Thursday, May 26, 2011

It's the Poverty, Stupid.

University of Texas physics professor Michael Marder has made a most eloquent case for changing the debate about education reform in the US with a series of images. He has, sometimes literally, connected the dots between socioeconomic factors and measures of student learning in a way that champions of education reform such as Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and David Guggenheim do not.

If you saw Guggenheim’s wildly popular film “Waiting for Superman” you’re familiar with the paradigm of these self-appointed reformers.

The simple version is:
1. Public schools are bad.
2. If public schools have to compete with each other for students they will improve.
3. Giving families choices between traditional public schools and charter schools will create that competition.
4. Standardized test scores are the only way to measure and compare schools so families can choose the best schools.
5. Students will move from failing bad public schools to successful good charter schools.
6. All students will be in great schools and the US will once again be the education powerhouse that it once was.

I’ll call this the corporate reform model since it sees schools as actors in a free market that must compete for customers (students) by producing the best product (test scores.)

The dangerous idea that free market competition – the corporate model- is the solution to the apparent crisis in public education is an intuitively attractive one.  Waiting for Superman used viewers’ heartstrings and a bit of creative license (inaccuracies and reenactments portrayed as real-life moments) to drive the point home. Superman fans came away from the film thanking their lucky stars that tough district leaders like Rhee stand up to greedy teachers unions. They can find hope in Bill Gates’ involvement since his money along with that of the Broad and Walton foundations will fund the bulk of the push for more standardized testing and the creation of more charter schools to force public schools to improve or die. The only problem with this view is that it’s not true.

This is where our professor from Austin comes in. Dr. Marder isn’t just a physicist he also runs a teacher certification program called UTeach which focuses on training math and science teachers. The folks down in Texas know about this brand of corporate school reform because former Texas Governor George W. Bush tried it out in the lone star state before he brought it with him to Washington when he became president. This model became known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and we’ve been living with it ever since. I’m pretty familiar with the corporate reform model too, since Chicago’s Mayor Daley started instituting a version of it back in 1995 when he took over the Chicago Public Schools. Now Daley’s protégé Arne Duncan has moved on to Washington as Secretary of Education demonstrating a bipartisan consensus that corporate reform is the best way to improve our public schools. It’s great to see such bipartisan agreement, except that in this case both parties are wrong.

So, back to Dr. Marder, a man of science, who decided to look at data in Texas to see how the corporate model of  standardized testing and charter schools was improving education there. Here are some of the dots Marder put together. The first visualization plots poverty concentration against percentage of students meeting the SAT college readiness criterion. Each dot represents a single high school. The size of the dot represents the number of students who tested at that school and the color of the dot represents the ethnic/racial makeup of the school.

With very few exceptions, schools with a low concentration of low income students scored better on the SAT. There is no real surprise that richer students in schools that are mostly made up of richer students do better on the SAT. As the poverty rate goes up, college readiness goes down. In Texas, just like here in Chicago and in most other places race and ethnicity correlate with lower incomes and lower test scores. But this being Texas where the corporate reform model was born, you might expect that if Dr. Marder were to show us which of those dots were charter schools we’d see that they are some of the heroic outliers… like that mostly minority school with about a 57% poverty concentration that has about 80% of it’s students ready to succeed in college according to the SAT.

Unfortunately for Texans in charter schools, you’d be wrong about that heroic outlier being a charter school. In fact at every income level charters don’t fair all that well compared to  traditional neighborhood public schools in Texas. There is one charter with about 82% poverty concentration that is doing better than its peers… but even this success is small and very limited with only about 15% of its students meeting the SAT criterion. Most of the charters have close to 0% meeting these criteria. Zero percent.

The main idea I took away from Dr. Marder’s elegant scatter plots is that the socioeconomic factors of race and income play a larger role in student achievement than does the public vs. private management of schools. The idea that charters are the silver bullet that will save education is actually a distraction from the real issues that could improve the lives and the educations of low income students. The idea that public schools are bad is false. For well-off white kids public schools are pretty good. Students from low income families, many of whom are not melanin deprived, just aren’t achieving college readiness at the level of their more wealthy peers.

When G.W. Bush first introduced NCLB it was a voucher system that was supposed power the invisible hand of free markets to improve schools and close the achievement gap between rich and poor, Black and White. Vouchers were too unpopular, so Bush compromised and pushed for charters instead. This corporate approach is just not working.
As I teach my students in AP Psychology at my traditional neighborhood public high school in Chicago, correlation does not equal causation. We can't look at these graphs and know with any certainty that poverty or racial inequality is causing schools to fail. What we can conclude, though, is that charter schools don't do any better than traditional schools on the SAT. In fact most of them do significantly worse than the traditional schools. Dr. Marder's data visualizations illustrate the failure of corporate education reform.  

You can watch a video compilation of similar graphs using different measures of student learning in California, New York, New Jersey, and Florida at the UTeach site. Charters consistently perform worse than traditional neighborhood public schools and family income is the most obvious correlate to success on the learning measures.

Thank you Dr. Marder for connecting the dots. Now we just need to get people talking about the real issues in education. Let’s shift away from the corporate paradigm for our kids. This particular silver bullet is killing those students who need great neighborhood schools the most. Countering the effects of poverty and marginalization will take way more than treating schools like businesses, kids like customers and test scores like products.

You can see more representations of this data at the UTeach site 

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