Waiting for Superman to Tell the Truth? (Don’t Hold Your Breath)

The least accountable among us are those at the top making grand statements (unverified, unchallenged) used to call for the accountable of everyone else.

I invite you to read carefully Canada’s Legend-ary TED Talk Lie by Gary Rubinstein to understand how corrosive the “miracle” school narrative is when it is combined with the cult of personality (Canada as Superman, Rhee as the Tiger Mom, Duncan as NBA Celebrity Basketball Player, and Bill Gates as Know-It-All Billionaire Next Door) and a passive media owned by those celebrities.

After you read Gary’s excellent unmasking, read further a reposting on the “Harlem” miracle and other pieces I’ve done confronting this narrative that isn’t true but won’t die. See also related posts on Canada’s HCZ from Aaron Pallas added below.

Reconsidering Education “Miracles” (OpEdNews, 8/17/2010)

“We may have found a remedy for the achievement gap,” concluded David Brooks in an Op-Ed“The Harlem Miracle,” for The New York Times (8 May 2009) about the Promise Academy of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).

According to Brooks, Harvard economist Roland Fryer and his coleague Will Dobbie had just completed “a rigorous assessment” of the charter schools operated by the HCZ. Brooks wrote:

They found that the Harlem Children’s Zone schools produced ‘enormous’ gains. The typical student entered the charter middle school, Promise Academy, in sixth grade and scored in the 39th percentile among New York City students in math. By the eighth grade, the typical student in the school was in the 74th percentile. The typical student entered the school scoring in the 39th percentile in English Language Arts (verbal ability). By eighth grade, the typical student was in the 53rd percentile.

Brooks concluded that Dobbie and Fryer’s claim that the charter school had closed the achievement gap between blacks and whites proved the reformers right and the educational establishment wrong.

Subsequently, HCZ was championed by NPR, Edutopia, 60 MinutesTime, and The Washington Post — where Shulman added, “Now the Obama administration seeks to replicate [President and CEO Geoffrey] Canada’s model in 20 cities in a program called Promise Neighborhoods and has set aside $10 million in the 2010 budget for planning.”

The HCZ experiment includes a charter school that offers both social and educational support for students and parents, and is designed to lift the families out of poverty by addressing the entire zone of each child’s life. Paul Tough has chronicled the ambitious program in Whatever It Takes.

The rush to replicate the HCZ and charter schools more broadly offers important lessons that have more to do with how we distort research than how we can reform schools. Repeating patterns exposed by Molnar (2001) and Yettick (2009), the media and political reactions to the “Harlem Miracle” prove again that many have misrepresented what data from the Promise Academy reveal.

Educational reform should be about improving the lives of children, not declaring ideological winners. And as Freire writes, “If education cannot do everything, there is something fundamental that it can do. In other words, if education is not the key to social transformation, neither is it simply meant to reproduce the dominant ideology.”

Aaron Pallas, responding directly to Brooks, noted that Dobbie and Fryer base their claims of closing the achievement gap on one test result of ten at two grade levels. Further, Pallas explains that advocates gloss over that those students did not close the gap on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills the same year.

In short, making claims that HCZ research provides “a remedy for the achievement gap” overstates for the wider public what the data support. Proclaiming “miracle” exposes our flawed silver-bullet mentality, not a remedy for closing the achievement gap.

For HCZ to show us how to reform public schools, we must know how HCZ schools compare and differ from public schools in order to identify what causes any success. And we must resist allowing the media and politicians to drive — through distortion — what we say, believe, and implement concerning our schools.

One difference is HCZ schools (and many charter schools) include virtually no ELL or special education students, although the public schools must serve those populations. Another difference is, although Brooks discounted the value of low student-teacher ratios, the HCZ schools have, according to the 60 Minutes report, one adult for every six children, again unlike public schools addressing high poverty populations.

Further, HCZ schools address the social conditions of children living in poverty along with reforming schools. But advocates discount the impact of the social support and champion the most disturbing and least challenged aspect of the Harlem experiment — “no excuses schools,” Brooks explains, adding, “The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values.”

The claim of “no excuses schools” masks the rise of “new paternalism” schools that justify oppressive practices in pursuit of raising scores, increasing graduation rates, and improving college attendance — all mechanistic assumptions about education in a free society — while seeking to discredit progressive educational ideologies.

Diane Ravitch has questioned HCZ’s commitment “to impose middle-class values on poor and minority children.” Ravitch argues, “But I don’t think that our schools need to be boot camps to teach courtesy, civility, respect for others, self-discipline, and other virtues necessary for democratic life.”

