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The 'Discovering the Obvious While Obscuring the Important' Award

Third Way for NEPC Review: Incomplete: How Middle Class Schools Aren't Making the Grade (September 2011)

This Third Way report is not shy about its intent: to “ignite the conversation about middle-class schools.” In particular, the report attempts to convince its readers that middle-class schools are doing a lot worse than we think. So what do we think? Years of research tell us that family wealth is an excellent predictor of test scores. One would therefore expect middle-class students to do substantially better than poor students but substantially worse than wealthy students. As our reviewer shows, that’s exactly how well these schools do. Middle-class schools score (…brace yourselves for this shocking finding…) in the middle.

What, then, is basis of the conversation Third Way is attempting to ignite? We’re not sure. That’s because in a normal conversation, one can understand what the other person is saying. Yet this report mixes and matches data sources and units of analysis to such an extent that it’s almost impossible for readers to figure out which analyses go with which data. Even more troubling, since the report defines “middle class” as having between 25% and 75% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, its analyses of district-level data include the urban schools districts in Detroit, Philadelphia, Houston and Memphis. The Third Way appears to have found a new way to address urban poverty: define it out of existence.