There’s been a fair amount of buzz regarding David Brooks’ column in the New York Times this past Friday. Brooks highlights The Promise Academy, a charter school operated by Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, and makes the somewhat astounding claim that the school “had eliminated the black-white achievement gap” in math. The proof is in the test scores: according to Brooks’ numbers, 8th graders at The Promise Academy score between 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations above other 8th graders across New York City. He’s smitten, waxing rhapsodic on HCZ’s achievements, which include infusing massive amounts of social services into a neighborhood and running charter schools that “create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values.” (For a more measured discussion of Canada’s quest, see this Slate analysis.)
Call it Charter Fever, the trendy, contagious ague that grips those who recognize the failure of our public school system to address the woes that ail poor urban students. Victims include Joel Klein and Al Sharpton at the Education Equality Project in N.Y.C., L.A.’s Ramon Cortines and Green Dot, Cory Booker in Newark, KIPP-fanciers, Arne Duncan with his $300 million stimulus package to cities that loosen up charter school restrictions, Michael Bloomberg.
Is it a sickness or is it the cure?
Brooks’ febrile column gets some tylenol from Aaron Pallas, a former guest-blogger at eduwonkette who now blogs at GothamSchools.org. Pallas put up a post the same day as Brooks’ piece appeared called “Just How Gullible is David Brooks?” Read it yourself because the details are fascinating. Pallas decides “to drink a bit more deeply from the datastream” and shows that the results Brooks points to are actually a statistical aberration.
In the HCZ Annual Report for the 2007-08 school year submitted to the State Education Department, data are presented on not just the state ELA and math assessments, but also the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Those eighth-graders who kicked ass on the state math test? They didn’t do so well on the low-stakes Iowa Tests. Curiously, only 2 of the 77 eighth-graders were absent on the ITBS reading test day in June, 2008, but 20 of these 77 were absent for the ITBS math test. For the 57 students who did take the ITBS math test, HCZ reported an average Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) score of 41, which failed to meet the school’s objective of an average NCE of 50 for a cohort of students who have completed at least two consecutive years at HCZ Promise Academy.
Okay, fine. Brooks had a bad day, or at least a weak journalistic one. The statistically significant drop-off in participation in the math test vs. the reading list is troubling, especially to the growing number of New Jersey charter school devotees. But the Promise Academy still holds promise, and here in Jersey we need to push on.
Here’s a paradox for you. New Jersey public schools are regulated by the state and federal governments, which leads to standardization and uniformity of curriculum. (Over the past year we’ve witnessed a tightening of state regulation to the point of strangulation.) In addition, the NJEA tightly controls instructional time and nixes merit pay, adhering to an industrial model that reduces each teacher to a cog in a wheel. Finally, New Jersey, more than any other state in the union, has divided its student population into so many tiny pieces – 617, to be exact – that each district tends towards a homogeneity unheard of in the rest of the country.
However, we also know (getting back to HCZ) that children from impoverished backgrounds require different support and instructional strategies than children from more privileged backgrounds. In fact, our Abbott districts are also called “special needs districts,” the same turn of phrase used to refer to children with disabilities. It’s a tacit acknowledgment that poor kids require individualized instruction and special supports that are anathema to our current model of standardized programs and teachers.
On the one hand we have an extreme form of NJEA-and-D.O.E.-enforced uniformity among our school districts. On the other hand, we have a swelling population of kids who need non-standardized accommodations to succeed. It’s impossible to reconcile the two competing models within our current educational infrastructure.
In New Jersey, this sort of model is only available in the form of a charter school. We’ve got to resist the fever of over-exuberance, use caution with statistics, and continue the experiment.