Schools that beat the odds.

by Harry on December 9, 2009

For various reasons I’ve been thinking a lot about schools that beat the odds lately (schools with high need student populations but which get high achievement out of them). My inclination has been to agree with people who think that if we could figure out which schools do beat the odds we might learn something useful from them (the best argument against this was recently put to me by an expert on whole school reform who said that finding out what naturally occurring schools that beat the odds do would not tell us anything about what policymakers could actually make schools do, which is the useful thing we are trying to learn). But are there, in fact, any schools that beat the odds, and if so do we know which ones they are?

It seems that the answer to the second question really is no.

Let’s start with a brief summary of Richard Rothstein’s rather devastating critique, in Class And Schools, of the “schools that beat the odds” gambit.

Rothstein is responding to three lists of schools that beat the odds—the Heritage Foundation’s list of “No Excuses” schools (taken from No Excuses : Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools), the Education Trust’s list of “High Flying” schools and the so-called 90-90-90 schools. His argument against the evidence from these schools has three basic components:

i) In every case of a school that is said to beat the odds, there’s something demonstrably different about the children in these schools, therefore there is no evidence that they are beating the odds. Almost all practice some form of selection. Very few practice what might be called cherry –picking (though some do); but many of them avoid enrolling the students most likely to perform very badly indeed and most likely to consume high levels disciplinary attention. The KIPP schools, for example, in requiring parents to opt in and to sign a contract – and then in enforcing the contract by expelling students who display major behavioural problems – exclude the most difficult students who are, therefore, concentrated into other schools. The Pentagon schools exclude the most disadvantaged students (whose parents cannot gain admission to the military) and enjoy the benefits of a social-democratic style welfare state by virtue of their parents military service. (An anecdote: the Superintendent of a large urban district recently told me the cost of the most expensive student in that district: $350k per annum, which is paid by the district to a correctional facility in another state, in response to a court order. These kinds of costs are not shared by charter schools).

ii)In some cases, there may be something remarkable about the schools, but investigation of the details makes for skepticism that the desirable features can be scaled up. These schools rely heavily on a limited supply of young teachers without families (again, the KIPP schools appear to do this) and have found exceptional principals. One of the striking flaws of Jay Mathews account of David Levin’s and Michael Feinberg’s achievement in creating the KIPP franchise, Work Hard. Be Nice., is his failure to consider the possibility that these two young men whom he seems to be so struck with might have a similarly magnetic effect on high quality teachers who may thereby concentrate in particular schools, producing remarkable effects at a cost to other schools where they would otherwise be located.

iii)Some of the schools just aren’t producing high-achievement anyway in a systematic way. Rothstein reports from his systematic examination of the Education Trust’s 1,320 schools, at least half of whose students were both poor and minority, and whose test scores in math and reading were in the top third of their states that “only a third of the high-flying schools had high scores in both reading and math. Only a 10th were high in reading and math in more than one grade. Only 3% were high in reading and math in at least two grades for two years running. Less than half of one percent of these high poverty and high minority schools were truly high flying, scoring well consistently”. [my italics]

It gets worse, thanks to my colleague Doug Harris, in his paper, “High flying schools, student disadvantage, and the logic of NCLB. Using the School-Level Achievement Database and the Education Trust’s definition of high-flying schools (high-performance in either reading or math in the grade and year selected by ET for analysis), Harris has estimated how many schools remain high flying over time, and what the characteristics of those schools are. Using a sample of 18,365 schools he finds that when the definition of high performing is changed to require consistency over time fully 93% of schools identified as high-performing for a year drop out of the category. And whereas low poverty schools are only 3 times more likely to be high performing than high poverty schools on the single-year definition, they are 22 times more likely to be high-performing on the definition that requires consistency over time. Using data on schools with high minority populations he finds that, on the more demanding definition, the “likelihood that a low-poverty-low-minority school is high-performing is 89 times greater than for a high-poverty-high-minority school”.

What’s the upshot? It is not that there are no schools that beat the odds; rather it is i) that very few schools do beat the odds, few enough for us to wonder whether there is very much to learn from them, ii) that we don’t have any reason to think that the schools identified as beating the odds are actually doing so and iii) that we haven’t identified whatever schools are, actually, beating the odds.

{ 61 comments }

1

christian h. 12.09.09 at 1:30 am

Also, statistics. It’s a property of being “odds” that they will be beaten sometimes, not necessarily through any inherent virtue but simply by accident.

2

Nick 12.09.09 at 1:48 am

I think point ii comes close to committing something like a lump of good teacher fallacy. More good teachers in some schools may mean they suck up some talent. But at the margins good leadership in schools probably encourages more good teachers to stay and more potential good teachers to enter the sector. You certainly can’t assume a zero-sum outcome.

3

Xanthippas 12.09.09 at 1:58 am

I think the Harlem Children’s Zone might be an example of one of those schools that beats the odds and from which we can learn lessons that can be applied in other schools (the link is to my own blog, but that post provides several different links about the program.) I’m not educational expert, but it does seem like a program that could possibly be replicated elsewhere with success.

4

Mario Diana 12.09.09 at 2:03 am

An anecdote: the Superintendent of a large urban district recently told me the cost of the most expensive student in that district: $350k per annum, which is paid by the district to a correctional facility in another state, in response to a court order. These kinds of costs are not shared by charter schools.

Should these kinds of costs be shared by charter schools? Should there even be these kinds of costs in the first place?

Talk about opportunity costs! I would guess that there are a good many more deserving students — and by more deserving I mean half-motivated and only a little more than half-witted — that could benefit from that money applied to their education.

I’m sorry, but there are some students that we’re just not going to be able to “save.” It’s a crime to deprive those who might have a chance.

