September 6, 2007

Take a look at what $48 Million buys you

Do not miss this Philly Inquirer article on Radnor Township's fancy new middle school. And don't miss the pictures and video either. They're priceless.

To give you a little perspective, Radnor is often the best performing school district in Pennsylvania. Located on Philadelphia's main line, Radnor is one of the wealthiest school district's in the commonwealth. Radnor's location is especially fortunate since there aren't any poor or depressed areas that might be able to sneak in some students.

(Disclosure: I know Radnor. It's in my county, a few miles up the road. Its demographics are similar to the demographics of the town where I live.)

Let's take a look at their demographics.

96.4% of adults have a high school diploma
68.5% of adults have a bachelor's degree
27.9% of households have an income of over $150,000
43.9% of households have an income of over $100,000
54.1% of households have an income of over $75,000

19.%% of households have income less than $30,000, but bear in mind that Radnor is the home of a few colleges, including Villanova, with off-campus graduate students. And capital gains aren't necessarily income.

Clearly Radnor is one of the most affluent areas of the country, and, as such, is ripe for the soaking by a well entrenched monopoly--the Radnor School district. And, soak them they do to the tune of $16,277 per pupil back in 2004. You can bet that's gone up by at least 10% since then. Don't weep for Radnor; they can afford all the latest education fads.

As happy as they are about the building's "green" features, district administrators are even happier that after holding classes for decades in a building that opened in 1923, the district's 850 middle school students and their teachers now have a school designed to match current teaching methods and philosophy.

Studies show that students do better when they are part of a smaller learning community within a school. As a result, three of the four floors in the new school's academic wing hold one grade apiece. The grades are subdivided into areas called "pods" - two on each floor, each with five classrooms. Most students in each grade are assigned to teams of between 100 and 110. They attend all core academic classes in their pod, and there is space enough for the whole team to meet together in a large carpeted common area carved out of the hallway. The teachers in each pod work with the same team of students and share planning time each day.

Dot Conaboy, a sixth-grade language-arts and social-studies teacher, said as she set up her classroom last week that "having the pod [common] area right here is going to be a big plus for projects where we need to spread out a little bit more. And we can now join two or more classes together when we want to - that will be really nice."

Each team has laptop computers stored in the common area; each classroom has wireless Internet, cable TV for educational channels, overhead liquid crystal display projectors, and screens.

Each grade also has a double-sized classroom especially designed for a group of 30 to 40 students and two teachers whose academic life is arranged around a theme that the children study, rather than separate language-arts, math, science and social-studies classes. There are no letter grades and few tests; participants are assessed mostly by their work on long-term projects. Students volunteer and are picked by lottery.

Said Tom Rendulich, a sixth-grade teacher: "We couldn't ask for anything better - we have everything we need and more. . . . It's perfect."

"Perfect," he says. Those words will come back to haunt him in five years or so when Radnor middle school finally gets bitten by NCLB's AYP requirements.

Radnor middle school has a dirty little secret. Despite all it's money, it doesn't know how to educate its pupils any better than some failing inner city school. You can tell by the pseudoscience it quoted to the Inquirer. You can also tell by its current academic performance.

The end product of a Radnor Middle School education, i.e., an eighth grade student, performs as well as you'd expect. At least the white and Asian ones do. White students performed at the 94.1 percentile in Reading, 89.3 in Math. This is how you expect the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, and the upper middle class to perform academically.

Fortunately for us and thanks to NCLB, we now know that some of these wealthy plutocrats are black. They have to live somewhere to, right? And I can tell you they aren't living in the badlands of north Philly. Like everyone else who earns a high income they move out to the affluent suburbs. They move to Radnor and they send their kids to Radnor middle school. And, contrary to the wisdom of Jonathan Kozol, their kids scored at the 66.7 percentile in Reading and 55.3 percentile in Math, below the scores of the average white student in Pennsylvania (77.8% and 69.6% respectively).

