Mapping achievement gaps

A fourth grader works with his teacher in Union City, N.J., a low-income Hispanic district where students perform above grade level. Photo: Karsten Moran, New York Times

Large achievement gaps separate students by race and family income, concludes a Stanford study based on a data set of 200 million test scores.

Sixth graders in the most advantaged districts are more than four grade levels ahead of students in the least advantaged districts, the study found.

  • Average test scores of black students are, on average, roughly two grade levels lower than those of white students in the same district; the Hispanic-white difference is roughly one- and-a-half grade levels.
  • The size of the gaps has little or no association with average class size, a district’s per capita student spending or charter school enrollment.

White-black achievement gaps are especially large in Atlanta, Oakland,  Charleston and Washington, D.C., reports the New York Times, which created an interactive map of the results. Gaps also are large in university towns such as Berkeley and Chapel Hill, apparently because white students are likely to come from highly educated families.

Detroit has no achievement gap: Whites, blacks and Hispanics in district schools all are more than two years below grade level. Buffalo is gap-free too, for the same reason. Nobody’s learning.

“Poverty is not destiny,” said Sean Reardon, the lead researcher. In Union City, N.J. which is 95 percent Hispanic and mostly low-income, “students consistently performed about a third of a grade level above the national average on math and reading tests,” reports the New York Times.

Union City schools used to be dreadful, writes David Kirp, a Berkeley ed professor. Improvement was “slow and steady.”

Can Austin High be saved? Should it be saved?

Austin High School on Chicago’s West Side is fighting to survive, writes Kate N. Grossman in The Atlantic. Like dozens of low-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods, Austin has lost students to charters, magnets — and district schools in safer neighborhoods. Loyalists want to turn Austin back into a neighborhood school. Can Austin High be saved? Should it be saved?

“With 391 students, including just 57 freshmen across three academies in a building meant for nearly 1,700, Austin is one of 35 Chicago public high schools that are well under half full,” Grossman writes.  “Ten schools aren’t even a quarter full.” Most are in low-income black neighborhoods that are losing population.

Three-fourths of Chicago’s high schoolers chose not to attend their neighborhood school this year. That leaves the city’s “most challenging and low-achieving students” in half-empty schools. With funding tied to enrollment, there’s no money to maintain programs and staff.

Austin was closed in 2004 for “weak performance and chaos,” and reopened in 2006 as three small academies. Achievement remained low. Enrollment fell steeply. A recruitment drive has fizzled.

At Austin, only four families came to a well-planned open house in March, despite sending 430 invitations . . .

. . . just 8 percent of 712 eighth graders in Austin’s attendance boundary chose Austin in 2014.

Citywide, 31 percent of high school students who rejected their neighborhood school chose charters; the rest picked a district-run school.

Detroit parents will do almost anything to send their children to better schools, reports Detroit Chalkboard. Parents can choose a charter, magnet or suburban schools, but they must provide their own transportation.

Monique Johnson leaves home just after 6 a.m. with her son Shownn, 13, an eighth-grader. They “catch a ride to a bus stop eight blocks from their home, avoiding closer stops that are too dangerous. Their first bus comes at 6:20.

Shownn is exhausted at that hour and sometimes sleeps on his mother’s shoulder during the 25- to 40-minute ride along Schoolcraft Road toward Woodward Avenue. The bus drops the pair at the corner of Woodward and Manchester in Highland Park. Mother and son typically wait 20 minutes for their next bus, the No. 53, while peering warily through the dim light cast by the Walgreens across the street.

. . . Mother and son typically arrive at University Prep Science & Math Middle School, a well regarded charter school in the Michigan Science Center, around 7:30 a.m. and Johnson waits with her son until his classes begin at 7:50.

She gets at home about 9:30. “That’s about three and a half hours before she has to leave again on another four buses to return to Shownn’s school and bring him home.”

I guess she doesn’t think it’s safe for her 13-year-old son to make the journey by himself.

Detroit’s disintegrating schools

Crumbling, Destitute Schools Threaten Detroit’s Recovery, headlines the New York Times.

Two words: New Orleans.

Yes, Detroit’s district-run public schools are moldy, rat-infested — and failing academically. But they’re not the only alternative.

Teachers called a sick-out this week, shutting down most of the district’s schools.

“We have rodents out in the middle of the day,” Kathy Aaron, a teacher of 18 years, told the Times. “Like they’re coming to class.”

The gymnasium floor at Charles L. Spain school is buckled and partially ripped out. Credit: Salwan Georges, New York Times

The gymnasium floor at a Detroit school is buckled and partially ripped out. Credit: Salwan Georges, New York Times

“Many worry that the state of the schools will hamper Detroit’s recovery from bankruptcy,” according to the Times.

The city is beginning to rebuild, said Mary Sheffield, a City Council member. “We have businesses and restaurants and arenas, but our schools are falling apart and our children are uneducated. There is no Detroit without good schools.”