5

Consumatopia 12.09.09 at 2:05 am

Is there really nothing systemic we can learn from i? Must we allow the worst behaving students to drag down the rest of a disadvantaged school?

6

Harry 12.09.09 at 2:43 am

Its not that the costs ought to be shared by charter schools, just that when comparing schools in terms of cost-effectiveness we should take into account those costs over which the public schools have no control.

Nobody is saying (not me, not Rothstein, not Harris) that we should allow the worst behaving students drag down the rest of a disadvantaged school. Just that when we are trying to figure out whether a school is high performing we need to take into account which students are actually in the school and which are not. Speaking entirely for myself, I think it may be fine to have schools which exclude the most difficult to teach, but I don’t know for sure because I don’t know whether they systematically do better for the students than other schools (and pretending there is no selection going on makes it harder to evaluate them properly).

I’ll write about the Harlem Children’s Zone much later. The DofE is currently accepting bids from all over the country from community based organisations for funds to develop proposals to replicate HCZ type programs, and will announce a much larger fund for CBOs to make those proposals to. SO the administration certainly thinks that it is worth trying to replicate the HCZ. I’m inclined to agree, but the only known serious academic study of it makes it seem that it is mainly extra time in school that benefits the kids (but it seems to benefit them a fair bit, in the short term, which is all we know about).

7

vivian 12.09.09 at 2:53 am

consumatopia: only if you believe in public education and/or care about the kids.

Harry: How narrow are the metrics? Do we know the same little things for all the schools, so that while none of them are truly high-fliers, we can tell the more-consistent-on-individual-measures schools from the rest of the pack?

8

Doctor Science 12.09.09 at 3:37 am

My gut reaction is with christian h.: maybe “schools that beat the odds” are just statistical variation around the expected performance for their social/economic situation. Add in that performance in adjacent years is correlated — because it’s largely the same students and teachers — and would you see a pattern any different than you do? That is, is there evidence against the null hypothesis? I bet performance measures in high-income schools are less variable than in low-income schools, too, because they have less turnover in student & teacher populations. The military is high-turnover, of course, but it’s *structured* — it’s not the frantic scramble from place to place that a lot of poor people experience.

9

North 12.09.09 at 3:44 am

Harry, one thing to consider about HCZ is that they do quite a bit of work to get parents invested. You can, in theory, get more time in schools with parent investment, both via reduced absenteeism and via parental willingness to let students out of home responsibilities for after-school classes/sports/whatever. Even if HCZ is getting its results by increasing school time, they’re able to make that happen – not every school is.

Mario, I think people very commonly overstate the feasibility of removing all troublemakers from a school. I taught in the kind of school that gets students who are kicked out of charter schools (which, let me just say, has inspired in me the exact same skepticism Rothstein has about their ‘non-selectiveness’), and indeed had more than one student show up in my class after being kicked out of a charter school. But you know, there are a lot of kids who can’t or don’t follow the charter school code. Something’s got to be done with them, since we don’t just expel kids into the street at age 12, whether they can follow KIPP rules or not. Right now, they end up in neighborhood high schools with fewer services and less supportive staff than KIPP offers; if they really can’t follow school rules, they get transferred to a disciplinary school. (And the threshold for that is amazingly high: I know a kid who smeared feces all over his middle school classroom, doing $3000 worth of damage, and was neither offered therapy nor sent to disciplinary school. I taught him the next year as a high school freshman.) If they break a law, maybe they get locked up.

Disciplinary schools and correctional facilities – like the ones that house that district’s most expensive student – are incredibly pricey, and not very good at rehabilitation. I’ve also had students come back from disciplinary school and into my class, and let me tell you that many of them continued to be exceptionally disruptive, and had missed quite a bit of academic content. So when you say “I’m sorry, but there are some students that we’re just not going to be able to ‘save,'” I just want to know what you propose to do with them. Make it easier to send kids to disciplinary school or jail? You’d have to warehouse an awful lot of kids. That’s very expensive, and I doubt it helps those kids become productive – or even non-criminal – adults. Kick 12-year-olds out on the street? What’s the plan here?

10

Doctor Science 12.09.09 at 3:45 am

Mario Diana:

Should these kinds of costs be shared by charter schools? Should there even be these kinds of costs in the first place?

I don’t know about your first question, but the answer to the second is: “only if you care about the handicapped.”

My upper-middle-class school district, for instance, has one student who costs (last I heard) $200,000/year. The child has multiple physical and behavioral handicaps, and is in a residential school that is basically a hospital. Hospitals cost that kind of money.

Yes, there are probably *somewhat* cheaper ways such children can be educated and taken care of. But it would require things like more straightforward access to health care for *everyone* in the US, because these kids are the very bottom of society’s pecking order.

I’m sorry, but there are some students that we’re just not going to be able to “save.”

– and that’s the kind of attitude that makes parents of disabled children fight like mad weasels: because they know how ready their fellow Americans are to toss them in the trash.

11

Consumatopia 12.09.09 at 4:42 am

I don’t want to go further off topic, but I have to say, I totally care about the handicapped and think the costs of their education should be borne by the system as a whole.

When I mentioned the “worst behaving students [that] drag down the rest of a disadvantaged school”, I wasn’t referring to monetary expense, I was referring to behavior that makes it harder for other students to learn. It’s one thing to ask me to pay more in taxes, it’s quite another to ask classmates to give up future potential.

Of course, I have no evidence that we actually face this dilemma, so I probably should have just kept my mouth shut.

12

Substance McGravitas 12.09.09 at 4:49 am

I was referring to behavior that makes it harder for other students to learn.

Autistic kids then.

