Jersey Jazzman: “Miracle” School “Journalism” and Gorilla Channel Values
Thomas, P.L. (2016). Miracle school myth. In W.J. Mathis & T.M. Trujillo, Learning from the Federal Market‐Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA. Charlotte, NC: IAP.
“Miracle” Schools or Political Scam?
P.L. Thomas, Furman University
The accountability era of education reform began under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, spurred by the Nation at Risk report. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, education reform driven by accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing remained a state-based process, but during George W. Bush’s time as governor of Texas, the seeds of national accountability were sown, labeled the Texas “miracle” and providing the framework for No Child Left Behind. “Miracle” school narratives—including the Harlem “miracle,” the Chicago “miracle,” and other claims of “miracle” reform/policies (DC public schools, charter schools) and reformers (Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada)—have followed a predictable pattern: claims of “miracles,” use of those claimed “miracles” to advance particular state and national education policy, media endorsing the “miracle” claims, a nearly universal refuting of credibility of those “miracles,” and political, media, and public failure to recognize the debunking.
“Miracle” Schools or Political Scam?
P.L. Thomas, Furman University
During President Ronald Reagan’s first term, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued A Nation at Risk, a report spurring over three decades of intense education reform built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, governors and state legislatures controlled education reform policy, but under President George W. Bush, with the renewal of bi-partisan legislation (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) popularly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), education reform became a federal policy initiative. President Barack Obama has maintained and even extended both educational accountability as well as the federal role in education reform.
A Nation at Risk signaled a crisis in U.S. public education; however, the foundational report for three decades of education reform was essentially a partisan political lie. Reagan’s marching order for the Commission drafting A Nation at Risk included a need to return prayer to the classroom (although individual prayer by choice in public schools was and remains legal in public schools), to encourage the public to support school choice, and to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education.
As Ansary explains:
What we now call school reform isn’t the product of a gradual consensus emerging among educators about how kids learn; it’s a political movement that grew out of one seed planted in 1983. I became aware of this fact some years ago, when I started writing about education issues and found that every reform initiative I read about — standards, testing, whatever — referred me back to a seminal text entitled “A Nation at Risk.”
One thread running through education reform and education policy since the early 1980s is political deception, characterized by a crisis mentality discourse about public schools and utopian promises of “miracle” schools that can serve as models for educational reform. However, just as A Nation at Risk has been discredited, “miracle” school claims prove to be mostly political mirages that serve political agendas but not the needs of society, schools, or students.
“Miracle” Schools or Political Scam?
By the 1990s, educational platforms had established themselves as powerful political capital that, particularly, governors could leverage. As governor of Texas from 1995-2000, George W. Bush personified the power of combining political and educational agendas.
As superintendent of Houston Independent School District beginning in 1994, Rod Paige led what was to be known as the Houston “miracle”—“where dropout rates plunged and test scores soared.” Bush embraced Paige and coined that claimed success, the Texas “miracle,” which served as the blueprint for NCLB. However, eventually, the “miracle” in Houston was examined and discredited; as Haney concluded in his extensive analysis: “The gains on TAAS and the unbelievable decreases in dropouts during the 1990s are more illusory than real. The Texas “miracle” is more hat than cattle.”
Bush, Paige, and NCLB, nonetheless, suffered no consequences for the deceptions. In fact, Bush and Paige did not discover the “miracle” for reforming schools, but did create a template for political gains—a template repeated by Margaret Spellings when she followed Paige as Secretary of Education under Bush from 2005-2009. In order to prove NCLB was working the same sort of “miracles” for the U.S. that Bush claimed accountability had in Texas, Spellings in 2006 celebrated a 7-point rise in reading NAEP scores from 1999 to 2005 as proof of the positive impact of NCLB. Krashen and Bracey unmasked that celebration by noting all the gains were achieved (from 1999 to 2002) before NCLB was implemented.
With the election of Barack Obama as president, many in education hoped for change, but Obama played the same cards as Bush with the appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. As CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 2001 until 2009, Duncan was credited with the Chicago ‘miracle.” Reporting in 2009, Anderson exposed that Chicago was no “miracle” and that Duncan’s political success was built on “overblown” claims similar to Paige’s.
Yet, Duncan’s exercise of “miracle” claims didn’t end with his appointment as Secretary. Like Spellings, Duncan in 2013 held up NAEP data from Tennessee as proof of the effectiveness of Obama’s education policies. Baker urged skepticism and caution about the political and media urge to shout “success”:
Is Tennessee’s 2-year growth an anomaly? We’ll have to wait at least another two years to figure that out. Was it caused by teacher evaluation policies? That’s really unlikely, given that those states that are equally and even further above their expectations have approached teacher evaluation in very mixed ways and other states that had taken the reformy lead on teacher policies – Louisiana and Colorado – fall well below expectations.