And, don't think that the few poor kids (and by poor I mean less rich because truly poor people can't afford to live in Radnor) performed any better. Poor kids scored at the 54.6 and 36.4 percentiles in Reading and Math, respectively, which is about as well as they performed in the average school in Pennsylvania. By the way, the average school in Pennsylvania spends 23% less than Radnor, money that is apparently not being well spent on academics at least. I'm pretty sure that if Radnor thought it needed to spend more money on academics, it'd be spending its money there instead of spending it acquiring the cutting edge of urinal technology (you did watch the movie like I suggested didn't you).

Radnor has it all. The best school building. The best teachers, or at least the best paid teachers. The best students. And, the best urinals. And, yet it struggles to educate the black children of the upper middle class and the children of the lower middle class, regardless of race.

Radnor is the rule, not the exception. I could have focused on almost any other affluent school district and gotten the same results. The more money we let schools soak us for education, the more schools we're going to see like Radnor Middle School. Bright and shiny on the outside; rotten on the inside. The problem is instructional, not financial.

Can someone explain to me why we'd want to let affluent suburban schools off the accountability hook in NCLB 2.0?


Anonymous said...

My God. Again, again, again, and again. You hit the nail on the head. That's why I love you man.

48 million bucks poured down the drain. 48 million spent to build a palace for the rich and well to do. Don't you just love America? Funny thing-- we can't teach kids rich or poor. Unbelievable.

I teach in a school system with the lowest of the low (and they are treated like it) and the richest of the rich (well, not exactly- million dollar homes). What separates the teacher in the southern "hood" from the teacher in the eastern "highlands"? Nothing but the kids and families.


palisadesk said...

Everything old is new again. Check out the data and longitudinal research on academic achievement in Shaker Heights, Ohio (Cleveland suburb). Seems like people study virtually every variable except instructional ones.

Anonymous makes a good point -- the same factors apply in my area. Kids in the rich districts may be from residential areas where average family home costs $750 000 and average family income is in the quarter-million range. The schools top the charts, but no independent data collectors are documenting that nearly 100% of those families send their children to private learning centers or have private tutors or even a variant on the old Greek "pedagogue" for their child -- a personal coach. The tests may be effectively measuring the parents' contribution to the child's academic success, not the effectiveness of the instruction.

PaulaV said...

One of the middle schools in my affluent district in northern Virginia failed to make AYP. The kicker was this school was voted by the Washington Post as "the school to watch".

Many parents whose children attend the school are blaming the failure to meet AYP on the immigrant students.

I love what anonymous said about the teachers in well-to-do suburbs receiving "ready made stars". So true, so true.

Anonymous said...

From SEED magazine...

What makes a good teacher?
That's what SEED is asking this week. Here's my top 10....

10) Patience
9) Lack of ego (putting the focus on the student)
8) Enthusiasm
7) Social sensitivity (know the audience you are aiming at, whether it be the children of religious fundamentalists, 8 year olds or over-30 GED candidates)
6) Experience teaching
5) Broadness of personal experience
4) Top notch verbal skills
3) Training in the field which they are teaching (this is a serious issue in many high schools)
2) Creative, flexible lesson plans

...and the number #1 variable in making a "good" teacher

Smart and passionate students

The last factor is something we all implicitly understand, there are far fewer inspirational movies made about brilliant teachers from elite prep academies and magnet schools than those about teachers in socially dysfunctional areas. This is, fundamentally, one of my main beefs with high stakes testing, teachers are dealt different hands and told to perform as if the raw material was all the same.

Eric said...

Check out the data and longitudinal research on academic achievement in Shaker Heights

Ogbu's work? Please elaborate.

Anonymous said...

You are making some brave but politically incorrect statements in your blog.

I doubt a newspaper would publish such an op-ed.

Do you disagree?

Tracy said...

Anonymous, what evidence do you have that those ten factors you list are the ones that make a good teacher?