Julia Ryan, but overall urban schools are “a mess.”

About Joanne


  1. The problem isn’t the schools…the problem is the culture.

  2. Florida resident says:

    “Washington, D.C. improved the most, …”
    mostly due to changing demographics.
    Here are data from Wikipedia,
    Year of 2000: white: 30.8 %; black: 60.0 %
    Year of 2012: white: 38.5 %; black: 50.7 %.

    With invariable respect of Ms. Jacobs’ noble work,

    • J.D. Salinger says:

      Right, that really is proof of your particular hobby horse isn’t it?

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Hardly proof, but it is evidence in favor. Had scores in DC gone down, or were scores going up as the proportion of white students were going down, there would be evidence against it.

  3. I agree with gahrie, and have been saying the same thing for years.

  4. PhillipMarlowe says:

    ““White students in these cities do quite well—even better than white students elsewhere,” Smarick observes. “They and non-poor students significantly pull up district averages. For example, 71 percent of Atlanta’s white eighth graders are proficient readers.” Low-income, black and Latino students are way, way behind.”

    Sucky teachers as argued by Michelle Rhee?

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      I’d put my money on the parenting gap. Middle and upper middle class kids will do OK no matter what, because their parents spend hours working with them outside of school and over breaks. For poor, minority kids, the school IS the only structure/support. So a school has to be exceptional to even give them the bare minimum they need. The middle-class and wealthy kids might not be reaching their full potentials if they’re in crummy schools, but they’ll at least come out ‘OK’ by current standards, because parents can teach the basics as well as teachers….

      • former teacher says:

        Charlotte isn’t remotely comparable demographically to the lowest-ranking school systems listed, which is why I’m always astounded when Charlotte’s results are compared to those of “Detroit Public Schools” with a false assumption that those two public school systems are demographically the same. Charlotte is a county-wide system that encompasses all of Mecklenburg County, including wealthy areas; it’s not a truly “urban” system in the sense of Cleveland or Detroit. Within Charlotte, you’ll find “suburban” schools with really high average test scores and very few kids on free-reduced lunch. You’ll find “urban” schools with really low average test scores with incredibly high percentages of kids on free-reduced lunch. Hence, it’s unsurprising Charlotte gets “better” results on these tests than do school systems that serve far more poor/minority kids.

  5. Stacy in NJ says:

    The worst performers have experienced not just white flight but working and middle class flight of all ethnicities. NYC has had a net exodus of middle class blacks for 20 years. Many large cities – including NY – have hollowed out centers. The affluent who can afford to insulate themselves from dysfunction and the poor remain – and, also the public service workers who are dependent on both and rich and poor for their jobs.

  6. It appears a consensus has formed that it’s anything – anything at all – but the schools or, on a more general basis, the public education system.

    How’s that work?

    The public education system’s the institution tasked with educating America’s kids so if America’s kids aren’t being educated, or educated well enough to negate the fear that their education is inadequate, shouldn’t the agency with the responsibility come in for some close inspection?

    Not, evidently, in this crowd.

    Outside the posters on Joanne’s blog however there’s a fairly strong consensus that the problem’s not “the culture” and it’s not that black kids are too stupid to learn and it’s not that a low family income makes kids unteachable. It’s that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the concepts upon which public education’s based and that it’ll take fundamental changes to effect long-term, comprehensive improvement in educational outcomes.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Why not both?

      • Because one of the two are excuses that won’t bear much scrutiny and the other’s an idea that’s too outrageous to be discussed in civil society. But I’m an iconoclast and there are just so many icons in desperate need of smashing.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          If it’s just the schools, why aren’t middle class and wealthy kids in the same school affected as much as the poor kids? Are the teachers deliberately targeting poor kids? Seems unlikely.

          • Up until not that long ago schools would assign any handy teacher to the special ed room. Teachers spectacularly unprepared for the demands of a special ed classroom were cavalierly shoved into that situation because to the administration one kid’s pretty much the same as any other and one teacher’s pretty much the same as any other.

            Since they’re all interchangeable why make more work for yourself by worrying about teachers who do have special preparation to deal with special ed kids? There being no good reason to do so, administrators didn’t.

            It took legislative action to force school districts to respect the difference between kids with serious enough problems to warrant sequestration in special ed classrooms and kids without. You think the same people who couldn’t be bothered to deal with the demands of special education kids will exert themselves for the demands peculiar to poor kids?

            But it’s not even those lazy administrators who are ultimately at fault.

            The public education system gives the professionals who are therein employed no incentive to educate kids. No incentive to educate special ed kids and no incentive to educate poor kids. So those administrators are acting quite rationally when they ignore those differences.

