Sunday, July 12, 2009

The EFF School Report Card: Who Are the Winners?

Previously we've taken an overall look at the EFF school report card, along with the schools that it identified as being the very worst (or, in their words, the losers) in the state. Today I thought it might be fun to take a look at the winners--is there anything that we can learn from them?

For the school year 2007-2008 there were 15 schools that tied with a perfect 10 in the EFF rankings. Of those, 6 have had a perfect 10 in each of the last 5 years. Who are these high achievers?

1) Medina Elementary, Medina, King County. You know who lives in Medina? Bill Gates. Go to their census page and you can read lots of fun information, like how the average family income is well above $100,000, the largest number of families make $200,000+, there wasn't a single "Female Householder, No Husband Present" to be found in the whole town, and 99% of the residents aged 25+ are high school graduates.

I'm going to hazard a guess, but I'm thinking Medina may have it a little bit better that some other places in the state.

2) Lowell Elementary, Seattle, King County. From their website:
Lowell Elementary School is home to two of the Seattle Public School District's all-city-draw programs, the Accelerated Progress Program (APP) and education for Low Incidence Special Education students.
Accelerated Progress Program. I wonder what that is?
APP is a program of accelerated instruction in Seattle Public Schools, generally two years above grade level. It serves intellectually advanced students who meet eligibility criteria and whose learning needs are not fully met in conventional classrooms.
Ah. Take the brightest kids in the state's biggest city, put them all together, and see how they do on the WASL. It's not by chance that this is a succesful school.

3) Libby Center, Spokane, Spokane County. Of the 6 schools that earned a perfect 10 Libby Center has the highest percentage of kids from low-income families: 23.1%. That's a success story, absolutely. The secret to the success?
Tessera is a one day per week program at Libby Center for highly capable students in grades 3 - 6 who represent the top 3% of their norm group. Students are selected on the basis of academic, intellectual, and creative ability.
Yeah, but that's a one-day-a-week thing. Those kids probably take the WASL at their home schools. Where do Libby's WASL scores come from?
The Spokane Public Schools elementary and middle school Odyssey Program is a full day, every day gifted magnet program at Libby Center for fifth through eighth grade students.
Magnet programs: great for gifted kids. Alas, not replicable.

4) Island Park Elementary, Mercer Island, King County: Remarkably, all three of the elementary schools on Mercer Island scored a perfect 10 on the EFF rankings for the 2007-2008 school year. There were 15 schools to get 10.0, and three of them are from the same school district. Why could that be?

  • Could it be the median family income of about $147,000?
  • Or that about 30% of the households bring in $200,000+?
  • Or the median home value of $880,000, which compares well to the national average of $182,000?
  • Or that about 75% of the residents have a Bachelor's degree or higher?
Look, Mercer Island has a well-deserved reputation as a center of wealth in Washington State, where the high school kids drive nicer cars than their teachers do, where you go when you've made it in life. It's no surprise that Mercer Island has great schools, because Mercer Island is a high-achieving community with money to burn. Thta's why comments like this, from Diana Cieslak of the EFF, drive me absolutely insane:

“The reason we chose to do this is to equip parents with the very best info available,” she said.

“We feel that the ranking system gives them a useful conclusion that allows them to see how their schools are doing compared to others in the state.”

When asked why Mercer Island performed so well in the study, Cieslak suggested that parents should go and find out the answer themselves.

“That is our goal,” she said. “The school will have the answers.”
Absolutely, on its face, ridiculous. It's the myth of replicability that I've talked about before--a school is successful here, so a school can be successful there, too--and Ms. Cieslak pushes that myth to the most ridiculous edge.

5) Challenge, Mountlake Terrace, Snohomish County: If you're a terrible cynic you're probably going, "Feh! I bet it's a magnet program in some well-to-do school district! Feh!"

Sometimes, the cynics are right. Challenge is a special magnet program for gifted kids in the Edmonds School District, admission based on referrals and testing.

6) Cedar Wood Elementary, Bothell, King/Snohomish County: A school that's proud to be mentioned in the EFF's report card, they trumpet their high ranking right off of their home page. Mind you, they don't mention the EFF by name (they call them "an educational research foundation">, nor do they link to the EFF's web page, or to the report itself, but why would I want to read anything into that unless I was being snarky, right?

Anyhow, this looks to be an actual public school, in the Everett School District! I know, right? Weird! Going off of their school report card they have 6.2% of the kids taking free or reduced price lunch, about 15% in special education, and 100% fans of locally connected band Death Cab for Cutie.

Congratulations to Cedar Wood for what they've accomplished.

So, to review: 3 magnet programs, 2 of the richest elementary schools in the state, and Cedar Wood of Bothell.

There's a quote that I thought was Molly Ivins, but Google attributes to Ann Richards, referring to George Bush: "He's a guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." What the top of the EFF report card is showing us is not a collection of schools that have had to struggle to get their success, but that are maintaining the successes that the kids showed up with in kindergarten.

Another phrase that's been put out is "Cinderella Schools"; those schools that have socio-economic factors lined against them but that are still succeeding, like Pateros. I'm still mining the report to pick those out (personal and confidential to the EFF and Fraser Institute: spreadsheets would be nice), and that will be the next post to come.

Hopefully that's where the value will be, because there hasn't been a whole lot to learn from looking at the extremes.

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Blogger Al said...

