"Really Bad Learning Outcomes"

Megan McCardle at The Atlantic wonders about the cries of woe from middle-class parents, teacher unions, and other foes of high-stakes testing. She concludes that they ignore the salient fact of “the poor quality of the education that many kids receive.” She quotes Matt Yglesias, who writes,
Something that I think drives at least some of my disagreements with other liberals about education policy is that I think a lot of middle class liberals implicitly underestimate the extent of really bad learning outcomes. Take this report (PDF) from the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund which notes "that 47% of adults (more than 200,000 individuals) in the City of Detroit are functionally illiterate, referring to the inability of an individual to use reading, speaking, writing, and computational skills in everyday life situations" and also that "within the tricounty region, there are a number of municipalities with illiteracy rates rivaling Detroit: Southfield at 24%, Warren at 17%, Inkster at 34%, Pontiac at 34%."
One could just as easily cite Newark, where half the kids graduate and 98% of those who go to college require remedial courses. Or Camden Central High, where the district labels 33.6% of students as disabled, 38% were suspended in 2009-2010, and no one passes the math portion of the High School Proficiency Assessment, an 8th grade level test. Or John F. Kennedy High in Paterson, where all of 20% of students passed the HSPA, nearly half the high school was suspended last year, and the average score on the verbal portion of the SAT (for the students who took it) was 363.

It’s that old Jersey story of two separate and segregated school systems: the suburban one where kids get a great education and the one down the road where kids don’t attain functional literacy. Somehow amidst all the rhetoric about school choice and school funding formulas and Supreme Court decisions and state control we’re missing the reality that children graduate from our schools without basic skills.

Here’s an example of even the best intentions going awry. Yesterday in the Huffington Post (of all places) Education Law Center Executive Director David Sciarra found himself in the decidedly odd position of rebutting a column on Newark’s superintendent selection process which described the city as "one of the country's most troubled school systems.” So Sciarra writes,
While the district continues to face tough challenges, Newark has also created successful reforms in recent years that need to be sustained and strengthened.

Through much hard work by local educators, parents and community leaders, Newark public schools have made concrete progress in recent years. According to an Education Law Center Report, nearly six thousand 3- and 4-year-olds are now enrolled in high-quality preschool, a program considered the best in the nation. Academic performance has improved in elementary schools and, as the Schott Foundation reports, black male graduation rates have risen.
Really? Here’s East Side High in Newark, where HSPA scores stink, SAT scores are static, and graduation rates are slightly down. Here’s Maple Ave. Elementary, where 53% of 6th graders failed the standardized language arts test in 2009 and 82% failed it in 2010. And so on.

No doubt there are bright spots and some genuinely wonderful things happening in NJ’s failing districts like Newark. But “concrete progress” may be a tad euphemistic.

Of course, Mr. Sciarra has to say that. He’s arguing before the NJ Supreme Court that Gov. Christie’s failure to fully fund the school funding formula was unconstitutional and an unduly severe blow to that “concrete progress.” What – he’s going to say that all that extra money isn’t working anyway? But that’s the point. “Really bad learning outcomes” like those in Detroit (or Newark or Camden) can’t be solved by money alone. (See here, by the way, for ELC’s new press release that states we’re actually only spending $10,178 per kid in Newark per its weighted funding formula.)

How can we arrive at a politically palatable place where we can acknowledge the ineffectiveness of a money-centric panacea to improve failing urban schools?

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