Radical Eyes for Equity: UPDATED: Beware the “Miracle” School Claim: “Why Not Tell the Whole Story?”

Since my post below, Benjamin Navarro, founder of Meeting Street Schools, submitted a Lady Macbeth-esque protest about the article linked below.

Navarro, I believe unintentionally, poses a very important question while challenging how the Post and Courier reported the excessive suspensions at Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood: “Why not tell the whole story?”

While Navarro bristles at the suspension data, he is quick to offer a partial story about data he prefers, test scores:

And most important of all [emphasis added], why not talk about the enormous impact that Brentwood’s higher test scores have on the likely outcomes for these children? Why not report the fact that our students scored in the 71st percentile in reading and 73rd percentile in math (almost eliminating the bottom quartile), while other North Charleston Title One schools scored on average in the 42nd and 39th percentile respectively in 2016?

So let’s have a shot at the whole story because that is the problem with Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood, with all so-called alternative approaches to public schools such as charter schools.

Currently, South Carolina is not holding schools accountable by the usual school report card until fall 2018. But the media, in fact, has been reporting glowing depictions of Brentwood, depending almost entirely on the school’s founder and leaders who are incentivized to paint the best picture possible of their experiment while concurrently (and dishonestly) falsely trashing Charleston public schools (see Navarro’s letter).

Navarro’s reference to test scores looks impressive; yet, he fails to provide the whole story about that data—and as I detail below, virtually every time the whole story comes out about miracle schools, that whole story proves there are no miracles.

Here, then, is what we need to know:

  • What test data are being cited? It is likely he is citing practice test data (such as MAP and ACT testing). We must confront if we truly believe that intensive test-prep and test scores are what any child deserves from formal schooling, if these claimed higher scores are from test prep, and why we allow this reduced form of education for poor and black/brown students while affluent and white students receive advanced courses, gifted programs, and all sorts of enrichment.
  • What is the attrition rate for Brentwood—the number of students originally enrolled compared to the number of students tested? Are suspension/expulsions and counseling out creating skewed test score data?
  • What percentage of English language learners (ELLs) and students with special needs are being tested, and then, are data from Brentwood being compared to other schools with similar demographics (and not just all Title One schools)?
  • Has Brentwood controlled for the extended school day/year to account for these claimed higher test scores, or are we being asked to compare student data under different conditions of learning? More teaching and learning time should produce higher scores; thus, Brentwood may have higher scores while not being able to claim that anything other than more time created that difference.
  • If, as advocates and Navarro claim, some unique practices by Meeting Street are causing greater student achievement, how can they prove those practices are causal and then that they are scalable? For example, what is the per-pupil expenditure, what are class sizes and student/teacher ratios, and what can Brentwood do that traditional public schools cannot (such as refuse to serve ELLs or special needs students)?
  • What race and social class biases are driving our willingness to create schools for high poverty and black/brown students that are committed to “no excuses” and zero tolerance discipline practices?

Advocates for Brentwood, including Navarro, are trafficking in partial stories by failing to be transparent about their claims of miracles while refusing to accept data that tarnishes those claims.

Until all of the questions above are answered by making that data transparent to independent analysis (not by those invested in the success of Brentwood), we are forced to suffer under partial stories that serve no one well.

Original Post: Beware the “Miracle” School Claim

Published on Easter Sunday 2017 in the Post and CourierPaul Bowers offered what I suspect will be a slow and painful series of unfortunate evidence that will discredit claims of educational miracles at Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood; in this case, the public/private partnership elementary school has a unique and extreme suspension problem:

Meeting St suspensions copy

As a public/private venture, as a school choice and reform mechanism, Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood is trapped in the need to advocate, sell its process. And since South Carolina has not held this experiment to the traditional school report card transparency, we are left only with the claims of school leaders.

However, we have well over a decade of “miracle” school bluster, all of which has been dismantled—suggesting that, I am sorry to say during this holiday season, there are no miracles.

While the school report card based mostly on high-stakes testing data is a significant failure of education reform, South Carolina’s report card system has included a key way to know if schools are in fact outperforming other schools, using the “Schools with Students Like Ours” metric (which I have detailed multiple times exposes that charter schools are no different, and possibly less effective, than traditional public schools in our state):

However, analyses from two years of report cards for charter schools in SC reveal the clear picture that more investment is not justified (see below for complete analysis of both years’ comparisons):

  • Using 2011 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical.
  • Using 2013 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 2/52 ABOVE Typical, 20/52 Typical, 22/52 BELOW Typical.

And thus, this disturbing suspension data about an elementary school are just the beginning of what I can predict will happen as the evidence grows against the claims of this school somehow is accomplishing what other schools have not, cannot accomplish.

First, the evidence is very clear that “high-flying schools” are extreme outliers, constituting about 1.1% of high-poverty schools. This means two things: (1) if Meeting Street does achieve some sort of high-flying status, it will be in extremely rare company, and thus, (2) outliers prove virtually nothing about what most schools can and should accomplish (outliers often include key elements that cannot be scaled to all schools).

Next, the huge caution about any claims of miracle success on test scores at Meeting Street must be couched in their extended day and academic year. This technique has driven the false but powerful propaganda from KIPP charter schools that conveniently leave out that when you identify learning as months or years of growth, and you extend the learning time, the raw data growth is actually the same growth rate as other schools.

Comparing students with more teaching and learning time to other students with less is just one way advocates of charters and miracle schools mislead the public.

Remaining questions—some linked to suspension and expulsion patterns—include how any school’s test scores are impacted by student attrition(counseling out, expulsion, etc.), the percentage of special needs and English language learners served (when compared to traditional public schools), and the impact of self-selection (which can skew even claims that a school is serving a high-poverty population of students).

Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood will prove, once again, to be evidence of the inherent problems with education form, and no miracle at all.

Our most vulnerable students—impoverished, black and brown students, English language learners, and special needs students—are disproportionatelythe targets of educational reform/experiments grounded in test-mania and harsh discipline policies and outcomes (see herehere, and here).

To be blunt, good intentions of administrators and teachers in our traditional public schools have not been enough, and now, those same good intentions among reformers cannot be justification for false claims and failed policies and practices.

Practices and fads such as exit exams“no excuses” mantras“grit” and  growth mindsetzero-tolerance discipline, and the larger accountability movement churning through standards and high-stakes testing—these have all increased the existing problems with inequity in our schools and society, and have miserably failed the students who need nurturing and effective schooling the most.

Miracle school claims are that human-sized Easter bunny; but that is just some stranger in a suit pretending to be a bunny, and it isn’t really appealing so much as something we should be very leery of approaching, especially with children.


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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate? (Springer,...