First Person

Opinion: Board members, middle schools and truth

Alexander Ooms is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, West Denver Preparatory Charter Schools and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children.

Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida, two sitting members of Denver’s board of education, published this Op-Ed last Friday.  Its genesis, they tell us, is in their conversations with Denver parents.  “We are listening,” they write, “and are calling for the truth about how neighborhood schools perform.” 

The specific call follows a few paragraphs later:

But the data are clear that neighborhood middle schools are exceeding the growth expectations of the Denver Plan. These schools are actually performing better than the district average, including all the newer schools.”

Skinner Middle School

Well, no.  Pretty to think so. But not true. Traditional middle schools in Denver are lagging the district average for academic growth, not leading it.  And more often than not, their students graduate 8th grade lacking the basic skills necessary to be successful in high school and beyond.

We are now over five years into the Denver Plan and a serious civic conversation about public education. So perhaps we might raise the bar just a little: It should not be okay for elected school board members to selectively choose and distort performance data, and then use it as a basis to recommend where parents should send their children to school. And that is exactly what these board members are doing.

A deceptive bouquet

Let’s look, for a moment, at the edifice of reason on which the authors build the claim that traditional middle schools “are actually performing better than the district average.” The evidence, we are told, rests on some impressive data on the academic growth of students in traditional middle schools:

  •  Hill Middle School in central Denver posted a whopping 38-point gain in eighth-grade reading.
  •  Grant Middle School in southeast Denver experienced a 10-point jump in sixth-grade reading.
  •  Henry World School in southwest Denver posted a 9-point gain in seventh-grade reading.
  •  Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver posted a staggering 23- point increase in sixth-grade writing.

These are terrific results.  But there are several problems, of which we need chose only the most obvious: They cite exactly four examples. Four data points — each from a single grade, in a single subject, in a single unspecified year and from a different school.  Four data points, each plucked delicately as a flower, bundled exquisitely together, and presented as a shimmering bouquet of truth.

But the Denver Plan was adopted back in 2005.  In the past three years alone, these four schools each have three subject scores per year in each of three grades.  That makes a total of 108 individual scores  — 108 flowers growing in a field, from which the authors selected a total of, um, four (or 3.7  percent).

Now, choosing four out of over 100 of anything means one is either highly sophisticated, or really selective.  So when the authors say that traditional middle schools “are actually performing better than the district average,” might it be that their delicate arrangement of four data points is not a representative sample of the truth for which they are calling?

Shocking suggestion — but there is a simple way to check academic growth through CDE’s Colorado Growth Model, available at Schoolview.  And at the end of this piece is a chart with the median growth percentile score, for each grade, for the past three years, at the four middle schools the authors cite. This chart comprises all 108 data points from the past three years, which are then each compared to their respective district average.  108 flowers in a field – but instead of choosing which selective few to carefully pluck from obscurity and arrange into a centerpiece under the spotlight, let’s go ahead and cultivate the entire bunch.

Cultivating the entire field

How did these schools compare when one looks at their whole crop of 108 growth scores (which include the four chosen so carefully)?

-> Over the past three years, these four schools performed better than the district average for growth just 42% of the time (45 scores out of the 108);

-> These four schools failed to surpass the DPS average for growth in any single year (47% of the time in 2011, 36% in 2010, and 42% in 2009);

-> These four schools failed to surpass the DPS average for growth in eight of the nine measured subject areas over three years.

These are growth scores: the proficiency scores are even worse.  Across Denver’s traditional middle schools in 2011, only one in every three children left 8th grade with basic proficiency in at least a single subject.

Now, don’t misunderstand, there are some good things happening at several of these schools: Skinner is coming off a terrific year where they had growth percentiles above 50 in all subjects – an achievement for which they have not received nearly the credit they deserve.  Hill is remarkably solid and, by itself, outperformed the District. There are groups of students with whom these schools are doing fairly well, and some remarkably well.

But these are exceptions, not rules.  The authors also chose one of the only two possible (out of 27) data points where Henry outperformed the district in growth. Selective florists, these board members.

Data, upside down

There is a small but consistent rising tide of academic improvement in Denver, and traditional middle schools are getting better.  But the schools these authors selected are lagging this tide, not leading it.  And true to form, the choice of these specific four schools was selective as well — for there is a separate unmentioned group of four other traditional middle schools. When all eight are ranked by their 2011 average growth score, the authors selected schools finishing 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 7th (out of 8) .  The schools they ignored ranked 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 8th (out of 8).*  Very selective florists.

