October 10, 2007

No Complaint Left Behind

Kevin Carey, of The Quick and the Ed fame, reviews Linda Perlstein's Tested in the Washington Monthly.

I've been down this road already and was not impressed with Perlstein's thinly veiled agenda and shoddy scholarship.

As Carey points out, Perlstein went to Maryland's Tyler Heights Elementary School, a school "built near the low-income housing projects of Annapolis," to take an in-depth look at the school that


more than doubled its pass rates on state reading and math tests in just three years, moving off the list of schools tagged as low-performing by the No Child Left Behind Act. Politicians, school officials, and newspapers like the Washington Post held up the school as a "crown jewel"—an example of how NCLB can help even the most disadvantaged children learn.


When she got to Tyler, Perlstein didn't like what she saw:


The teachers are required to use a highly structured, sometimes scripted curriculum. Science, art, and social studies are often ignored in favor of the tested subjects, reading and math. And the test prep is relentless—over and over, students practice writing the "brief constructed responses" (short written paragraphs interpreting a text) that feature prominently on the state exam.


She contrasts this "rudimentary education" to the superior education that she believes is being offered at the Crofton Elementary School "located in a wealthy planned community just fourteen miles away [from Tyler]."


Crofton students spend their days writing in journals, making crafts, studying science and history, and so on. There's little test prep, but nearly every child passes the exam. The contrast is a gross injustice, Perlstein believes.


In one sense, I agree with Perlstein that the massive test prep that's being done at Tyler is counterproductive. However, unlike Perlstein, I do not believe that "writing in journals, making crafts, studying science and history, and so on" represents a superior education over the "highly structured, sometimes scripted curriculum" being offered at Tyler.

As Kevin Carey points out, the need for scripting and structure depends on the needs of the students, not on Perslstein's personal biases. In order to teach the kind of low-performing students that go to Tyler, a school needs to get all its ducks lined up perfectly. Often it is only possible to do this in a highly structured and scripted environment because most teachers simply do not have the skills needed to educate these kids when left to their own primitive devices. It is extremely difficult to get these kids to learn a year's worth of material in a year's time using every available instruction minute, let alone when significant instructional time is wasted on the low-value fluff that Perlstein and Crofton favor. Upper-middle class kids can afford to waste some instructional time, lower and lower-middle class kids do not have such a luxury.

This is the great conceit in education. People like Perlstein and the Crofton educators think they know the first thing about educating lower performing students. They don't. All they know is folklore, opinion, and anecdotes from their own education. The disaggregated data tells a different story because unbeknownst to Perlstein schools like Crofton have a couple of poor and minority kids. Let's see how well the rainbow and lollipop curriculum at Crofton has served these kids.

Here's the MSPAP scores for Crofton in 2006.


CroftonReading Math
White96.7 97.0
Black 83.3 72.2
Hispanic 100.0 100.0
Poor 80.0 70.0



Here are the MSPAP scores for Tyler in 2006.


TylerReading Math
White100.0 100.0
Black 86.8 82.4
Hispanic 90.9 87.0
Poor 87.9 82.1



With the exception of Hispanics, Tyler outperformed Crofton, often substantially, in both math and reading. And, bear in mind that the blacks and poor students in Crofton are far more likely to be middle class than the ones coming from the projects surrounding Tyler. This masks a large structural advantage that favors Crofton considerably. Yet, Crofton squanders this advantage.

If this were a football game, Tyler would be getting a large point spread. Crofton has not only failed to cover the spread, Tyler has won outright.

If the Crofton education is so superior to the rigid scripted curricular offerings at Tyler, than why can't the Crofton kids demonstrate their superior ability on a simple test of basic skills?

Perlstein is merely perpetuating the big lie in education started by people like Kopzol and Rothstein. The lie that affluent schools know how to educate lower performing students. They don't. And, time and again, the disaggregated data coming from NCLB shows that they don't. Yet, people like Perlstein, Kozol, and Rothstein are unable to provide an explanation for this discrepancy. Their idea of reform is to get rid of NCLB. In other words they want to get rid of the inconvenient data that shows they don't know what they are talking about.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

As a long-time resident and REALTOR in Crofton, I take exception to the description of Crofton as a "wealthy" community - check your demographics and home prices. Crofton is a moderately priced area, by county standards, with a mix of price ranges and educational backgrounds of homeowners. Yes, it is a different demographic than Tyler, but you picked the wrong school if you want one in a "wealthy" community.