“No excuses schools” implement the worst aspects of racism and classism, notably that the problems we face are inherently in the children themselves. If we persist in conforming all children to the system, we are ignoring the possible (and likely) flaws in society, standardized testing, and bureaucratic schooling.

We, then, are left with some lessons hidden by distorting what HCZ charter schools reveal.

First, we must distinguish media and political advocacy from evidence, especially when we are faced with claims of “miracles.” Brooks claims the Promise Academy alone closed the achievement gap, but Dobbie and Fryer admit, “We cannot, however, disentangle whether communities coupled with high-quality schools drive our results, or whether the high-quality schools alone are enough to do the trick.

Next, we should seek the full picture, even when faced with the complexity of data and statistical claims of relevance. Brooks’ conclusions drawn from Dobbie and Fryer’s paper are misleading because they are incomplete and thus distorted.

As well, we must make accurate comparisons with public schools when considering educational experiments. HCZ schools have conditions and populations unlike high-poverty public schools — a fact of most charter schools. What has worked for individual HCZ students may not work in public school reform. And many of the successful elements in charter experiments have been supported by research for decades (thus aren’t unique to charter schools or created because of them), but rarely implemented in public schools.

Finally, if the HCZ experiment is important to the children being served now and for the lessons we can learn — and it is — then we must acknowledge its successes and its problems honestly. But to manipulate evidence to declare ideological winners and losers fails the children and society we seek to serve.

Yet, the Obama administration’s education agenda, led by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has continued to pursue directly and indirectly the claimed power of charter schools — ignoring the new paternalism of “no excuses” ideologies, ignoring the whole picture of those charter schools, and ignoring the essential problems facing education.

Instead of idealistic and misleading claims of “miracles” and silver-bullet solutions to complex problems, educational reform needs to be guided by two clear principles.

First, we should confront directly the social failures of our culture and with that a recognition that educational failures are a reflection of those social failures. Posting on a blog at EdWeek, Stephen Krashen states this shift well:

Improving education is not the path to eliminating poverty. Eliminating poverty is the path to better school achievement. All the money going to new standards, new tests, and of course new textbooks, should be spent on protecting children from the effects of poverty: Proper nutrition (no child left unfed), health care, and access to books.

This is not an easy reality to accept, but with the U.S. having one of the highest child poverty percentages of affluent countries, that we are failing children as a society is the initial problem that must be confronted if we expect educational reform to succeed.

After this focus on the inequities in our society, we must reconsider our commitment to educational experimentation broadly and charter schools more narrowly.

Educational experimentation is at the heart of progressive views of education. In fact, Dewey and others would argue that education within a democracy, that education honoring the empowerment of everyone is perpetual experimentation.

Thus, we should stop seeing charter schools, or any alternatives to traditional schools, as a path to a singular solution to all our schools.

Writing about a study by Gary Miron addressing Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools, charter schools receiving similar support to HCZ schools, Kevin Welner, of Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC), frames how best to view the complexity of education experiments:

Importantly, Miron is also not saying that the KIPP schools do poorly. Those schools provide about 50% more instructional time and place rigorous demands on students and their families. ‘We have every reason to believe that KIPP likely does a great job with the low-income students of color who wish to attend and who have relatively supportive parents who can do things like drive them to Saturday school,’ Miron says. But he does question whether this is a viable model for larger numbers of students, and he also wonders whether the different departure and receiving policies may make matters worse for students who are left behind or who later leave KIPP schools. How would the KIPP model work if students who cannot handle the rigorous KIPP demands could not move to conventional public schools?

Does public education need reform? Yes, but not in the ways often claimed by politicians or assumed by the general public. But that reform will remain impotent under the weight of poverty until we can acknowledge the social failures that lead to the educational failures and stop scapegoating schools and teachers in order to mask those larger inequities at the root of our culture.

See also re: Geoffrey Canada: 

Superman or Kryptonite?—Legend of the Fall, pt. V

Aaron Pallas unmasking Canada:

Just How Gullible Is David Brooks?

Just How Gullible is Anderson Cooper?

Collected “Miracle” Schools Posts:

at the becoming radical

at Radical Scholarship


  1. […] also have real problems with Paul Tough and David Kirp (see HERE and HERE), both of whom I feel do work that helps perpetuate […]

  2. […] Waiting for Superman to Tell the Truth? (Don’t Hold Your Breath) – @ THE CHALK FACE knows SCHOOL…. […]

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