13

Doctor Science 12.09.09 at 4:59 am

Consumatopia:

You’re assuming that there’s a clear-cut distinction between “handicapped” and “behavioral problems”, which is not the case. In addition to the fact that frank physical problems often go along with neurological problems, there’s the fact that our educational system — and probably our culture as a whole — is profoundly artificial, and not a very good match to how many children will tend naturally to learn and behave. The “good old days” of strict education, you’ll note, involved only educating a small, select fraction of the population.

The upshot is, a lot of children have behavioral (attention, perceptual, emotional) problems in school, and one of the most effective ways to deal with these problems is to throw money at them in the form of “aides” — that is, extra adults. But that is intrinsically expensive.

14

Consumatopia 12.09.09 at 5:15 am

“Autistic kids then. “

Yeah, if an autistic child makes it seriously harder for their classmates to learn, that student’s probably going to have to be in a different class or school. Which is often going to be necessary for the autistic child’s needs alone.

“You’re assuming that there’s a clear-cut distinction between “handicapped” and “behavioral problems”,”

No, actually, I wasn’t. I totally understand that these are intersecting, correlating groups. I was not saying take care of one and not the other. I’m saying that additional monetary costs are acceptable, but I can’t see how it’s ethically acceptable to let a student ruin the education of other students.

15

North 12.09.09 at 5:33 am

Consumatopia, I continue to wonder what you propose doing with disruptive kids. Warehousing, treatment/support, expulsion to the street?

16

Tom T. 12.09.09 at 5:46 am

I thought the military population would skew disadvantaged, or at least low-income. Note too the likelihood of students facing frequent relocation and long parental deployments.

17

Kenny Easwaran 12.09.09 at 6:20 am

Tom T. – I assume Harry’s point is that although the military population may skew low-income, by virtue of the fact that at least one parent has stable government employment, they are guaranteed not to be in the lowest economic bracket.

Because of all the statistical issues mentioned above, it would be interesting to see what percentage of schools that are in the top third of (however you select schools with comparable demographics) are still in that top third four years later, and four years after that. If there were no significant effects, we would expect these numbers to be 1/3 and 1/9 respectively.

The numbers quoted in point (iii) seem to be consistent with there being no significant effects, so that even most of the half of one percent of these “truly high flying, scoring well consistently” schools are likely still doing it just by luck alone.

18

Isocrates 12.09.09 at 6:28 am

Not directly relevant to your post’s concern with “beating the odds”-type schools, perhaps, but it brings to mind a story I heard on This American Life about an underperforming public elementary school in Chicago that seemingly turned itself around rather quickly. It went from being among the worst to one of the better schools in its district by instating a few significant reforms: decentralization from bureaucratic, top-down governance of curriculum–permitting more student-centered learning and coordinated team teaching; assigning significantly more in-class reading; and assigning more in-class writing.

FWIW, I think the wisdom of that last reform is well-supported by the rhetoric & composition literature. In particular, frequent ungraded writing practice–mentioned in the TAL program above around 8m, 40s–is useful even at University, in part for getting students invested in their own writing (‘unlearning’ their hatred for writing, as they often associate it with nitpicking over grammar, spelling & punctuation rules that they had as elementary students not yet mastered and had little motivation for learning in the first place). It’s also useful for teaching students to use writing as a heuristic for thinking through problems and identifying ideas & argumentative connections upon which to build in later, more substantial (graded) work like the researched essay. Part of the problem, then, in the U.S. system seems to stem in part from some ‘common sense’ but faulty assumptions about writing among those crafting curricula in k-12.

The reformed Chicago elementary school, of course, had its policies slowly dismantled from above after the school began doing significantly better, largely for reasons of bureaucratic oversight. It’s difficult to take the pulse of a school beating the odds when the practices that permitted the improved performance are scuttled so quickly.

19

virgil xenophon 12.09.09 at 7:54 am

Dr Science partially touches on something most here pass over in all this analysis–the fact that in the “good pld days” we were attempting to educate only a small percentage of the population. What he didn’t follow up on is the logical question that follows from the acknowledgment of that truth; namely, where did the vast majority of those we were not educating go? What happened to them? The answer, as one child psychologist told me who works with ADD/dyslexic types is to be found in the field of economics. True, today as in the “old days” about half of school dropouts end up where they always have historically–enmesched somewhere in the penal and courts system. The difference between today and, say, in the 50s, is that the other 50% of HS dropouts could in those days find a ready & waiting well-paid paying job on the factory floor assembly line whose wages enabled him to become a productive member of society as a blue-collar worker–to marry, raise children, pay taxes, tithe to the church, etc., in short become both a producer AND a consumer and with these attributes contribute positively to society. Today those well-paying factory jobs are no longer there. Instead, today we are attempting to educate the uneducatable who now remain in school because they have no other place to go (there are no jobs.) And with predictable results…

20

mathpants 12.09.09 at 8:25 am

virgil, as we’ve recently learned from Thomas Friedman, the solution to your problem is to have every single member of that 50% become an innovative green entrepeneur.

Another dreary point: if a parent of a poor child is capable/willing to actively participate in his/her child’s education enough to make a decision like “I’ll select this innovative school for my child,” then aren’t we already dealing with a highly non-randomized parent? In other words, even if the study is “blind” on
one end (assuming, which is unlikely, that the innovative school is given a random draw of poor kids), it’s not going to be “double-blind.” Or are there studies which control for this and/or schools which in fact take an entirely random selection of students/parents?

21

bigcitylib 12.09.09 at 12:19 pm

OT. Stephen Toulmin passed away on Dec. 04.

22

bjk 12.09.09 at 12:20 pm

What about the success of the ED Hirsch curriculum in Massachusetts? MA is at the top of the reading scores . . . and yet I don’t hear anyone proposing that the curriculum be tried in other states. Any other approach, I suppose, and it would be the next panacea.

