First Person

Just How Gullible is Anderson Cooper?

What is it about the Harlem Children’s Zone that causes pundits and reporters to suspend disbelief?  Perhaps it’s the deep desire for evidence that the large and persistent racial gap in educational achievement can be overcome.  The enduring racial inequalities in educational and social outcomes in the U.S. are a blight on our society, and evidence that these inequalities can be eliminated, however, tenuous, can be elevated into the feel-good story of the year.

Last night, Anderson Cooper reported on the Harlem Children’s Zone for the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes.  “For years, educators have tried and failed to get poor kids from the inner city to do just as well in school as kids from America’s more affluent suburbs,” he began. “Black kids still routinely score well below white kids on national standardized tests. But a man named Geoffrey Canada may have figured out a way to close that racial achievement gap.”  Cooper asked Canada, “So you’re trying to level the playing field between kids here in Harlem and middle class kids in a suburb?”  “That’s exactly what we have to do,” Canada replied.

As is customary, Cooper spoke with Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who has analyzed the achievement of students attending the HCZ Promise Academy charter schools.  Fryer said, “At the elementary school level, he closed the achievement gap in both subjects, math and reading.”   

“Actually eliminating the gap in elementary school?” Cooper asked.

“We’ve never seen anything like that. Absolutely eliminating the gap. The gap is gone, and that is absolutely incredible,” Fryer said.

I suppose that one can look selectively at the most recent achievement data available—the 2009 state assessments in English Language Arts and math—to draw this conclusion, but boy, is it a stretch.  The figure below shows the 2009 English Language Arts and mathematics achievement of students at the HCZ Promise Academy and HCZ Promise Academy II, for grades three, four, five and eight.  This achievement is contrasted with New York City citywide averages for Asian and white students.  The group differences are represented in standard deviation units, using the citywide standard deviation for the scale scores on the respective tests.

hcz-cooper

In grade 3, HCZ students score higher than the citywide average for white students in both ELA and math, a remarkable accomplishment.  They also outperform Asian students in ELA, but are about a quarter of a standard deviation below the citywide Asian average on the math assessment.  Were we to limit our attention solely to third grade, one could, without too much hyperbole, claim that HCZ had eliminated the racial achievement gap within New York City.

But there are other elementary and middle school grades on which to compare HCZ and white and Asian students across New York City, and the story is quite different for these other grades.  In grades four, five and eight, HCZ students score consistently about .6 standard deviations below white and Asian New York City students on the state ELA exam.  The gaps are also large in mathematics, although the eighth-grade gap is considerably smaller than those in fourth and fifth grades.  In fifth grade, HCZ students score .9 standard deviations below white students citywide, and 1.1 standard deviations below Asian students.

Taking all of these data together, there is virtually no basis for claiming that the Harlem Children’s Zone has eliminated the racial achievement gap in elementary and middle school.

The data that I’ve presented compare HCZ students with New York City students.  But recall that Geoff Canada’s objective is to level the playing field relative to middle-class suburban kids, who may be higher-achieving than the white and Asian students attending NYC public schools, as a good fraction of the most affluent children and youth in New York City attend private schools.  How do things look if we compare HCZ students with students in Scarsdale, the economist’s suburb of choice for claims about closing the achievement gap?

As the figure below indicates, the math gaps look about the same, since Scarsdale students score in the same ballpark as white and Asian students in New York City.  Thus, HCZ third-graders outperform even Scarsdale third-graders, but there are large gaps in grades four and five, and then a smaller, but still substantial, shortfall in grade eight, with Scarsdale students scoring .36 standard deviations higher than HCZ students.  However, the gaps in English Language Arts are much larger at every grade level, because Scarsdale students score considerably higher on the state ELA exam than do white and Asian students in NYC at every grade level.  In grades four, five and eight, HCZ students score from .97 to 1.22 standard deviations lower on the state ELA exam than do Scarsdale students, a huge gap.  Score differences of this magnitude indicate that the typical HCZ student might score at the 15th percentile of the Scarsdale distribution of performance in these grades.  

scarsdale

In the 60 Minutes segment, Roland Fryer used a football analogy to describe the accomplishments of HCZ.  “We’re ten touchdowns down in the fourth quarter,” he said. “We kick a field goal and everyone celebrates, right? That’s kind of useless. We’re still 67 points down … What Geoff Canada has shown is that we can actually win the game.”

But here’s the problem.  We’re not in the fourth quarter.  We’re in the first quarter, and most of the game still lies ahead.  The Harlem Children’s Zone is not a mature intervention.  No child has gone through his entire childhood and youth exposed to the intervention, and we don’t know what the outcomes will look like until that occurs.  I am hard-pressed to conclude, based on the most recent data available, that the results are, in Cooper’s terms, “nothing short of stunning,” or that the gap is gone for good.  The 2009 results for third-graders are terrific;  those for students in grades four, five and eight are not.  These latter grades show large and persistent gaps within New York City in both English Language Arts and mathematics, and even larger gaps with the affluent students in Scarsdale, particularly in English Language Arts.  If the third-grade pattern were to persist through the end of high school—on assessments we can trust—that would truly be nothing short of stunning, and well worth celebrating.  But it’s still too early to declare victory.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.