Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Obama Touts School With High Attrition Rate Of At-Risk Students As What's Right With Education

Obama hails Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis as the future of education:

President Barack Obama on Saturday called on Congress to overhaul the No Child Left Behind legislation this year, arguing that school systems around the country need the flexibility to tailor education programs to each community’s needs.

“We need to promote reform that gets results while encouraging communities to figure out what’s best for their kids,” Obama said in his weekly address. “That why it’s so important that Congress replace No Child Left Behind this year — so schools have that flexibility. Reform just can’t wait.”

In his remarks, Obama talked about Booker T. Washington High, the Memphis, Tenn., school where he spoke on Monday. He lauded the school for transforming its curriculum and culture in just a few short years and raising its graduation rate from half the student body to four out of five students — achievements that helped the school win the 2011 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, which challenged schools across the nation to demonstrate their commitment to preparing students for college and a career.

This year, about 70 percent of Booker T. Washington’s students will continue to pursue higher education — a dramatic increase from just a handful who would go on to college in the past.

“So Booker T. Washington High School is no longer a story about what’s gone wrong in education,” Obama said. “It’s a story about how we can set it right.”

But Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post noted this troubling point about the Booker T. Washington High School:

Some things, as we sometimes find out after the fact, are not always what they originally seemed. That may be the case at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, where President Obama is delivering the commencement address today.

The school won the administration’s Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, in which hundreds of schools competed to win an Obama apperance by showing how they have worked to increase their graduation rates and improve student achievement. Obama picked the winner himself from three finalists chosen by the public.


The school says its graduation rate jumped from 55% in 2007 to 81.6% in 2010, an accomplishment that would certainly appeal to Obama, who has made increasing high school and college graduation a key education priority.

But here’s the thing: Veteran teacher and author Gary Rubinstein looked into the graduation rate rise and discovered something that casts a different light on that achievement.

Rubinstein, a Teach for America alumnus and author of two books on teaching -- “Reluctant Disciplinarian” and “Beyond Survival” -- wrote on his blog that he looked at demographic figures for Booker T. Washington and found this:

I found that there was a lot of attrition over that four year period. The school enrollment was 760 in 2007, 732 in 2008, 649 in 2009, and then in the ‘miracle’ year 2010, down to 566. So the school had lost nearly 25% of its students in that time period, which is also the exact percent that the graduation rate climbed by.

I looked into this sudden drop in enrollment to find if I could learn if the 200 students who disappeared were the ones who were less likely to graduate. It didn’t take long for me to locate this article, which explains that two housing projects right near the school were torn down, thus displacing the 200 students that account for the drop.

The actual demolition of the projects didn’t happen until a few months after the miracle, but surely people started leaving once they found out about it. Though some of the displaced kids, as the article states, found a way to continue going to their school, most didn’t.... The poorest, and thus least likely to graduate, kids were exactly the ones that the school lost.

The video Booker T. Washington submitted to the contest begins with images of the demolition of one of the projects so this is not something they were trying to hide.

There is more in his blog post about dropout rates and cohort rates that you can read here.

So this leaves an open question as to just how the graduation rate rose at Booker T. Washington.

Asking the question does not negate the real achievements at the school, or make it any less eligible for a presidential visit.

But it does raise the issue of how much stock we put in statistics when we aren’t sure how they were calculated or what they really mean.

25% attrition rate of the most at-risk students.

High poverty projects demolished, the area around the school gentrifying.

And suddenly - it's a miracle!!! - the graduation rates at the school soar.

And this is what Obama touts as "What's right in education!"

Displacing the most at-risk students, phonying up the stats by failing to state the attrition rate and explain the significance of it, then smear the schools those at-risk students eventually wind up in as "drop-out factories" when graduation rates drop there.

This is education reform in a nutshell.

So the president is wrong when he says reform cannot wait.

Reform like this can wait since it doesn't actually solve the problems - it just moves them.

1 comment:

  1. This story, with the demolition of local housing projects occurring simultaneously with declines in the school population, is emblematic of the viciousness and dishonesty that is at the root of corporate ed deform.

    Needless to say, Obama is there to cheer it on, give it a black face and divert potential opposition. It's what he was hired to do