23

harry b 12.09.09 at 12:40 pm

vivian — I don’t know the answer to that. If Doug looks in, then he can answer. My guess is that the answer is no (that Doug did pretty much what can be done).

The way that the most reliable studies of these charters work is by using the children rejected in the lottery process as the control. Fryer is super-careful in his study of HCZ to point out that what we are learning about is the effect of the school on the kind of student whose parents want to select in, and it doesn’t tell us what the effect would be for other kinds of student. My understanding of the study supports North’s point that something very good is happening that makes the kids stay in school (the reduction in absenteeism is quite stunning — I’m going by memory here, but I think it was an average of 19, yes, 19 days fewer absent, which is almost an entire month of schooling), but not that it is down to parental involvement — it might be that, but it might not be. To repeat, no-one is saying that nothing good is happening, just that we don’t know much about what it is, or where, or how to replicate it, and that we know MUCH LESS than the “schools that beat the odds” people say we do.

24

Consumatopia 12.09.09 at 12:44 pm

Consumatopia, I continue to wonder what you propose doing with disruptive kids. Warehousing, treatment/support, expulsion to the street?

I answered @11 and @14. Once they’re prevented from ruining the education of other students, treat them as best you can.

25

marcel 12.09.09 at 12:51 pm

where did the vast majority of those we were not educating go? What happened to them? The answer, as one child psychologist told me who works with ADD/dyslexic types is to be found in the field of economics.

While I agree with you that economists have an unusually high incidence of personality disorders, I’ m an economist myself and wonder why you couldn’t sugarcoat this point a bit?

26

JoB 12.09.09 at 12:58 pm

Isn’t it abundantly clear that a teacher from Hollywood is a sufficient albeit not always necessary condition for beating the school odds (any odds, in fact).

Seriously, Harry, I don’t know how much people have investigated outside of schools – it might well be the case that (through no structured action of the school) some triggers lie outside of it (a common enemy to take Hollywood seriously for a moment?). That’d explain the feeling of ‘against all odds’ because on this hypothesis it would actually be a case of the odds being stacked up against the school that makes it outperform (still, the school management has the quite substantial merit of letting it happen).

27

Marc 12.09.09 at 1:48 pm

I think that people here are really underestimating the cost to other students of extremely disruptive behavior. We’re social animals, and a single disturbed kid can make it impossible for others in the same classroom to learn. Yes, the answer is expensive: smaller, dedicated classes, aides for them, and so on. But allowing a small fraction of the students to drag down the entire lot violates pretty basic utilitarian – and moral – considerations.

28

ajay 12.09.09 at 1:52 pm

24 is rather good.

18: The problem with saying things like “the 50s were economically great and an ideal we should aim for” is that the reason they were great in the US is that everyone else in the world had just finished blowing up each other’s infrastructure (often with US help) and the US had more than half the world’s total manufacturing capacity. This isn’t going to happen again any time soon, so it should really be treated as a one-off. A better question would be “where did these people end up in the 1920s?”

29

Jonathan Dursi 12.09.09 at 2:19 pm

Marc, & Consumatopia:

I’m inclined to be sympathetic to what you’re saying, but I think it’s a pretty artificial distinction you’re setting up. Students should be allowed to disrupt other students education (seems reasonable); we take the students who require more supervision and educate them seperately, one-on-one if necessary, and should be willing to pay that cost, both for benifit to those students and the student population in general (also sounds reasonable). But theres an odd tension between these two – you’re saying that `disruptive’ (say) students shouldn’t under any circumstances be allowed to hinder other students education by means of disruptive behaviour, but they should certainly be allowed to hinder other students education by siphoning off scarce resources (money, educators). If there was some huge pot of untapped money for point two I’d understand, but there isn’t – the argument is that these students should be shipped off to somewhere nonexistant for better teaching. How are you going to get the money to fund this without touching the funding for the bulk of the students? If you can’t, how is this not hindering the education of the other students?

30

Barry 12.09.09 at 2:20 pm

marcel 12.09.09 at 12:51 pm

Virgil Xenophon: “where did the vast majority of those we were not educating go? What happened to them? The answer, as one child psychologist told me who works with ADD/dyslexic types is to be found in the field of economics.”

marcel: “While I agree with you that economists have an unusually high incidence of personality disorders, I’ m an economist myself and wonder why you couldn’t sugarcoat this point a bit?”

And Virgil, you left out sociopathic personalities – there are only so many economics professor slots in the elite schools for them, so the rest are forced to wander the strees (frequently, to our harm, Wall St).

31

Barry 12.09.09 at 2:24 pm

And Comsumatopia, to keep things on topic, the point of the selectivity is that charter schools have the ability to refuse those who would consume ‘excess’ resources. This has got to help a lot in measured productivity (using measures which don’t consider that fact).

32

y81 12.09.09 at 2:27 pm

I think the idea that a significant of people who today drop out of school into poverty were in the past obtaining well-paying factory jobs is as much a fantasy as the “good old days” of strict education. In the areas where I have studied social history (e.g., 18th century New England, 19th century Denmark), we find two things: First, we find the bottom five percent of the population which consists of landless laborers, frequently in trouble with the law, prone to having babies out of wedlock, and generally constituting a headache for the powers that be. Second, we find the population from the 5th to the 50th percentile in SES, consisting of (in early modern Europe) cottagers and unskilled laborers or (in 18th century New England and New York) hardscrabble farmers, the kind of people who often can’t pay their bills and generally can only pay in produce.

I’m less familiar with early twentieth century America, but I believe that there were large numbers of sharecroppers, itinerant laborers (who do you think built the railroads?), criminals, etc., just as there are now. (Except we don’t have the sharecroppers now.) Urban unionized workers were, despite their lack of formal education, a relatively small elite, drawn from populations with the drive and wherewithal to leave the farm or the old country. Their analogues in early modern Europe would be the yeomanry, not the bottom half of the population. Their analogues today go to the kind of schools Sarah Palin went to (i.e., fourth tier colleges where they study subjects that most of us don’t consider proper academic subjects at all) and get jobs in restaurant management or mortgage servicing.

