Sunday, August 24, 2008

Howling at George Will Who Knows How to Close the Achievement Gap

This spot on selection from Friday's Daily Howler, bears reproducing in full. (There's more on journalism and politics. Here's the link.) The Daily Howler is a must read as it goes beyond education, though ya gotta love the way he has taken apart Wendy Kopp and Michelle Rhee over the past year (check the archives.)

No self-proclaimed ed policy pundit and empty suit, Howler Bob Somerby spent a number of years teaching in the Baltimore school system in elementary school. Sorry you high school teachers, I think elementary school teachers who get closest to the kids, their families, their homes, their neighborhoods, have the best take on what is really happening and the solutions that might work. And what won't work. And to expose idiocies from the likes of George Will and David Brooks (see our posts here, here, here) when they speak Eduese.


GEORGE F. WILL, SLOW LEARNER: Is there any other subject where so many know-nothings pose as experts? Yesterday, George F. Will displayed his vast brilliance about the state of elementary ed. In the following part of his column, Will is discussing Benjamin Chavis, who runs a well-known public charter school in Oakland:

WILL (8/21/08): He and other practitioners of the new paternalism—once upon a time, schooling was understood as democracy's permissible, indeed obligatory, paternalism—are proving that cultural pessimists are mistaken: We know how to close the achievement gap that often separates minorities from whites before kindergarten and widens through high school. A growing cohort of people possess the pedagogic skills to make "no excuses" schools flourish.

That highlighted statement is simply astounding. And trust us: Will knows as much about this subject as you know about the space shuttle program. We know how to close the achievement gap! It’s amazingly easy to say—and many hustlers now constantly say it. For all we know, Will may be channeling Wendy Kopp, well-known biggest hack in the land.

Sorry, but no—we don’t “know how to close the achievement gap” at this time. When people parade about saying we do, they commit an unfortunate act. But then, every dumb-ass on earth seems to say this now—often on the flimsiest “evidence.” In large part, Will seems to be basing his uplifting claim on the high test scores at Chavis’ school (the misleadingly-named American Indian Public Charter School, which kids of all races and ethnicities). Many kids have achieved great success at the school. But does that mean we know how to achieve such success as a general matter? Will seems willing to say it does. But right at the start of his column, this “know-nothing know-it-all” dumbly describes one part of this school’s success:

WILL: Seated at a solitary desk in the hall outside a classroom, the slender 13-year-old boy with a smile like a sunrise earnestly does remedial algebra, assisted by a paid tutor. She, too, is 13. Both wear the uniform—white polo shirt, khaki slacks—of a school that has not yet admitted the boy. It will, because he refuses to go away.

The son of Indian immigrants from Mexico, the boy decided he is going to be a doctor, heard about the American Indian Public Charter School here and started showing up. Ben Chavis, AIPCS's benevolent dictator, told the boy that although he was doing well at school, he was not up to the rigors of AIPCS, which is decorated with photographs of the many students it has sent to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. So the boy asked, what must I do?

We often deride “slow-learner” students. But could anyone show less capacity for learning than George F. Will, right in this piece?

Why does Chavis’ school send so many students to Hopkins? Duh. In part, because it picks and chooses the kids who attend! The 13-year-old whom Will describes is already “doing well at school,” we seem to be told. Not only that: He’s so motivated that he’s paying another student to tutor him—and he’s already purchased the uniform of a school which won’t let him in! We’ll applaud that student, just as Will does. But if Will would only submit to paid tutoring, even if he could probably see that public schools, as a general matter, don’t select their students this way. The average school must accept all the kids who arrive—not just the brightest, most determined students, the ones who “refuse to go away.”

Friends, for just $5 a month, you can provides books and equipment for Will. Won’t you consider making that small donation to give him the help he deserves?

And while you're checking out the DC scene, read this July 28 post on union busting from DC City Desk. Pro-Rhee teacher blogs have suddenly appeared, which we wrote about here and here.

Dorothy Brizill, DC 7/28/08

Watch Now - the Fenty-Rhee-Reinoso team may be on a collision course with the council over the proposed contract that Rhee will submit to the Washington Teachers Union. Rhee is seeking to bypass WTU's Executive Board and Delegate Assembly and take her proposed contract directly to the union membership. To accomplish that goal, Fenty and Rhee have launched a public relations campaign, both nationally and locally, to discredit the union and badmouth Washington teachers. The contract is a real union buster, asking current teachers to give up job security in exchange for potential pay bonuses. The government will not fund the bonuses, however; Rhee and Fenty are seeking startup funds from foundations such as Gates and Broad and the District's business community, such as CareFirst and developers. As a result, funding for the possible bonuses will only be guaranteed for the first year of the contract, while teachers will have given up tenure and job security, both for themselves and all new hires, permanently. However, the council has traditionally been very pro-union, and if councilmembers don't come out against these provisions in negotiations with teachers they will signal to all government employee unions that they can't be trusted to support them against Fenty's future union-busting initiatives.


The Perimeter Primate said...

The fluff about this school has been driving me nuts for years! Here's what I wrote to George Will.

Dear Mr. Will,

In preparing your recent column in the Washington Post (8/21/08), "Where Paternalism Makes the Grade," you may have wished to take a look at the demographic changes over the past several years at the American Indian Public Charter School. I am certain that you were unaware of them when you wrote the piece, but their influence must be considered when discussing the changes that have occurred at this particular school. Otherwise, a true picture is not portrayed. .

Dr. Chavis’ first year at the school was 2001-02. By the time he began his third year at the school, a new course for the school was in place—the acquisition of more students from the higher performing subgroups and a reduction of students from the lowest performing subgroups. Please note the changes in enrollment which occurred. (Incidentally, the demographics of Oakland were not shifting in this same way. They have remained stable with the exception of an increase in Latino residents and a decline in African American residents.)

The percentage of the school’s students who were in the following subgroups: American Indian or Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, Filipino, Hispanic or Latino, or African American in the 12 school years from 1996-97 to 2007-08.

1996-97 = 100.0
1997-98 = 97.0
1998-99 = 93.8
1999-00 = 100.1
2000-01 = 97.0
2001-02 = 100
2002-03 = 98.7
2003-04 = 74.3
2004-05 = 55.4
2005-06 = 65.3
2006-07 = 51.1
2007-08 = 50.5

Here is the changing percentage of the school’s students who were in the following subgroups: Asian or White. Please note the unusual increase in 2003:

1996-97 = 0.0
1997-98 = 2.9
1998-99 = 6.2
1999-00 = 0.0
2000-01 = 2.9
2001-02 = 0.0
2002-03 = 1.2
2003-04 = 25.7
2004-05 = 44.6
2005-06 = 33.7
2006-07 = 22.4
2007-08 = 38.4

This data was obtained from the California Department of Education @

In 2006, questions were being raised about the selectivity of students. Suddenly, the school had an unprecedented number of students who were not specifying their subgroup. The percentage in this group had been nonexistent for 10 years. It suddenly jumped to 26.4 percent and has remained over 10 percent since. This certainly appears odd and would be one way to muddy the true demographics of the student population.

Sharon Higgins
Oakland parent

ed notes online said...

Fabuous work Sharon. You nailed a lot of stuff here. Your blog has a lot of things that need to be said. I'm going to stop by regularly.