OK

During her tenure as Secretary of Education (2005-2009), Margaret Spellings announced No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was proving to be a success based on a 7 point gain in NAEP reading scores from 1999-2005. The data evidence referenced by Spellings was factual as framed, but when Gerald Bracey and Stephen Krashen dug beneath that broad claim, Spellings' claim fell apart since the gain occurred entirely between 1999-2002, before any implementation of NCLB had occurred.

Lessons embedded in the false claims based on factual data by Spellings include the need to be skeptical about media and political analyses of data, the danger of assigning causation to any data without careful analysis, and the essentially distorting effect of large data points that blur the nuance of more detailed data.

While many educators and scholars have spent a great deal of time and effort to confront the enormous amount of misleading negative claims about education, little attention has been paid to the dangers of praising school success.

Successful Schools!: Proceed with Caution

Historically, reaching well back into the nineteenth century, public schools have been maligned more often than praised, and in the past decade, most school success stories have either been claims of "miracle" schools or advocacy for high-flying charter schools.

"Miracle" schools almost always are unmasked once the claims are closely analyzed—but claims of "miracle" remain robust with the public. Charter schools also appear one type of schooling politicians, the media, and the public embrace uncritically when portrayed as successful.

Once compared to schools with similar populations of students, however, claims of charter schools outperforming public schools in South Carolina proved inaccurate. As well, Matthew DiCarlo has detailed that data on charter schools show "there is nothing about 'charterness' that leads to strong results."

One key intersection of misguided claims of school success involves schools serving high-needs populations of students—children living in poverty, English language learners, and special needs students. One claim of a high-needs school succeeding immediately proves that all high-needs schools could succeed, and the implications surrounding that claim are often linked to high expectations by the faculty and a simple formula of willing success against the odds.

Yet, when Harris examined closely the data on "high-flying" schools—high poverty schools with strong academic achievement—only 1.1% of high-needs schools actually excel, revealing that even when success occurs, that success is an outlier and thus unlikely a bar against which other schools can or should be evaluated.

While praising "high-flying" public schools is rare, the Chair of SC's Education Oversight Committee, Neil Robinson, has identified the Darlington (SC) County School District as "pro[of] that success is possible amid challenging circumstances."

Robinson's claim rests on Darlington having an Excellent rating among districts in SC. Darlington's rating when compared to districts like Darlington shows that it is among only 4 of 22 districts achieving the top rating. Further, about Darlington's success Robinson notes:

"What’s the key to Darlington’s success? Superintendent Rainey Knight doesn’t cite a particular program or method for the success of the students and schools. Instead, she believes, their success starts with a belief that all children can learn at high levels....

"Holding high expectations is another important part of the district’s success. Knight meets quarterly with each principal. She sets achievable goals with each principal, and they develop strategies to reach those goals, which are closely monitored....

"Appreciating teachers, who Knight believes are the single biggest factor in the success of a child, is very important in Darlington County schools. Darlington pays teachers more than any other school district in the Pee Dee....

"Finally, Knight recognizes how important it is to have supportive partners with businesses and within the community. Dental and counseling services are provided when needed. Nearby Sonoco has provided a grant to implement the Comer Model in four schools. The model teaches skills that some children from high-poverty homes do not arrive at school with — things like how to deal with conflict and recognize social cues."

On balance, Robinson's praise rests on accurate data and reveals a relatively complex picture of what leads to the success he identifies. Yet, this praise and the data supporting the praise require a great deal of caution.

First, the district rating of Excellent includes 22 separate schools, most of which have relatively high Poverty Indices. But, once those separate schools are examined in the context of schools like those individual schools, a different picture emerges, one in which Darlington County schools are essentially typical, not excellent—15 of the 22 schools receive Absolute ratings similar to most schools like them:

District
School
Poverty Index
Absolute Rating Comparison to “Schools with Students Like Our”
DARLINGTON 01
DISTRICT TOTAL
81.82
ABOVE Typical
Excellent 4/22
DARLINGTON 01
HARTSVILLE MIDDLE
75.16
Typical
Average 35/63
DARLINGTON 01
HARTSVILLE HIGH
69.8
ABOVE Typical
Excellent 13/45
DARLINGTON 01
LAMAR HIGH
86.69
ABOVE Typical
Excellent 3/30
DARLINGTON 01
SPAULDING MIDDLE
90.24
Typical
Average 39/65
DARLINGTON 01
BROCKINGTON ELEMENTARY
85.39
ABOVE Typical
Good 30/139
DARLINGTON 01
CAIN ELEMENTARY
85.82
Typical
Excellent 13/13
DARLINGTON 01
CAROLINA ELEMENTARY
56.23
Typical
Excellent 34/46
DARLINGTON 01
LAMAR ELEMENTARY
91.4
Typical
Excellent 11/11
DARLINGTON 01
NORTH HARTSVILLE ELEMENTARY
70.41
Typical
Excellent 44/89
DARLINGTON 01
PATE ELEMENTARY
92.13
Typical
Excellent 11/11
DARLINGTON 01
ROSENWALD ELEMENTARY/MIDDLE
100
Typical
Average 73/146
DARLINGTON 01
SPAULDING ELEMENTARY
89.15
Typical
Average 89/131
DARLINGTON 01
BRUNSON-DARGAN ELEMENTARY
96.21
Typical
Average 115/201
DARLINGTON 01
ST JOHN'S ELEMENTARY
84.84
ABOVE Typical
Good 22/131
DARLINGTON 01
THORNWELL SCHOOL FOR THE ARTS
97.33
Typical
Average 83/161
DARLINGTON 01
WEST HARTSVILLE ELEMENTARY
92.99
Typical
Average 117/202
DARLINGTON 01
WASHINGTON STREET ELEMENTARY
91.94
ABOVE Typical
Good 13/156
DARLINGTON 01
DARLINGTON HIGH
86.18
ABOVE Typical
Excellent 4/27
DARLINGTON 01
DARLINGTON MIDDLE
87.55
Typical
Average 39/52
DARLINGTON 01
SOUTHSIDE EARLY CHILDHOOD CENTER
86.4
Typical
Excellent 11/11
DARLINGTON 01
MAYO HIGH SCHOOL FORMATH  SCIEN
46.02
Typical
Excellent 23/29
DARLINGTON 01
CHOICES
92.73
BELOW Typical
At-Risk 2/58


Next, to state that Darlington County is uniquely elite—and that success is built primarily on high expectations—and then to use that combination to argue that any high-needs school can do the same doesn't honor properly Darlington's genuine success or the hard work occurring at many schools without the attention but with similar results.

While this discussion is not suggesting no schools succeed, and not a call to stop praising schools, a careful analysis of a misleading claim shows that media, political leaders, and the public should look at all school success stories with more than a grain of skepticism. Some cautions include:

• If it is too good to be true, it likely isn't true. Discount claims of "miracle," especially if those claims imply that an outlier is a valid standard for normal.

• Temper praise of school success that suggests this school cares more and tries harder than other similar schools. To argue that "we care more and try harder" is a harsh judgment of other schools and teachers; in fact, something this judgmental requires a level of evidence and analysis that virtually no data provide. Beyond the technical problem with showing that a "no excuses" model is the cause of success, this is simply a hateful way to praise, demeaning the exact school receiving the praise.

• Avoid large data points as proof. Just as the above analysis shows, the larger rating of an entire district misrepresents a more detailed look at each school.

• Beware causational claims and beware comparisons that do not prove that such comparisons are apples-to-apples.

SC sits in the bottom quartile of poverty in the U.S. and has suffered an unfair history of negative evaluations of schools based on low tests scores more closely aligned with that poverty than with school or teacher quality. As well, districts such as Darlington represent an unaddressed burdened on the state, the notorious Corridor of Shame made famous by a law suit and documentary of that name.

In SC and across the nation, high-needs schools are doing wonderful things while also suffering under burdens that are being ignored and discounted by the media and political leadership.

Misguided and overly simplistic praise or criticism of schools benefits no one and likely will never serve to inspire the action that currently is absent in education reform.

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Fri Dec 28, 2012 at 09:54 AM PST.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Education Alternatives.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.