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Academic gains in NYC, D.C., and Chicago overstated, report contends

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared at Education Week.


by Lesli A. Maxwell


The school improvement strategies highly touted by leaders such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee have produced overwhelmingly disappointing results for the poor and minority children in Chicago, New York, and the District of Columbia, contends a forthcoming report written by a national group that favors a more holistic approach to improving public schooling.

Each of those leaders—including Duncan, who was the head of the Chicago school system before he was appointed education secretary by President Barack Obama—has exaggerated the success stemming from policies such as using test scores in teacher evaluations, opening more charter schools, and shutting down failing schools, the report argues.

And at the same time, the report suggests that these same leaders have largely ignored the positive benefits of other strategies used to counterbalance the effects of poverty on children in their cities, such as early childhood services, extended learning opportunities, and smaller schools.

"The failures of these strategies has to be called out," said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University and one of three co-chairs of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education campaign, which will release its full report on April 18. "What does the record show?" (Rather annoyingly, the Broader, Bolder group hosted a media call today to talk about what will surely be a controversial report, but didn’t release the full study itself. For that, we must wait for another coordinated media event next week.)

But in the 15-page executive summary released today, the Broader, Bolder folks lay out a number of conclusions they draw about the exaggeration of success in the three districts by comparing their performance over time on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, with that of other urban districts which have not as aggressively pursued similar policies. All three districts are part of the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA, a specially collected set of test results on district-level achievement from NAEP.

In the three districts, NAEP scores grew more slowly and achievement gaps widened more when compared to other TUDA participants, the report found.

For example, the report’s authors found that while black 8th graders in large urban districts overall gained five points in reading between 2005 and 2011, their peers in the District of Columbia fell two points. New York City ranked 9th out of 10 TUDA districts for its students’ average gains in NAEP math and reading scores between 2003 and 2011—gaining 4.3 points, which was half the urban district average gain of 8.8 points. And in Chicago, white and Asian students posted modest gains on the NAEP reading exams between 2003 and 2009, while Hispanic students gained little and black students gained nothing, widening the racial achievement gap.

The executive summary goes on to shoot down success claims that Bloomberg, Duncan, and Rhee have made for poor and minority students, all of them based on state test scores. Both Noguera and Elaine Weiss, the report’s co-author and the national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder campaign, said that the report was especially necessary given that federal and state education policy largely mirrors the strategies used in New York City, Washington, and Chicago.

"These are no longer experimental reforms," Weiss said.

Other TUDA-participating districts that have posted stronger gains over time and are worthy of a deeper look at their strategies—some of which may reflect a more holistic approach—are Austin, Texas, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, said Weiss.

At the same time, however, Atlanta was another top performer on NAEP over time. And though there has been no evidence uncovered that any cheating occurred on the federally administered test there, 35 of that district’s former educators (including former superintendent Beverly Hall) have been indicted by a grand jury in a widespread conspiracy to cheat on state exams.

Noguera noted that in addition to its strong gains on the NAEP, Atlanta also dramatically increased the number of students taking the SAT. "That doesn’t mean there wasn’t cheating on state exams, but it also doesn’t mean that progress wasn’t made. We have to be careful about dismissing everything."

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