But what if there are good schools — outside the district’s control? Fifty-five percent of school-age children in Detroit attend charter schools and others go to district schools in nearby suburbs. Detroit Public Schools enrollment has fallen by more than two-thirds in 15 years.

New Orleans.

Detroit Public Schools woo middle-class families

Detroit Public Schools has closed more than 80 schools due to severe drops in enrollment. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Detroit Public Schools has closed more than 80 schools due to severe drops in enrollment. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Detroit Public Schools is trying to “attract middle-class families to one of the worst school systems in the country,” writes Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Report. The district is competing with charter, suburban and private schools — and the tendency of middle-class parents to move when their oldest child reaches school age.

Dara Hill, a college professor and mother of a four-year-old, diligently scribbled notes as the principal of Detroit’s Nichols Elementary-Middle School led her and several of her neighbors on a tour of the school. A room for special education students was brimming with stuffed animals, but the hallways were sparsely decorated. Work displayed in the kindergarten classroom was charming and developmentally appropriate. Why were there six students sitting to the side during gym class?

Nichols . . . typically performs at or slightly above average on state tests. It’s also a five-minute walk from Hill’s home . . .

An education professor, Hill joined a parent group called the Best Classroom Project. Parents, mostly middle class, share information and coordinate school visits.

School officials hope to use the Project to “reach the city’s small middle class as a means of ultimately growing a larger one,” writes Butrymowicz. In the district’s downtown offices, a “war room” is devoted to strategizing on how to raise enrollment.

On one wall, a Sun Tzu quote a translation of “The Art of War” hangs next to a poster someone has titled, “THE QUESTION: How shall DPS compete and win the marketplace?” The answer, posted next to it, is “Empowered DPS employee’s operating via synchronized, lean agile and leveraged work efforts.”

But it’s not all corporate doublespeak.

Officials gathered community volunteers to walk with children to school and are working with the city’s lighting authority to get broken streetlights near schools replaced first. They’ve picked 20 schools to serve as community hubs. They’re open 12 hours a day and filled with resources and classes for parents. Music or art is now taught at every elementary school — although many schools can’t afford to to offer both.

They’ve also launched new academic programs, like the three-year-old Benjamin Carson High School of Medicine and Technology. Many students there said they returned to the district from charter schools because they were attracted by Carson’s small size and focus on science. They praised the school and its academics, but in the spring, in the school’s first year of state testing, only 9 percent of 11th-graders passed the state math test and just 1 percent did in science. About 40 percent were proficient in reading and writing.

“A handful of parents from the Best Classroom Project opted to send their children to high-performing DPS schools this fall, but Hill’s leading contender is a private school,” writes Butrymowicz.

Bad choices in Detroit

Detroit parents have lots of school choices — most of them bad, conclude Center on Reinventing Education researchers in Education Next.

Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition of philanthropic, education, and community leaders, gave only 16 percent of the city’s public schools (district or charter) a C+ or better in 2014, based on academic status, progress, and school climate measures. Some neighborhoods have no schools with a passing grade.
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Half of charters are no better than DPS schools and the rest are only slightly better, the report concludes.

There may be 20,000 to 30,000 more seats than students in traditional and charter schools, so competition for students is fierce.

But parents “struggle to navigate the city’s complex education marketplace and find quality options for their children,” researchers write.

Parents “cite safety issues, lack of transportation, and lack of information as serious barriers to finding a good school.”

Detroit Public Schools (DPS) lost two-thirds of its enrollment between 2005 and 2012. The city’s population has declined and remaining families are turning to charters and schools in neighboring suburbs.

“No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school,” the researchers write.

“It’s a free-for-all,” one observer said. “We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control…. Detroit hasn’t set the conditions to make school choice work for families and kids.”

In 2013, 4 percent of Detroit’s 4th graders were proficient in math and 7 percent in reading on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. It makes cities like Chicago and Cleveland look good.

More time, more dropouts

Fifteen Detroit schools lengthened the school day by 24 minutes and the year by 35 days, writes Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Report. The state took over the failing schools in 2012.

Southeastern High School of Technology and Law lost 400 students — half its enrollment — in the last two years. About half the missing students transferred, estimates Jeff Maxwell, who recently resigned as principal. The other half dropped out.

“A year-round school with a sound program is a great idea,” said Chris Savage, community activist and author of the Eclectablog. “They need to get their program in order.”

The state’s Education Achievement Authority is trying new approaches.

Grade levels were dropped as teachers were encouraged to divide students strategically and to let them collaborate in small groups. All students use an online curriculum to go through lessons at their own pace.

. . . Computer usage starts with an hour a day in kindergarten, but high schoolers at Southeastern might spend most of the day on netbooks. This means that high school teachers are responsible for monitoring students’ progress and meeting with them one-on-one, rather doing whole-class lectures.

In a daily advising session devoted to social and emotional learning, students discuss topics such as “bullying, fighting and skin color,” writes Butrymowicz.