Selectivity such as this is okay when arranging bouquets – but it is specifically not okay when making decisions on educational options for children.  These two members of the board of education are telling parents that if they choose any of Denver’s traditional middle schools, their kids will get a quality education.  But that is just not true – there is tremendous variation in traditional middle schools (as in all schools), and more often than not, these schools are doing less well than their peers. But no matter:

“Tell us to start making well-supported neighborhood schools the key to real school reform.”

If traditional neighborhood schools are key to our future, surely the students graduating from them are equipped to face the demands of a college preparatory high school, and eventually the modern workforce?

Again, no.  Let’s examine 8th grade average proficiency for 2011 at the four schools the authors selected.  At Hill, it is 52% – there is only a one in two chance that a student leaves the school with basic skills in just one of reading, writing, or math. And that is the high water mark.  At Grant, it’s 44%.  At Skinner, 36%. At Henry, 35%.

And guess what?  Those are the four traditional middle schools doing the best.

At the other four traditional middle schools, average proficiency in 8th grade is 33%, 25%, 25%, and 23%.  In 2011, 8th grade average proficiency across all eight traditional middle schools is just 34% — or about one in every three students. Does that sort of academic record really make traditional schools “the key to real school reform“?

The bar for responsible behavior from the governors of our school system needs to be higher, for this is not okay.  It is not okay for board members to tell parents that their traditional neighborhood middle schools are the “key to reform” when their students have less academic growth than the DPS average and only one of every three graduating 8th graders has basic skills. It is not okay to selectively choose four statistics and claim some providence of truth.

And it is expressly not okay to tell parents that these schools are the best we can do for their kids. Read the claim again:

“But the data are clear that neighborhood middle schools are exceeding the growth expectations of the Denver Plan. These schools are actually performing better than the district average, including all the newer schools.” [my emphasis]

The first part of this claim deserved analysis to see if it was true or not (it wasn’t).  The second part, that traditional neighborhood schools are “performing better than […] all the newer schools” is so preposterously wrong that no amount of selective manure can make it flower.

In 2011, two new middle schools that began in the past three years ranked first and ninth respectively for academic growth — not just in DPS, not solely among middle schools, but out of the sum total of the roughly 1,780 K-12 public schools in Colorado. Somehow in their call for truth, the two best middle schools for academic growth in Denver slipped past their listening ears (as did others).  There is no hearing aid that can cure that sort of intentional deafness.  And there is also no reason parents in traditional middle schools should not be told of these options and the differences in academic growth so they can decide for themselves which schools their kids should attend.

Why make such demonstrably false claims?

What should puzzle everyone reading this is: Why? Why make such absurd claims for traditional neighborhood schools — claims that can be debunked in less time than it took the Rockies to lose another game? Why segregate one group — traditional neighborhood middle schools — and make patently false claims of superiority?

Well, it’s election season, and the Op-Ed provided both mimicry and political cover for any candidates with whom these existing Board members share ideology. Election season means everyone digs in and guards their ideological turf.  Election season is ultimately about the votes of adults, not the academic success of kids.

And that’s the unfortunate point – this sort of perverse logic is what one gets when ideology eclipses truth: selective bouquets of carefully arranged data points, talking points, and pointless rhetoric. Four data points picked from a field of 108 and presented as definitive evidence.  Board members who wrongly accuse the administration of lying; who leak information to the press to damage their colleagues; who resort to legal shenanigans; who fail to understand, disclose, or manage finances.  All of this may be part and parcel of the viciousness of local educational politics, but at the point where board members are telling parents that schools are doing better than average when data shows the exact opposite, and are simultaneously silent about new options that are among the best in the state, well, it’s time to stop.

For this slavish devotion to ideology – the insistence that school type is what matters — goes against an argument that has been made over and over again on these and other pages, and which is critical to making any lasting improvements to public education: no one type of school guarantees success.  Most parents understand this intuitively — there are some excellent traditional schools, charter schools, and innovation schools.  There are some pretty lousy traditional schools, charter schools, and innovation schools.  Parents are different, and kids are different, and no single type of school has a priority claim over all others.

Denver’s board members should focus first on school quality, regardless of type, and they should not be selectively distorting data to make any group of schools look better than they really are.  For the truth the data tells us is that, particularly in middle school, we need the best of all types of schools so that we may no longer have the worst of any.


*Note: The eight traditional middle schools that compose this data are Grant, Henry, Hill, Kepner, Merrill, Noel, Skinner and Smiley.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.