Cast Iron Skillet

A blog about teaching, English, and teaching English

Crunched by the Numbers

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[ Editorial in the newsletter of Shaker Heights Teachers Association SHTA newsletter ]

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and data.
— Mark Twain (actually, Twain said “statistics,” not “data,” but it’s close enough)

The Ohio Department of Education has given us an F in “Gap Closing” (which is pretty much what my wife gave me after I attempted to insulate the house before a particularly cold and drafty winter). The sweaty toilers of the ODE engine room shoveled our numbers into the great cruncher. The digits tumbled into the spinning teeth of its mighty algorithms. It chewed, it cogitated, it spat out a judgment. Shaker: F.

First of all, I’d like to point out that 86 percent of Ohio’s 608 school districts flunked this category. If we teachers gave a test that 86 percent of our students failed, we would assume there was something wrong with the test. But this percentage is a political, not educational decision.

In any case, the data makes us look bad. Or does it? It all depends on how you chew it. For example, our African-American and Economically Disadvantaged (ED) kids, the ones on the lower tier of our gap, scored better than the white kids in Cleveland and in several other Ohio districts. Where’s your gap now, ODE? Our ED kids performed vastly better than the same demographic groups—regardless of race—around the state and around the country. Might that be a sign of something we’re doing right?

The problem is that no matter how well the lower tier of our gap performs, it’s being compared to a group whose numbers are severely distorted by our very top-performing kids. The district rightly boasts about our graduates who are Presidential Scholars, National Merit Semi-Finalists, Ivy Leaguers, etc. etc. But the exceptional number of these exceptional students is proof not that we’re great educators, but that we have a freakish concentration of freakishly smart kids. According to “Measuring What Matters,” we are the 17th most educated community in the nation. That puts us squarely in freak territory: the top tenth of the top one percent of the 40,000 American cities and towns. We have many kids who come from families in which not only both parents have advanced degrees, but all four grandparents went to college. Most of these kids are going to be good students. Many will be superstars. And when you throw high income into the mix, the superstars are issued capes and wrist web-shooters and bullet-deflecting bracelets.

We do a tremendous disservice to our students—in any disaggregated group—when we compare them to these outliers. If we want to construe any meaningful lessons from the data, we ought to toss out these off-the-chart scores before we do any calculations.

We often hear something like this: “We can close the achievement gap, because we are Shaker.” I would put it the other way around: We can’t close the achievement gap, because we are Shaker—a community with extreme inequalities in income and family educational background. Certainly we should work on narrowing the gap. Certainly we must bust our butts every day to narrow the gap. But if we think we can erase it, we’re chasing unicorns.

The gap was not caused by schools; schools can’t make it go away. For one thing, the kids arrive—whether first grade, kindergarten or pre-school—with an achievement gap already firmly in place, already gaping wide. We can create programs for the disadvantaged kids, we can work relentlessly on pulling them upward, but the gap may not budge. This is because the advantages don’t stop pouring in for the advantaged kids: nightly book readings, educational toys, museum memberships, tutors, psychologists, painting lessons, pottery classes, iPads, cameras, chemistry sets, horses, hockey teams, telescopes, cello camps, complete sets of Harry Potter. The parents not only understand the homework, they have the time to help with it—and also with the dioramas, book-binding, mousetrap-powered cars, baking soda volcanoes. As they get older, the disadvantaged kids get more and more opportunities in Shaker. I’m proud of all the programs that our district sponsors to help these kids. The energy and money we put into these problems are exemplary. But advantaged kids also get wonderful opportunities in school. And on the weekend they go to Shakespeare plays; when there’s a day off they shadow their parents at the Cleveland Clinic; for spring break they go scuba diving in Costa Rica; over the summer they tour the museums of Europe.

Our achievement gap not only doesn’t close over the 12 years of schooling, it grows slightly wider. And here we make another serious mistake when we interpret the data. We assume that, if we were a truly equitable district, the data would show it by having a gap that decreased, or at worst, held steady. But this assumes that learning is a straight, upward-slanting line, a steady accumulation of knowledge and skills. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the brain educates itself: not by inputting information, but by loading software. Growth is exponential. The more you learn, the better you get at learning. You learn faster; you retain more; your brain makes new connections and quantum leaps. Our achievement gap widens only slightly over the school years in Shaker, and this is a genuine achievement.

It appears that our district has begun to supplant the term “achievement gap” with “opportunity gap.” I haven’t heard the rationale for this decision, but it seems to me that we are reaching for whips with which to flagellate ourselves. “Opportunity gap” implies that the fault lies squarely with us: for surely we control what opportunities we give our students. But it is our society that has an opportunity gap. And this colossal injustice manifests itself in schools as an achievement gap.

What the data shows us is that, in our little community, we’re doing a damn good job at battling an epic problem—a problem as wide as the nation and as deep as the most hidden and poorly understood mechanisms of the human mind. A problem as old as the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Before that, the data is kinda murky.

I am certainly not advocating complacency. I’m not saying we should stop trying to close the gap. We should strive with every fiber of our teaching souls to reach and engage and inspire the kids on the lower tier of our gap. The obstacles in front of them are a monstrous injustice.

But when we hold ourselves to the impossible benchmarks of the ODE, when we hold up illusions as our standards, we not only set ourselves up for failure and recriminations, but we do a real disservice to the kids we want to help. For some of these kids are truly brilliant, some of them are pushing themselves to the limit, day in and day out, some of them are walking miracles. And are we telling them that no matter how hard they work, no matter how high they achieve, it’s not enough?

The failing state report card has led to a lot of hand-wringing in the district, and some urgent communication to parents. But—can I tell you a secret? This is one hell of a good school system. We know it; most of the community knows it. Personally, I’m proud to be a Shaker teacher. I’m humbled by the work of my colleagues. The only message we need to send regarding the news from Columbus is to the ODE itself: take your report card and shove it where the data don’t shine.

There. I feel better already. And now I need to get back to work.

Chris Cotton,
SHHS English Teacher
SHTA Member

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