KDeRosa said...

Anon, I was going by the reviewer's description. The important point is that Crofton has a higher SES than Tyler, the magnitude of that differen ce is not all that relevant to this simple analysis.

Anonymous said...

Those crofton scores look decent to me. Coupled with the fact that the croftons are well rounded, plus plus bling bling

KDeRosa said...

No one said they weren't decent, what they are, however, is below Tyler's scores. Crofton achieved less with a population in which the expectation is that they should have achieved more all other factors remaining constant.

Cal said...

I agree with you about Perlstein, but I'm not sure I can go along with your conclusions about Tyler beating the point spread.

Crofton has 730 kids, which means that their stats are on 53 black and 15 kids, respectively (if I did the math right, anyway). With that small a sample size, 83 and 86 percent are virtually identical.

Tyler spends all its time and then some on the tested subjects, and also probably gets the kids all psyched up for performance on Test Day. Crofton spends time on touchy feely nonsense and probably takes the test as an afterthought. That doesn't diminish Tyler's performance, but I don't see any evidence that Crofton "squandered" their advantage. They're getting the same results with about half the work.

Also--and I know you know this--if we switched from over/under to average scores, the numbers would be very different.

KDeRosa said...

Cal, see my comment above.

Yes, black reading scores show a small difference, but other scores like black math and poor math and reading show larger differences.

Tyler is pulling kids from the projects. Crofton is pulling them a middle class subdivision. We should expect to see Tyler performing at least a standard deviation below Crofton in pass rates, perhaps more if Crofton is really pulling from a wealthier than average area. Instead we see that Tyler is actually outperforming Crofton.

Cal said...

"We should expect to see Tyler performing at least a standard deviation below Crofton in pass rates, perhaps more if Crofton is really pulling from a wealthier than average area. "

Actually, it doesn't matter what district Crofton is pulling from when it comes to poor students, so there's no reason to expect a standard deviation higher from that comparison.

However, I don't agree that we can expect a standard deviation higher from Crofton. If all that's being tracked is pass rates, then it would be impossible for Crofton to perform a standard deviation above Tyler, if Tyler is succeeding at upping its pass rates. You can't pull away from a perfect pass rate.

Tyler, though a lot of work, is getting its students to meet a minimum pass rate. Crofton, with less effort, is meeting the same standard. That's great news for Tyler, but says nothing about Crofton.

As for 72 vs 82 on black math performance, it's still got the small sample size problem with only 53 blacks at Crofton. A distinction without too much difference.

I agree with your larger point--rich schools don't educate the poor or low-performining minority groups any more than low income schools. I just don't see any evidence that Tyler is outperforming Crofton; rather, Tyler's exclusive focus on tests is moving them to the same passrates as wealthier schools.

I bet Crofton students read and calculate, on average, far better than Tyler students. As you say, that has little to do with Crofton's teaching performance.

KDeRosa said...

il.comActually, it doesn't matter what district Crofton is pulling from when it comes to poor students, so there's no reason to expect a standard deviation higher from that comparison.


You are conflating two separate things, Cal.

You should expect about a standard deviation difference in pass rates between the typical poor Title I school (typical pass rate 20%) and the mean school (pass rate 50%).

And, not all poor students are the same. Poor usually means qualifying for free/reduced lunch which is set at about $40k and above which is not far below close to the mean family income. The "poor" kids are much more likely to have a higher family income than the "poor" kids at Tyler.

I don't agree that we can expect a standard deviation higher from Crofton.

Crofton is the control. It is doing what most schools do. If Tyler were doing what Crofton is doing then we'd expect a 1 sd difference. But, Tyler has a succussful intervention going on, so that's why they are not performing where we're expecting. Is that clear?

A distinction without too much difference.


I understand the error interval issue, see for example the white scores at Tyler and the hispanic scores at Crofton for more extreme examples. We'd need a fairly large deviation to account for 10 points.

rather, Tyler's exclusive focus on tests is moving them to the same passrates as wealthier schools.

Tyler is doing test prep and has changed their curriculum -- open court and saxon I think. At this point, we don't know which is more responsible for the increase in test scores. So it may not be the case that Tyler's student ability is that far below Crofton's if in fact the education they've received was legitimate and not test prep based.