            They have no particular reason to deal with those differences, other then the afore mentioned special education kids, and that’s due to way the public education system is necessarily structured. Like all public institutions the public education system’s inflexible so doesn’t deal well with kids who are outliers of any sort.

            That’s not so much a problem to be fixed as a truth to be appreciated which means you can have a public education system only if you don’t expect it to do a good job for some significant percentage of the student population or you can have flexibility but not within the context of a public institution.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Allen is absolutely right that there is a consensus that schools can do much better. This consensus has existed for over a century.

      However, so far, no school system–not public, not private, not charter, not religious–has converted this consensus into results that are replicable and scalable.

      I detect another icon in need of smashing.

      • Roger – Allen’s position is that the public school system should be completely eliminated and replaced with…..nothing. That we should rely on those millions of parents who have nothing to do with the child’s education today be responsible for providing their child’s education, apparently without the aid of trained teachers. Somehow, this is supposed to be an improvement.

        • Since you’re explaining my position to Roger why don’t I return the favor?

          Gahrie’s position is that parents are too stupid to see to the education of their children so if the public education system disappeared with a light popping sound parents would stand around with stupid looks on their faces not quite sure what to do. Forever.

          But Gahrie’s position is also that parents are desperately important to the education of children, so much so that it’s parental inadequacy that’s the cause of the problems of the public education system.

          See how that works Roger? Parents are too stupid to see to the education of their kids and parents are desperately important to the education of their kids.

          • “Gahrie’s position is that parents are too stupid”

            No. My position is that far too many are too irresponsible, and would only become more so if public education was scrapped. Making parents more responsible is my goal.

          • That’s so good of you. Will you be wanting streets named in your honor or will your mantle of teacherly nobility suffice to cause those mobs of irresponsible parents to involuntarily genuflect in your presence?

            You know, what’s really poignant about your comment is that it’s those parents, and only parents, who give a damn whether you’re any good at your job. Most, if not all, of the habitués of the teacher’s lounge couldn’t care less whether you’re any good as long as you don’t cause any problems for them.

            Even less the principal who wants nothing from you but no reason to pay you any attention.

            Of course at the rarefied precincts inhabited by the superintendent you’re not even an individual number. You’re just part of the headcount and if the superintendent never has cause to learn your name he will consider himself blessed.

            Pleasantly enough this argument is in the process of being settled. Parents, when able, are voting with their children and voters are casting their ballots increasingly in favor of dismantling the current system. I suspect the day’s not that far off when those trends result in a rupture with the past and the public education system will be clearly in the final stages of its existence.

  7. Allen…you have never worked in a school have you? You have no idea what teachers are really like and what motivates them.

  8. “Up until not that long ago schools would assign any handy teacher to the special ed room. ”

    If by “not that long ago” you mean the late 60s, well, sure.

    And the idea that districts have to think about doing something for poor kids given the near 50 years of Title I is something so foolish only Allanbot would throw it out as bait.

    • And your point then would be that if the law were enacted long enough ago the need to strong-arm districts to see to the needs of kids is immaterial? Sorry Cal but fifteen minutes after those laws are repealed, should that ever occur, you’d see any warm body with teaching certificate toe-tag in the special ed classrooms because what made it unimportant to deal with the needs of special ed kids then is still in operation now. There’s just law to deter, but not prevent, lazy administrators from conveniencing themselves at the cost of the kids.

      By the way, love the name-calling. If you keep it up you might be able to convince some ed school to start up a EdD program based on your accomplishments in the area.

      Heck, they might even offer you a position.

      Wouldn’t it be swell if you could get tenure at an ed school? You could pretend you’ve got something to teach and your students could pretend they’re learning from you.

      Admit it, you find the prospect exciting.

      • No, my point was you were wrong. Again. You always are.

        Odd you notice the namecalling; you’re constantly rude. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

        • So I was wrong if you ignore the fact that I was right.

          Got it.

          The reason I noticed the name-calling is that it’s evidence of frustration and immaturity. The frustration issues from your inability to substantively respond and your immaturity allows you to avoid coming to terms with the bareness of you views which is the reason for your inability to respond substantively.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            So, allen, do I have this right? When Cal does it, it’s “name-calling,” “evidence of frustration and immaturity.” When you do it, it is “mocking the deserving,” showing how superior you are.

          • I think I prefer you retelling phony parables. Shows some effort and creativity for which you get a few points but not, unfortunately, a passing grade.

