Every so often a major newspaper discovers (or rediscovers) that there is an educational achievement gap in this country that breaks down along racial and class lines. This week, it was the New York Times making the discovery as they wrote that the high school progress report grades broke down along racial and class lines. To whit, predominantly white middle class schools got higher grades than predominantly poor minority schools. On the one hand, this is hardly shocking. On the other hand, it's worse news than it first appears.
First, a note about the progress reports. They've rightly been much-mocked for their panglossian view of the New York City schools. And I'll admit that I've been known to join in. However, that mocking actually kind of misrepresents what it is that the reports are actually designed to do. There reports are not like a progress report that a child brings home from school, which is really an interim report on how close that child is to meeting an ultimate objective. Rather, the school progress reports are literally reports on progress. Earning an A doesn't mean that the school is an above average school. It could still be a bad school. However, it does mean that the school made an above average amount of progress on the state tests. This is a distinction that gets lost when just about everyone (DOE included) talks about the progress reports. Again, these reports are not supposed to indicate where a school stands against an absolute standard, but rather how much progress the school is making toward bettering itself.
(Just for the sake of time and brevity let's set aside for the moment a discussion about the flaws in the system that relies upon a single year of test scores to come up with a score, though that conversation is definitely valid and worth having.)
Let's get back to the fact that the progress reports are designed to measure school progress and not the absolute quality of a school. When we keep that in mind, the achievement gap the Times discovered is almost more troubling.
It's not news that poor and minority schools face huge challenges and tend to come in behind their whiter and more affluent peers on absolute standards. It would be big news if that weren't the case. However, after years of education reforms on a variety of fronts, we'd at least like to think that we're moving in the right direction on these schools. However, the reports on progress seem to indicate that this is not happening. Instead, the schools that need to be making the most progress are in fact making the least. Think about this for a second. Even when we all but discard absolute measurements and focus on the relative scale of "progress" poor and minority schools lag behind.
I always hesitate to throw around words like disaster and debacle, but every so often I feel them creeping into my vocabulary. This may be one of those times.
In the rush to discredit and defend the progress reports (depending on who's speaking), we've lost sight of the fact that there actually is some news we can glean from these reports. And the news is not good.