33

marcel 12.09.09 at 3:18 pm

I’m less familiar with early twentieth century America, but I believe that there were large numbers of sharecroppers, itinerant laborers (who do you think built the railroads?),

Well, in the 19thC, not 20th, I’d been under the impression that Irish and Chinese immigrants built a large fraction of RR mileage. Apparently Native AAmericans played a larger role than the Irish. Freedmen and Civil War Vets also played an important role. They may have been itinerant laborers, but a large fraction were drawn to the US by opportunities for paid employment.
(I wish there were a preview button. I expect that there are open or bad links here. Well here goes what is likely the first of several posts, until I get everything just right.)

34

Salient 12.09.09 at 3:42 pm

marcel, there’s an auto-preview generated underneath the comments box, if you scroll down after typing stuff in (if your browser has add-ons like NoScript, it’s necessary to enable JavaScript for CT). No button necessary :-)

35

tom s. 12.09.09 at 3:49 pm

“You’re assuming that there’s a clear-cut distinction between “handicapped” and “behavioral problems”,”

My Dad once had to confiscate an artificial limb from a kid who was using it to distract/entertain others in the class. No particular lesson, I just like the story.

36

joe koss 12.09.09 at 4:18 pm

I am somewhat surprised no one has mentioned the idea that all students can learn from all the different types of learners inside their classroom; yes, even the disruptive ones (however one chooses to define disruptive). The concept of the inclusive classroom can be a very difficult theoretical hurdle to jump for some middle to upper middle class parents (those with the most non-economic capital inside the system, subsequently those with the “most at stake”). To many, it is viewed as taking resources away from my X and to to that Y. But that is a fallacy. (1) Your X is not any more entitled to those resources than that Y. And (2) it is not even clear that those resources can/ will be better spent in terms of learning outcomes absent our problem kids.

And, as anyone who has taught will tell you, if you can succeed in removing those disruptions, that “disruptive” space will be filled by 1 to 5 students at any one time on any given day, sometimes with no rhyme or reason (it is one of those weird truisms of the classroom). Even the best of students will fill this space occasionally (I know because I did every once in awhile). And even the best of students can learn from and how to be disruptive, because getting in trouble is part of growing up as well.

The inclusive setting, of course, only works when schools have the proper resources, in terms of bodies on the ground. Inclusion can turn into a nightmare very quickly if the ideal is left to one solitary teacher to figure out and make happen every hour, all day, all year.

What is more interesting than devolving into talking about disruptions is talking about achievement inside of schools. And here, what may work better is to walk that fine line between choices and tracking (which may also be a direct contradiction of everything said above, but I don’t think it is). American schools have set up a neat and easy dichotomy between regular ed and alternative ed. Except for the fact that this dichotomy is increasingly unhelpful. One, it labels students regular or alternative, and two, it creates the false notion that there are two types of learning, regular or alternative.

Charter schools have begun to break this mold, but in somewhat different ways (ways Harry and Rothstein get at). But this mold may need to be broken within general public education as well. And this may fly in the face of the great American/ Horace Mannian education project. But an idea worth considering is throwing away our beliefs about regular schools and alternative schools, and instead start thinking about creating many different types of schools — schools that don’t try to fit square and octagonal and triangular and etc pegs into round holes. Instead, schools whose curriculum’s are designed around central, guiding, best practice ideas — ideas that serve some students (smart and disruptive ones) better than other students (smart and disruptive ones).

As mentioned, this is a fine line to walk between harmful tracking and providing educational choices. It assumes quite a bit about the ability of parents, students and educational advisors (inside and outside of school) to seek, find and enroll in the best choice, and it assumes quite a bit about the ability of a system whose main strength is its (oh, how to put this nice) rigidity to become adaptive and innovative.

But it also seems clear that this whole practice of educating tomorrow’s youth is pretty nebulous anyway. It may be time for another grand new experiment.

37

Substance McGravitas 12.09.09 at 4:24 pm

marcel, there’s an auto-preview

Preview lies like a rug.

38

rm 12.09.09 at 4:33 pm

I’ve been advised by a patriotic American of my acquaintance that children with learning or behavioral problems make a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether roasted, baked, boiled, or in a fricasee or a ragout.

39

parse 12.09.09 at 5:15 pm

vivian, did you really mean to tell consumatopia that if you believe in public education or care about the kids, we must allow the worst behaving students to drag down the rest of a disadvantaged school?

40

y81 12.09.09 at 5:34 pm

marcel: Agreed, the laborers who built the railroads did so more in late 19th century. I should have said: “who do you think paved all the roads that the new automobiles ran on?”

But I continue to believe that the school of thought which says “in the past, even high school dropouts could get high-paying union jobs” is the modern equivalent of Whig history, on a par with the belief that the stalwart yeoman was the median Englishman (or that the gaardejer of 1880 was the median Dane). In each of these cases, you are looking at the people who fill the 75th to 95th SES percentiles.

41

mpowell 12.09.09 at 5:46 pm

I guess the conclusion of this study is that school funding and class determine 90+% of a school’s success and that organizational structure don’t matter too much? I guess I can accept that result.

There seems to be an interesting discussion in the comments here about disruptive versus disadvantaged students. It is interesting to consider the case of students who cost 200K-300K to educate and deprive resources from, or provide distractions to others kids education. As has been pointed out separating these kids into uber-expensive insitutions is not really much different than allocating the funds towards the regular school and sticking them in a regular classroom. Maybe one technique is better on margin, but there’s no obvious win either way.