            Just to drag this thread back from your preference for personalities over issues, the issue is the inherent inflexibility of the public education system.

            Perhaps you can explain why legislative mandate was required to force school districts to employ teachers with training in dealing with special education kids? Cal appears to feel that if it happened long enough ago it has no relevance and shouldn’t be discussed.

            Of course there are more recent examples like the almost uniform inability of district schools to deal with poor kids. I use the word “almost” because here and there one can find district schools that do a good job with poor kids. The properly-derided Detroit Public Schools district has Thirkell Elementary and I’m sure other districts have their sprinkling of schools that don’t suck. But they are typically rare and typically ignored where they aren’t treated like a problem.

            Roger, since Cal’s flounced off in a huff perhaps you’d care to engage the issue?

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            After I posted the parable, I realized I wasn’t as clear as I wanted to be. That middle paragraph should have read:

            One of the first things he did the next spring training was to have the team practice some basics. But it didn’t come across as “we need this to win.” It came across as “you guys need to know who’s boss.” The team did poorly all season. And the news was often about Bobby Vee. Things he’d said or done, often clever, sometimes insulting. He’d wind up saying he was misunderstood, at a few points denying what someone had recorded. The team, which seemed to have a lot of talent, was losing a lot more than it was supposed to. Players didn’t respect the manager. They weren’t listening to him. Fans were turning off. More and more they asked, “Why is this happening? Why is he acting this way?”

            By being strident and insulting, you are helping the people who want to maintain the status quo of the public education system. If Randi Weingarten knew you existed, she would be glad. You are an unwitting Moby.

          • Except that I’m not being strident. That’s an excuse to avoid the points I raise. An excuse you seem fully willing to exercise.

            As for being insulting, I’m a golden rule guy. I give as I get. You’ve chosen to forgo the sort of crude insults that typify Cal’s and Mike in Texas’ posts so you don’t get the treatment they get.

  9. Allen said: “The public education system gives the professionals who are therein employed no incentive to educate kids. No incentive to educate special ed kids and no incentive to educate poor kids. So those administrators are acting quite rationally when they ignore those differences.”

    The second part of your statement could not be further from the truth in a post-NCLB world, at least in my state and city (New York). School report cards, which largely determine school closures and turnarounds, and administrator bonuses revolve almost entirely around making progress for special ed kids, kids living in “poverty” as defined by free-lunch eligibility, and kids who are black and Hispanic. The upshot is that any school with a critical mass of these kids will effectively neglect children who are proficient.

    • Come on Tim, there’s no one here but us chickens so you don’t have to huff and puff about NCLB. We both know it’s been largely a failure in its stated purpose of making states live up to their own, home-grown standards.

      Waivers have been handed out by the truck load where schools that didn’t make AYP for a lot longer then the mandated period weren’t simply allowed to slide. Arne Duncan may talk a game that annoys the defenders of the status quo but when it comes to dropping the hammer he’s a whole lot easier to get along with.

      You are right though about how lousy public schools are at dealing with smart kids in schools filled with poor kids but that’s just making my point for me one example at a time.

      Public schools are also pretty lousy dealing with smart kids when there aren’t so many poor kids around. AP courses get diluted till they’re hardly any better then their non-AP cousins which is the inevitable direction of things until some critical volume of parental anger accumulates.

      Public schools would probably be adequate if all they had to deal with were average kids but there are no such creatures. Poor kids may, probably do, need a different approach then rich kids and special ed kids obviously require a different approach then middle class/upper class kids. But public schools, heck, all public institutions, have a tough time dealing with variability.

      The implication’s so obvious as to hardly warrant the use of the word – an inherently poor performer shouldn’t have responsibility for the task.

  10. Roger Sweeny says:

    Since this is relevant to some of the things people have been commenting about, I thought I’d post this long excerpt from Robert Weissberg’s Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. It’s a book with something for just about everyone to disagree with–and to think about.

    “Demanding more ‘choice’ is akin to insisting that Americans would eat more healthy meals only if more restaurants offered these options. (p. 206) … Especially relevant for exasperated parents wanting superior educations for their offspring, relocating for better schools–whether for academics, athletics, art, or anything else–remains a viable, popular option. … (p. 207)

    “Even if we assume that market competition powerfully pushes excellence, progress says absolutely nothing about what ‘excellence’ comprises. Academic distinction is only one of many–perhaps dozens–of traits that schools might maximize, and given what we know about public appetites for intellectual accomplishment, it is probably pretty far down the public’s wish list. A more clear-eyed guess would be that in a laissez-faire educational marketplace, the most intense competition would be in sports, country-club-like recreational facilities, lavish monthly proms, gourmet food, and ‘educational’ travel. If schools were pressed to up academic achievement, many might be tempted to just inflate grades and put everyone on the honor roll lest disgruntled ‘customers’ flee elsewhere. (p. 212)