Students at Southeastern High School of Technology and Law in Detroit discuss their self-esteem during the daily advisory period. The school is using its expanded learning time to address social and emotional issues through group discussions. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Students at Detroit’s Southeastern High discuss their self-esteem during the daily advisory period. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

In the 2012-13 school year, the Education Achievement Authority claimed that 64 percent of students achieved at least a year’s worth of growth in reading and 68 percent did so in math on internal assessments.

But the students’ state standardized test scores told a different story, concluded Thomas Pedroni, an associate professor at Wayne State. He found that 58.5 percent of students showed no reading progress from 2012 to 2013, and 78.3 percent made no gains in math. More than four in five students who scored proficient in math in 2012 did worse in 2013.

Malik Canty, 17, stuck with Southeastern.  He told Butrymowicz he’d read only one book on his own, Percy Jackson and the Titans Curse, in his first 12 years of public school. By graduation this month, he’ll be up to two.

He plans to go on to community college.  Eventually, he’d like to study medicine at the University of Michigan.

Who destroyed Detroit?

Who destroyed Detroit? asks Deborah Meier, calling it a “bombed-out shell of a city.”

“It was first and foremost the fault of some quite well-educated, high test-scorers in the management of the auto industry and in high places in Washington D.C.,” she concludes on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

Don’t blame “corporate reform,” responds Robert Pondiscio.

There is an idea at loose in overheated corners of the edusphere, which I pray you do not share, which sees a manufactured “shock doctrine” conspiracy to drive American education onto the rocks in order to seize control and make a buck.  It’s a lovely, comforting illusion, isn’t it?  We are capable, wise, and all would be well if the malefactors of great wealth were not aligned against us.  That is far easier to accept than our own shortcomings, low expectations, failed notions about schooling, and stubborn refusal to adapt.  Perhaps we were as complacent about our schools as Detroit’s auto execs were about their factories.

Test scores are “not a definitive measure of ‘intellectual prowess’,” writes Meier. Pondiscio agrees, but asks “what of it?”

Testing did not destroy schooling. It revealed the rot and complacency within too many schools, especially those serving our poorest children, like Detroit’s.

We adapt, we grow, or else we stagnate and decay. The factories that employed generations in Detroit stand empty.  One hundred years ago, they didn’t stand at all. A generation hence, maybe two, something else will stand in their place.  But not if we pretend nothing’s wrong, Deb.  Not if we choose not to run the race.

Pittsburgh was the Detroit of the late ’70s when the steel industry collapsed, writes Pondiscio.  “Today it’s a lovely and livable city, with a diversified economy built on education, technology, and finance.” Pittsburgh adapted.

Revving up for Detroit’s rebound

Detroit is losing jobs and people. The city is bankrupt. Hopes for an economic rebound center on job training for the city’s low-skilled workforce. Community colleges are focusing on manufacturing, information technology and health data management.

Detroit schools compete for students

Detroit schools — district-run, charter and suburban — are competing for a “dwindling poool of students,” reports Bloomberg News.  “The prize is the $7,200 in state funding that follows each student in the bankrupt city.”

Detroit Public Schools has turned a closet into a “war room” for attracting students after losing about two-thirds of its enrollment during the past decade. Charters advertise smaller classes and tablet computers or gift cards to woo children. A state authority that took over low-performing schools is fishing for pupils, as are suburbs whose enrollment is declining, too.

Detroit Public Schools enrolled 80 percent of the city’s children a decade ago. Now only 42 percent attend district schools, which post abysmally low test scores and a high dropout rate. Another 42 percent go to charters, 9 percent attend schools in nearby suburbs and 7 percent are enrolled at schools run by a state agency created to take over low-performing schools.

Middle-class parents are fleeing Detroit:  The city lost 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010, while the number of children ages 5 to 9 dropped by 47 percent.

Charters are advertising on radio and television. They attracted Chanel Kitchen, 16. She left a city high school last year where there were 42 children in a Spanish class for a charter with about 14.

Detroit Public Schools, which has closed more than half its buildings, is advertising its new, improved offerings.

That includes music and arts offerings and schools combined with social-service centers, such as at Marcus Garvey Academy on the east side. Besides instruction for elementary students, it offers a health clinic, pool, food bank and a parent resource office with computers and classes such as one last week on household poisons.

“You’ve got one-stop shopping,” said Principal James Hearn.

The competition for market share is “disgusting,” said Sharlonda Buckman, chief executive of the Detroit Parent Network, a nonprofit offering development programs. Nobody is managing the education market, she complained.

The Detroit Future City recovery plan calls for “thriving schools as anchors for neighborhoods,” reports Bloomberg. “Hypercompetition” for children is no help, said Dan Varner, chief executive of Excellent Schools Detroit, a group of education, government, community and philanthropic leaders. He wants the state to regulate the education market.

Competition is forcing schools to offer what parents and students want. Advertising helped Chanel Kitchen find a school with small classes. Would less competition create “thriving” neighborhood schools?

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.”