What it really comes down to is a decision to just permanently expel the kid fairly early on. And this seems more ‘fair’ with kids whose behavior is primarily the problem, but it really isn’t. If we accept that these kids are largely a product of their environment, I don’t really see how they’re much different than kids with other disabilities. I think the biggest difference here is that it is much more tangible how disruptive kids at schools serving poor schools negatively impact the other kids’ education. But the same thing is happening an wealthier schools with resources shifted to greater need kids. It’s probably less noticeable and may be a smaller impact due to the diminishing value of additional resources for the regular kids.

So the best solution seems like it would just be more resources for schools serving poor communities so they can handle these kids while also doing a better job of educating their less disruptive students. But when you talk about what is politically possible, it may be better to get a result that is in some ways unfair by increasing resources for schools serving poor communities, but also reducing resource commitments to disruptive kids just so that at least some percentage of that community has a legitimate opportunity to move into the middle class. That would be an acceptable outcome to me if the percentage of kids living in poverty were going down as a result.

42

Jim Harrison 12.09.09 at 6:20 pm

Since the problem with American education is not located in the schools, arguments about teaching methods are like debates between medieval physicians as to whether it is better to apply the leech to the arm or the rump. Maybe you do get marginally better results by choosing the rump (or phonics or whatever), but if you really want underachieving students to do better, do what you have to do to have them arrive at kindergarten ready to learn, which means, among other things, with a vocabulary level within shouting distance of middle-class kids. Efforts to improve the literacy level of parents are far more likely to help than anything aimed directly at their children.

43

StevenAttewell 12.09.09 at 6:47 pm

Regarding the question of people who didn’t go to college “back in the day.”

The first thing that should be noted is that most people didn’t even graduate high school (only 25% did in 1940, for example).

If we look at the American workforce in the 20s (which was also a boom time for American industry, btw), you’d see first of all that there are a lot more farmers (15% of the male labor force), another 15% are farm laborers, 10% are laborers, another 5% were operators, and those were the biggest professions (although you’ll note that the majority of the population are split between a lot of smaller professions).

The emergence of the living-wage factory job is relatively late – in the 1920s and 1930s, factory work paid pretty low wages (roughly equivalent to entry level retail work today) – it wasn’t until the 40s when industrial unionism really was able to push through solidaristic wage policies that this shifted to the “good old days” of recollection.

However, it is accurate to note that for a long period of time (1940s-1970s), it was much easier to make a decent living at the lower end of the labor market, even excluding the manufacturing sector. The minimum wage in 1968, for example, works out to about $20,000 a year today – compared to the current minimum wage of $14.5k a year.

(By the way – http://flare.prefuse.org/launch/apps/job_voyager is one of the coolest historical tools I’ve ever seen)

44

Consumatopia 12.09.09 at 7:08 pm

And Comsumatopia, to keep things on topic, the point of the selectivity is that charter schools have the ability to refuse those who would consume ‘excess’ resources. This has got to help a lot in measured productivity (using measures which don’t consider that fact).

@31, yeah, I totally see what you are saying here and what Harry said @6. My original post mistook a claim that there was no evidence that these schools had “beaten” the odds” with a claim that there was nothing scalable to learn from these schools (neglecting the possibility that there might be something to learn from these schools but we don’t have enough data yet to know whether or what we should learn.) My mistake led off-topic, I apologize.

45

Ah 12.09.09 at 7:11 pm

One approach that is meant to work in inner city primary schools is this one
http://www.devcogneuro.com/Publications/Science%20article%20-%20Diamond%20et%20al.pdf
It is based on structured imaginative play, rather than academic skills or free play. The idea, based on cognitive neuroscience, is that once kids learn how to pay attention and plan their activities for themselves, then it is easy to teach them to read and write. But lots pf kids from low ses backgrounds lack the basic attend/plan skills. More details are here http://www.devcogneuro.com/People/AdeleDiamond.html#Pubs

I’d be interested to know what readers here think of this. From my neuroscience perspective it looks great, but I guess you’d worry it wouldn’t scale?

46

North 12.09.09 at 7:42 pm

And, as anyone who has taught will tell you, if you can succeed in removing those disruptions, that “disruptive” space will be filled by 1 to 5 students at any one time on any given day, sometimes with no rhyme or reason (it is one of those weird truisms of the classroom).

There’s a lot of truth to this, though what counts as ‘disruptive’ varies wildly from school to school. I want to distinguish, though, between the kids who are filling the disruptive space because they’re occasionally squirrelly, and the kids who are (seem?) completely unable to regulate their emotional reactions and can’t calm themselves down enough to sit for a 55 minute class. I had a student who came to class maybe three days in two weeks, on average; and I really couldn’t do a thing with him. If he got frustrated or irritated because he couldn’t do exactly what he wanted to do (e.g. have a conversation at top volume, listen to headphones, wander around the room) he’d get started on this escalating emotional track that he really didn’t seem able to control. I ended up with school police taking him out of the classroom a couple of times (once in handcuffs, that was awful) and he’d literally run away from them around the classroom and verbally taunt them. The time he went out in handcuffs was because he swung on a cop, though he didn’t connect.