    “… millions of students and parents surely crave a first-rate schooling but simply refuse to pay necessary, often painful costs, i.e., arduous study versus socializing, even if the formula were handed to them. To insist that more competition will eventually reduce learning costs so everyone, regardless of intellectual apathy, will ’buy’ a first-rate (and effortless) education is dangerous fantasy. Abundant choice can *never* make learning painless. Even bribery may not convert those disdaining academic achievement since the hard work entailed by learning is inescapable. (p. 213)

    “[For choosing a K-12 school, a] more appropriate parallel than [shopping for a TV] is choosing a college–parents often feel overwhelmed by colorful embellished brochures, unverifiable claims, carefully stage-managed site visits, and similar hype. Parents in the K-12 marketplace may eventually become quite savvy at discerning academic excellence amidst accompanying bragging about athletic facilities, food service, stunning architecture, fawning deans, available social services, and all other potential but fundamentally non-academic lures, but this enlightenment typically arrives only after disappointments, and wasted school years cannot always be made up. Especially for the most desperate for educational excellence (the targets of choice advocates), shopping a medieval fair for herbal cures may be a more appropriate parallel–so, caveat emptor (buyer beware).

    “It is not that some information about a specific school is unavailable, especially to sophisticated parents willing to spend hours getting it right. Today’s accountability mania plus the Internet have decidedly improved information flow …

    “Potential information acknowledged, however, ‘being a wise educational shopper’ may still challenge parents with limited education and computer skills while those flustered by statistics and educational jargon are almost doomed. … Possible language barriers for both the parents and offspring can be especially decisive for immigrants. It is not that choice is foreclosed in such circumstances. … The point is merely that exercising choice entails costs, and providing an ever-expanding cornucopia of options does not reduce decision-making burdens; it may even raise them, and ironically, those who might benefit the most from proliferating alternatives may be the most challenged at sorting through these options. (pp. 221-2)

    “*individual* decision-making skill on anything vaguely related to education … is a far cry from, say, asking supermarket shoppers to choose wisely among competing products or understand labels. It is always assumed that parents, even those befuddled by earning a living and staying out of legal trouble can choose wisely when it comes to education. Pro-choice researchers also glibly assume that first-rate education is truly desired. Needless to say, both assertions–sufficient decision-making skill and desire for academic excellence–are highly debatable.” (p. 228)

    • Relevant? Only in the sense that Mr. Weissberg echoes your beliefs although the word “relevant” hardly seems apropos. “Pandering”, perhaps?

      Yeah, that seems a bit closer to Mr. Weissberg’s intent.

      By the way Roger, I can’t help noticing that you’re every bit as reluctant as any of the other defenders of the public education system to engage the points I raise. The post just above this one, for instance.

      But your choice in reading material suggests you prefer insincere assurances that your fondly held beliefs are without blemish to a challenge.

      So you aren’t going to deal with the points I raise.

      • “So you aren’t going to deal with the points I raise.”

        I don’t because there is no point. Your “solution” is infinitely worse than the status quo. Until you come up with a better answer than anarchy, there is no point addressing your concerns.

        • The body politic disagrees with you and displays that disagreement by heading in my direction rather then yours.

          It obviously comforts you to dismiss all opinions with which you disagree as beneath consideration, and people who hold those opinions to be stupid, but that’s neither a persuasive response nor a mature response. That’s the sort of response you shout at a mirror, either metaphorical or real.

          Sadly, no amount of argument will cause you to examine your preconceptions and you will likely continue to re-fight long-lost battles for a very long time.

          • look…you want to reform public education, and I am right there with you. Want to give parents more rights and more choice? I am right there with you. Charters? sure. Vouchers? Yes. Small neighborhood schools? Amen.

            However the oidea of simply eliminating public education entirely and relying on parents to take responsibility for educating their children is simply nonsense.

          • Why? Why is it simply nonsense to discuss the idea?

            There was a time when there was no public education system here in the United States yet children, even the children of the relatively poor, were educated. At least to the limit of their parent’s resources. And that level of general education was enough to see to the founding of the nation, a rather more demanding task then periodically shuffling into voting booths to select representatives.

            Also, there are areas of the world where the failure of the public education system is so severe that parents so poor that their poverty hardly holds any meaning for Americans find the resources to have their children educated and to determine which among the many offerings meet their needs and demands. I refer you to the work of Dr. James Tooley.