Spanning both the Bush and Obama administrations, Michelle Rhee as Chancellor of DC public schools combined political and personal success during her reign as a “miracle” school leader. While Rhee’s hard-nosed approach to teacher evaluation and retention/dismissal as well as her challenges to teachers’ unions garnered high-profile media attention and accolades—including the cover of Time—the results in DC have been discredited because of significant erasures and thus suggestions of tampering. Escaping consequences, however, Rhee continued her political and public fame after leaving DC to begin an education reform organization.
Similar to Rhee, entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada—in part due to high praise from Barack and Michelle Obama—became the “Superman” of education “miracles” with his Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), which in many ways helped boost charter schools as “miracles” in education reform. Rhee and Canada were featured prominently in the documentary Waiting for “Superman,” which was funded by Teach for America and charter interests. Canada was also tagged the leader of the Harlem “miracle” in The New York Times.
Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas examined the claims about Canada’s HCZ and discovered a similar pattern to the Texas “miracle”—when data from more than one test were considered, neither Texas nor HCZ students achieved anything close to a miracle. Yet, the praise and misleading label of “miracle” associated with the HCZ have become a pattern in which (1) media focus effusive praise and attention on the miracles, (2) careful examination of the data refutes those claims, and then (3) the media ignores those reviews.
The connection between charter schools and the claim of “miracle” has helped boost the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools as well as copy-cap “no excuses” charter schools. While KIPP and other “no excuses” charters can document test-score gains for high-poverty and minority students, those gains are not without controversy (notably about the authoritarian discipline policies) and ultimately cannot be characterized as “miracles.” The failure of the miracles to be sustained or brought up to scale has also been noted.
Many charter gains in student measurable achievement are often linked to significantly longer school days and years, much higher per-pupil spending, student selectivity and attrition, and under-serving high-needs student populations such as English language learners and special needs students (as well as the highest poverty students). Such gains cannot be attributed solely to “miracle” reforms. In many cases, they simply represent what many educators have requested over time.
Currently, the Florida “miracle” is poised to continue to shape state-level policies (notably linking grade retention to 3rd-grade high-stakes tests) and even the presidential aspirations of Jeb Bush. Yet, once again, the Florida “miracle” has been mostly public relations while also significantly rejected by the current research base on grade retention and best practices in literacy.
All in all, the persistent attention given “miracle” schools and policies, then, has proven education reform is more political theatre, if not scam, than reform. More broadly as well, the growing research base shows that accountability-based reform has failed.
Behind the “Miracle” Mask
Thirty years of accountability-based education reform has revealed a troubling paradox: building policy on claims of education “miracles” is simply and demonstrably untrue, but also those claims of “miracles” remain incredible effective for political careers. As well, even though charter schools specifically have achieved no better results than public schools, support for charter schools continues to increase—no doubt in art due to the media, political, and public perception that they are achieving “miracles” that public schools cannot or will not accomplish.
Three concerns about the “miracle” schools claim should serve to guide the need to reform education reform. First, the high percentage of politically motivated “miracle” school claims that have been discredited over the past two decades should encourage the media and public to be initially skeptical of such claims, and to wait for credible reviews of the data before celebrating the success.
Second, and related to the first, so-called “high flying” high-poverty schools have been shown to be incredible rare, even under close analysis. As Harris identified, “only 1.1 percent of high-poverty schools were identified as ‘high flyers.’” And finally, but again related to the second point, outliers by their nature cannot and should not be the basis of standard expectations of the entire public school system. In other words, even if the occasional “miracle” school exists, that model likely serves no useful purpose for determining policy or expectations for other schools.
“It should be clear, on its face, that ‘miracles’ have no place in education policy,” argues Elaine Weiss:
High-profile policymakers not only have proclaimed to have produced or witnessed “miracles,” but have suggested that these other-worldly happenings ought to be the basis for widespread policy change. We have subsequently watched as each proved to be less than miraculous and, often, a disaster.
For the sake of our schools, and our children, we must stop counting on the next miracle.
The “miracle” school story is a political charade, one that works for political gain, but it is built on a dishonest narrative of public schools in crisis, “bad” teachers, and corrupt teachers’ unions that can only be saved through a potpourri of neo-liberal and free-market reforms. Even more disturbing, “miracle” claims as a basis for education reform policy has resulted in three decades of wasted time and funding without any legitimate attempts to address social and educational inequity.
While some cheating in public education has received inordinate press and legal consequences (Atlanta), cheating scandals perpetuated by the reformers have been mostly ignored (DC), and dishonest claims of “miracles” have continued to reap tremendous political, person, and financial gains for some. The accountability era has failed. The focus on “miracle” schools has been a distraction from the rising inequity in the lives and education of children in the U.S. This is a distraction we measure in the loss of children’s lives, the opportunities and contributions denied to our society, and a great loss to democracy. These are losses we can no longer afford to tolerate.
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