This is exactly the kid we’re all talking about when we say he shouldn’t be allowed to disrupt other kids’ educations. But that kid needed help. A lot of help. And there was no help available. He was probably diagnosable with about a million issues (he had maybe 2nd grade math skills, in high school, as well as no emotional regulation) but he’d never gotten diagnosed. In a wealthier district, he would probably have been diagnosed in elementary school and started to get help then; the special ed classes might also have been a lot more useful than at my school or our feeder schools; if his parents had had more financial or social capital, they’d have gotten him help earlier. But schools that serve low-income communities end up having to provide all kinds of services that in wealthy districts are paid for by parents out of school. This means that if we’re serious about keeping kids with real, lasting behavior problems from disrupting classes, and helping those kids deal with their behavior problems rather than just warehousing them, low-income schools need a lot more money than schools that serve wealthier communities. Not just parity – more. They need to be able to get kids into therapy, and get them aides, and get them individual tutoring, and all the things that wealthy parents do when their kids are having trouble in school. So when people talk about how disruptive kids oughta leave the classroom and point to charter schools that do so, I wonder where the resources for those kids are going to come from.

47

Mr_ Punch 12.09.09 at 8:38 pm

What people used to do: A century ago, the largest categories of employment were farm laborer (men) and domestic servant (women).

Schools that beat the odds: There seems to me to be too much focus on magic bullets, on schools that are ‘way better than expectations. I’d guess that there are, in fact, a number of public district schools serving disadvantaged students that are consistently more successful than most, and that we can extract some applicable lessons from them.

We’re going to have to work on factors that contribute to success — teacher qualifications, time on task, student/educator absenteeism — rather than seeking transformational models. In this context, charter schools play the role of mutation in Darwinian evolution — they introduce variation beyond the normal range, helping us test factors for success.

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lemmy caution 12.09.09 at 9:13 pm

I am pretty convinced that there is a limit to the effectiveness of a good school or school system. However, this doesn’t mean that there is necessarily a limit to the horribleness of schools or school systems:

http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2009/10/poverty-matters-but-schools-matter-too.php

It is pretty easy to design a bad school or school system. Just don’t bother teaching anything.

Being realistic about school populations can allow us to find the really bad schools as opposed to the schools with at risk students.

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Tim Wilkinson 12.09.09 at 10:11 pm

Mr_ Punch @47 – charter schools play the role of mutation in Darwinian evolution—they introduce variation beyond the normal range, helping us test factors for success.

New approaches do of course have to be trialled, and I’m probably taking you too literally here, but Darwinian evolution is a really bad model for designing pretty much anything, but in particular human institutions. It takes an inordinately long time, is path-dependent so that revolutionary change is ruled out, and most importantly it is really hard on those who are impacted by the inevitable (indeed integral) failures, as Chas. D. himself appreciated very well: “What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!”

[OT but this observation is one reason why I find many neoliberal arguments for competition etc. so disgusting - the focus on what is good for the equivalent of 'the species', i.e. the set of winners at a given time, is fascist in a fairly ordinary sense of that word, and of course usually underwritten by the pretty sure knowledge that the proponent is going to be among those winners. Meanwhile the failures that are allowed can and do cause awful suffering. But that doesn't matter, cos in (what's admitted to be a highly unrealistic) theory it's all tending towards a vacuous notion of 'fitness' (or of 'optimal allocation').]

50

charles Pascal 12.10.09 at 1:21 am

Looking at this post from a counselor’s point of view I am in agreement with this author. The results of most arguments depend upon the data sample. Change the variables, alter the outcome.

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vivian 12.10.09 at 1:59 am

Parse: yeah that’s it, you got me. &lt/snark&gt I meant that (as others say above) the ‘disruptive’ kids have to go somewhere, and wherever they go, they’ll be having troubles and that will show in the metrics; if you care about the kids, you have to build that into your expectations, otherwise, hey, free lunch.

You get a dilemma with some kids, where if they go into a regular-ed room they are the disruptive ones, and if they go into a special high-ratio, low-distraction class they can focus well enough to learn more effective disruptive techniques from the worse-off kids. If you don’t count their scores (or whatever metric) then the school has no incentive to give them anything of quality, and if you count their scores, it drags the school down. And, yes, the best answer turns out to be more adults in the room mitigating the distractions, plus a brilliant and flexible teacher who can turn the distractions into inclusive, teachable moments for the rest of the class. Oddly enough, my city appears to have noticeable numbers of these teachers, even though I’m amazed each time.

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Doctor Science 12.10.09 at 2:53 am

I’m coming back to link to an old post of mine about school discipline in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s youth. If we measure disruption per student per day, the rates were *much* higher in Laura’s day than would be expected even in the most chaotic of inner-city schools today.

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Consumatopia 12.10.09 at 3:14 am

You get a dilemma with some kids, where if they go into a regular-ed room they are the disruptive ones, and if they go into a special high-ratio, low-distraction class they can focus well enough to learn more effective disruptive techniques from the worse-off kids. If you don’t count their scores (or whatever metric) then the school has no incentive to give them anything of quality, and if you count their scores, it drags the school down.

My original comment @5 wasn’t referring to a disruptive student’s dragging down scores, but to disrupting the actual education of the other students. I realize this was ambiguous. In addition to my other mistakes admitted @44.

OTOH, I am kind of puzzled by people insisting there is a tradeoff between regular and special ed. Last I checked, we spend money on a great number of things other than education.

54

Salient 12.10.09 at 3:45 am

…if they go into a special high-ratio, low-distraction class they can focus well enough to learn more effective disruptive techniques from the worse-off kids.

+1 vivian.

And oh man, North, I sympathize there too… One of my favorite students, who was successfully getting shepherded through high school by a few colleagues and I, swung on a cop the last week of school. It tore me up. That kid needed help, too. But the help-resources available in that district? Nil, really.

And, yes, the best answer turns out to be more adults in the room mitigating the distractions, plus a brilliant and flexible teacher who can turn the distractions into inclusive, teachable moments for the rest of the class.

Seconded. And parents in the classroom! This is imperative for those locations in which behavioral problems are a central concern rather than an occasional/peripheral/marginal concern.