            So a discussion of the end of public education system isn’t so much nonsense as it is unthinkable. For you.

            But even in your rejection of the discussion there’s the acceptance of ideas that undercut the current notion of public education and move the needle in the direction, if not to a goal, of an end to public education.

            Charters, vouchers, etc. all reduce the scope of authority of public education elected officials in favor parental authority. An end to public education is the end point of that transfer of authority although whether we’ll get there any time soon is a good question.

            In fact, I think it unlikely although parents of an earlier age would have laughed at the notion of anyone taking their authority to raise their children as the parents saw fit. Perhaps the move increasing parental authority will give rise to an increasing demand for the return of parental authority that the public education system won’t survive.

            We’ll see but I think it likelier that the Berlin Wall will fall in our lifetime.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        What point would you like me to deal with?

        • The public education system is structurally indifferent to teaching skill.


          • Stacy in NJ says:

            To a large extent, allen, I’m sympathetic to your points, but you do overstate your case.

            I’d qualify your comment above because I’m not quite sure what you intend or mean by “structurally”. So, public education is indifferent to teaching skills in a great man schools, but not all.

            PE will continue in some form as long as the middle class feels it benefits from its existence. In the leafy suburbs and bedroom communities of Jersey people are willing to pay the outrageous property taxes (the highest in the nation) because many of the schools are high performing – sending many of their graduates to first tier colleges. Now, these kids are mostly from two parent households with parents who either have degrees themselves or who work in skilled trades. These parents are not indifferent to teaching skills. Many of them can identify a skilled teacher because they are familiar with quality content themselves. Their expectations set the standard for their schools. So, if “structurally” means the institution doesn’t set the standard, then I agree with you.

  11. “There was a time when there was no public education system here in the United States yet children, even the children of the relatively poor, were educated.”

    1) People used to value education, and see it as a path to success. Today, a sizable percentage of the population sees education as selling out and “acting White”.
    2) For most of the population, education merely meant basic literacy and numeracy. (more than many inner city schools are providing today I grant)

    “And that level of general education was enough to see to the founding of the nation”

    Our revolution was very much one of the elites, and the Founding Fathers were all wealthy, well educated colonial leaders, not some imaginary common man.

    “Charters, vouchers, etc. all reduce the scope of authority of public education elected officials in favor parental authority. ”

    Exactly, although for me the key point is that it allows parents to become more responsible for, and exert more control over, their child’s education.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Public education as it currently exists satisfies 3 basic needs and will continue in something like its current form because of them:

      1. It still provides middle class and affluent children with a decent education. These types of parents know how to work the system to their advantage. Social welfare programs only exist as long as they benefit the large middle class. As soon as they begin to believe the system is taking more from them that it’s providing – it will then begin to fall apart.

      2. It is a make-work program in disadvantaged areas. When local schools are closed because of poor performance or the need for consolidation the loudest screamers are those dependent on the school for employment.

      3. It keeps the deviants off the streets until they’re ready for the prison system.

      4. It provides the appearance of social concern without actually dealing with social disintegration. It’s a cargo cult.

    • 1) People still value education. That’s why charter schools sport waiting lists.

      The reaction against the public education system embodied in the “acting white” attitude is the result of a promise that turned out to be a bitter joke. Where the promise is kept the attitude disappears.

      2) Not true.

      “Our revolution was very much one of the elites”.

      Not true either. The *founding* of the nation was very much a grassroots affair with the various compromises and issues hashed out around most dinner tables and probably every public gathering. How could it not be? Those wealthy, well-educated colonial leaders were *elected* by people who’d just come through a bloody revolution to claim that right. You think an extended pinkie finger impressed those people?

      Those wealthy, well-educated colonial leaders were kept on as short a leash as the extant technology allowed and their own reading of their constituents permitted. And those constituents made damned sure they were kept up to date on the proceedings and let those leaders know when they didn’t approve of a position that leader’d taken.

      And that all occurred before the father of the modern public education system was a twinkle in his father’s eye.

  12. We’re mainly measuring community and family failure. At this point in history, we actually know quite a lot about how families and communities succeed–but PC requires that we talk about other things instead. Like funding for schools. Ho hum.

    • And yet there are outliers that undercut the hypothesis.

      The rotting hulk of a school district, the Detroit Public Schools, has Thirkell Elementary which rather handily surpasses state averages and is in no position, like a magnet school could, to select its students. So the school can’t select its families and it sure as hell can’t select its community.

      How does your hypothesis account for such phenomena?