Commentary | Education

Lessons—Schools, Accountability and a Sheaf of Fuzzy Math

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Schools, Accountability and a Sheaf of Fuzzy Math

By Richard Rothstein

An influential liberal advocacy group, the Education Trust, claims to have demonstrated that simply by adopting higher standards, schools can get disadvantaged children to perform as well as those of the middle class.

The group has published a list of “high-flying schools”: 1,320 schools nationwide whose test scores are high and at least half of whose students are both poor and minority. At 3,257 other top-scoring schools, at least half the students are either poor or minority, though not both.

The schools on each of those lists account for about 10 percent of all schools with identically defined student bodies. The Education Trust maintains that if these schools can get good results by raising expectations and improving instruction, others can do so as well.

That is an unfortunate reinforcement of the belief that school reform alone, without more school spending or improved social conditions for families, is enough to lift achievement of the lowest performers. It is actually all three – instructional overhaul, more school spending and social change – that will be needed.

Each school on the Education Trust’s list of 1,320 “high fliers” had average scores in the top third of all its state’s schools – but in only one grade, in only one subject (reading or math) and for only one year (the latest for which data from that state were available). Such isolated results can be flukes: all scores typically bounce around an underlying pattern.

Douglas Harris of the Economic Policy Institute (a group for which I also do research) examined such schools, focusing on those for which data from more than one year, grade and subject were available. Looking at the highest grade tested, he found that only about a third of them had high scores in not just one subject but in both reading and math. Only about a tenth had high scores in reading and math in another grade as well. Only 3 percent had high scores in reading and math in these two grades for two years running; that is only about half of 1 percent of all high-poverty and high-minority schools.

Even these seeming successes often had high scores for reasons that provide no models to copy.

Some, for example, had high averages because their middle-class students did well, not because of the half or more who are disadvantaged.

Others had select student bodies. Magnet schools, for example, attract the most highly motivated students. Some schools on the Education Trust’s list operate “gifted and talented” programs for children with high I.Q.’s, recruited from outside the schools’ areas; these schools’ high scores cannot be attributed to distinctive techniques for eliciting achievement from typical disadvantaged children.

Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, insists that if only one high-scoring school serving poor and minority children can be found, any school should be able to achieve at a similar level.

But once you exclude schools with one-time high scores, and those serving atypical students, the number of high fliers is tiny. These are what statisticians call “outliers,” unexplained exceptions in any field that do not provide models that can be successfully emulated. Michael Jordan, for example, is an outlier: that he can play at such a level does not mean that any basketball player with good training can do so.

A systematic strategy for lifting disadvantaged students’ achievement closer to that of the middle class must have three parts.

First, there are elements that the Education Trust properly emphasizes: schools must improve instruction, get parents more involved and hold low-income children and their teachers more accountable. But second, money for urban schools serving poor and minority youth must rise to the level of that spent on suburban middle-class schools, with higher teacher pay and smaller classes; and third, low-income children must be more prepared to learn, with better health care, stable housing and good preschools.

No one of these will itself bring success, but public discussion has focused mostly on academic standards. The new federal education law, for example, presumes that school accountability can be virtually the only tool to ensure that no child is left behind.
In earlier reports, the Education Trust called for higher school spending. But this advocacy was noticeably absent in its promotion of the high fliers list.

Some policy makers have hailed the Education Trust’s report, saying it shows that if disadvantaged students don’t achieve at high levels, it is only because public educators lack the will to teach them. Williamson M. Evers, a member of President Bush’s committee to oversee federal education research, said the Education Trust had proved that it was “racist nonsense” to deny that accountability alone could generate equal outcomes for poor and middle-class students.

But the Education Trust’s flawed presentation does not dispel the idea that low-income children need better-financed schools and more social support, along with better instruction. Accountability by itself will be insufficient.

Return to the Education Column Archive