I am somewhat surprised no one has mentioned the idea that all students can learn from all the different types of learners inside their classroom; yes, even the disruptive ones

I… can’t respond to this. It occurs to me that the definition of “disruptive” varies wildly from district to district.

For me, a “disruptive” public school student is, to a first approximation, one “whose behavior compromises the health, threatens the safety, or perturbs the psychic well-being of two or more persons regularly (on at least ten percent of the school days).”

This lets one distinguish trivial concerns (a kid who throws a paper airplane now and then) from moderate concerns (a kid who regularly takes quizzes and crumples them up and says “I’m sick of this f–king Iraqi bullshit” and stands up and punts the wadded up paper at the teacher) from truly serious concerns, the real disruptions (… sigh.)

If I work up the gumption (and finish work duties) I’ll try to submit a long comment on health care and high-performing schools. I typed some of it in this morning and lost it whilst hunting down a citation. Quick preview: what kind of health care is available to students at “beat the odds” schools that do manage consistent beat-the-odds performance over time? What relationships between students’ health experience and students’ performance exist, and how strong are they? Break this down into dental, access to primary medical care, access to ongoing treatment, utilization trends. What data/information relevant to this do we have, and what information should we pressure schools to collect? Are there non-curricular services offered by consistently high-performing schools which enhance student learning, and if so, what? More generally, what social services do students identify as having an impact in their lives, and which social services do user students identify as unproductive or disappointing? Parents?

55

nm 12.10.09 at 8:01 am

It is a little disconcerting that schools can’t beat the odds unless they hire young teachers without families. But as someone who is not so young anymore, and has a family, I think I see why this would be an advantage for an administrator with certain ambitions..

One question this post raises for me is whether these schools show an advantage to having two-tiers in primary education.

I am supposing what the schools that beat the odds show is that you can put students with particular socioeconomic challenges in one type of school and they succeed whereas they would not succeed in another school. What’s the significance of that? If we proliferate the method of (not really) odds-beating schools, we increase the odds for those kinds of students? So perhaps what is shown is that we should have many more of these kinds of schools. I realize that’s disturbing–because what this means is you leave the students with the real problems out in the cold. But what if that is an effective way to ensure success for these other types of students?

I don’t have a dog in this fight, by the way. I was just wondering whether anyone argues for this. Or whether anyone could.

56

Biba 12.10.09 at 2:27 pm

Children who participate in the School Breakfast Program show significant improvement in academic performance and tardiness rates, and a trend toward improvement in absenteeism. The School Breakfast Program was created by Congress in 1966 to provide a breakfast on school days for low income children who would otherwise have none.
http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/1d/b0/97.pdf
That was in 1988 in Massachusetts (Lawrence). I sort of remember a bigger and longer study in Chicago …

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Biba 12.10.09 at 2:28 pm

Oops!

58

JB 12.10.09 at 3:36 pm

2 points:

The comments above reveal the difficulty of calling a school a “no excuses, high performing” school. I think that more focus should be put on schools that serve low-income children that simply perform consistently, across grade levels, better than expected for the demographics of their student bodies. We should have learned, by now, that miraculous improvement is not likely to happen (short of wide adoption of Direct Instruction pedagogy, which doesn’t seem likely).

Also, the comments above that address disruptive students are missing an important point. If the students involved are not simply choosing to misbehave (i.e. if they’re not in control of their own behavior), then they need a therapeutic classroom, not a run-of-the-mill classroom. Trying to turn a regular classroom into a therapeutic environment is a losing proposition, and one of the things that gets sacrificed is the support of the parents of the children who only need a regular classroom.

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parse 12.10.09 at 7:08 pm

vivian, there was some snark involved, but what I also hoped to do by reading your answer literally was to codify what does seem to me to be the message of many of the posts here, one that only your apparently unintended frankness made explicit: there is no solution available to the problem of disruptive kids in public education. People don’t seem to be willing to allocate the resources necessary to effectively deal with them in separate institutions, and those who care about them suspect that removing them so that the part of the problem that relates to their negative impact on other students is solved will result in even less willingness to deal with the extraordinary challenge that disruptive students create. I imagine those suspicions are largely correct, so in some way it is correct to say that if you care about public education and the kids, we must allow disruptive students to drag down the rest of a disadvantage school.

As regards the snark; your implication that consumatopia’s question suggested that he or she didn’t care about public education or the kids seemed a little snarky itself.

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vivian 12.11.09 at 1:54 am

(sorry, Parse, I intended to type an end-snark tag, as in, end-my-snark-start-of-serious-answer. It worked in preview. Your comment was really funny, actually, and sorry for not being more clear about that. ) Indeed – if you take the school’s existing resources and scores and force them to cover all of the disruptive, difficult, hungry, violent kids that get cherry-picked out, expect to see something else lose resources, or attention. But I don’t see that as “no solution” but rather a realistic one. It’s public ed – that means that no matter how much I love my kids, I recognize that there are other kids just as important in the schools, some of whom need more intensive (pricey) adult help than mine, and maybe those extra enrichment things I want will happen after school, and out of my pocket. As a citizen, I want those other kids included locally as much as possible because those elsewhere-institutions have a horrible track record. But you’re right, separate classes for the older kids with serious violence issues, yes, that would help everyone learn, absolutely. And yes, too many people think their school taxes are actually a la carte fees for their own benefits.

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Ray Davis 12.14.09 at 12:22 am

Tom T. and Kenny Easwaran: As a child of an enlisted man who’d dropped out of high school, I thought Harry got it exactly right with the phrase “the benefits of a social-democratic style welfare state.” Military service provided not just more stable employment than most jobs (harder to be laid off and harder to quit at a moment’s notice), but also access to health and dental care, scholarships, loans, and reliable pensions. I and my brother often wonder at how easily some veterans and ex-dependents forget their own experience of “socialized medicine.”

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