"... Ah. Take the brightest kids in the state's biggest city, put them all together, and see how they do on the WASL. It's not by chance that this is a successful school..."

I completely agree. Still, bear in mind that there's a difference between being gifted and being really good at taking tests. (I think "highly capable" is the term.) Overall when Washington state talks "gifted" what you really wind up with is "highly capable". Thanks to misguided applications of WASL, "No Child Left Behind", the way parents tend to judge school quality by its test scores, and the like, a school that identifies a good test-taker who has no behavior issues doesn't have a huge incentive to send that student off to a special school. However, find a gifted student who does have behavior issues and who doesn't necessarily do a stellar job on tests, and watch them get turfed to APP if the opportunity arises.

I grew up getting the $#&% beat out of me for being one of those geek kids who might have qualified for APP, and I can't help but think I might've had a better academic record if I knew I wasn't going to be a punching bag as soon as the scores were posted. As much as I disdain academic apartheid, I confess to seeing some attraction there.

You're painfully right on the money (double meaning not intended) about the these kind of reports skewing toward schools "that are maintaining the successes that the kids showed up with in kindergarten". I think that's how our entire educational system is set up, though; it's as if they're preparing 5% of the students to run the factories and the rest of them to work in the factories. It's a great, pragmatic, and appropriate model, provided that this is the 19th century, or maybe (a big maybe) 1953 or so.

I have to say the EFF reports are an excellent measure of how well the schools are doing at preparing people for a lifetime of taking WASL tests. They're a decent measure of how well students are fitting into the predefined holes that standardized tests present--19th-century roles for an industry model that scarcely still exists in this country.

Reports like this do one thing really well--they augment the schools' efforts to best prepare the elite for a lifetime of running the show. I think the problem is that this is often where efforts stop instead of where they start, and odds are that those who didn't bring success with them aren't going to be taking it with them when they leave. I hope we can do better within my lifetime.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Piper Scott said...

What a load of sophomoric treacle!

Always blaming poor results on money or attributing good results to money is an intellectually vapid and lazy exercise.

To be snide about good schools in areas where good schools are to be expected is juvenile posturing. But you mentioned Pateros, the best performing low-income school in the state. Per the EFF Washington School Report Card, Pateros scores a very respectable 7.7, yet you dismiss it perfunctorally without looking at what makes it so and whether its success can be replicated.

According to the administrators at Pateros, yes that success can be achieved anywhere IF there's a dedicated staff that focuses on teaching kids what they need to know. It's when the adults get bogged down in their petty adult issues that problems arise.

How do I know about the Pateros? I've been there, I've interviewed administrators, teachers,students, members of the community, all of whom take tremendous pride in their school and fight fiercely for it.

If you expect failure, that's all you will get. But if you expect success, set the bar high (Pateros requires more credits to graduate than almost any other school in the state, yet it achieves a 100% graduation rate), hold both the kids and the adults involved in the process accountable, you can achieve it.

Diana Cieslak's comments encouraging parents to go into schools to "see for themselves" wasn't directed merely at upper-crust successful situations. Instead, she encourages parents to take the information from the School Report Card, then go into a school to see why a particular school scores as it does be it good, bad, or indifferent. me where anyone at EFF ever said low-performing schools were losers...Show me... do you sleep at night?

The Piper

12:46 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Hi Piper,

To find the winners and losers comment, go to the Frasier Institute website--the people who the EFF contracted with to put the study together--and watch this episode of their "Fraser TV" broadcast. The money quotes:

"Competition creates winners and losers, and the union says that's a bad thing." -- Leah Costelo, the host of the video

"Competition helps them be the best they can be. It allows them to measure themselves against other people. Yes, it does create winners and losers. The questions is, for the losers, how will they act or how will they react to their relative low standing? So the irony is, that even though teachers and school principals encourage their kids involve themselves in competition, for their own benefit, they don't want the schools themselves to compete for their own benefit, and I find just that an absurd position." -- Peter Cowley, Director of School Performance Studies, Fraser Institute.

It's pretty obvious the intent--they want school to compete, and that's what the ranking are here for. Winners and Losers is their dichotomy, not mine.

I'll also happily point out that in the Radio Free Washington podcast from May 16th Steven Maggi and Diana Cieslak did a nice job of walking Mr. Cowley back from the ledge and pointing out that the lowest performing schools did have a high Native American population. Where that fact is glossed over is in the report proper, leaving it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Rankings, competition, and winners and losers. That's the goal. I can already hear the "But the EFF didn't say that!" objection coming, but it's the lead author on a study they released who is saying it. If they disagree, I look forward to reading that.

What Pateros has achieved is incredible, and they should be commended for it. What can't be ignored is that Pateros' success didn't happen in a single year. When it all comes together--teachers, kids, administration, and community--it's a beautiful thing to behold. The assumption of the report, the belief that sort of success can happen if only people try harder, is what I object to.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Dr Pezz said...

I don't think the rankings really tell us anything new: schools in areas of affluence perform well, schools that pick and choose their students often succeed, and schools with high populations of poverty struggle.

I've lived in Europe, the East Coast, and the West Coast and have seen this pattern repeat. It's not rocket science.

However, what frightens me is when people use these rankings to draw conclusions that are too broad. Besides, test scores seem to be the sole measure for determining rank, a questionable method (or at least quite an arguable one) in my opinion.

The ranking of winners and losers seems self-evident. I'm not sure how an argument against this is really possible.

12:01 AM  

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