Monday, March 8, 2010

Winners & Losers in the race to the top

Urban Prep Academy is a small all-boys charter high school in Chicago's African-American community of Englewood. It's run by a non-profit corporation and led by a committed and talented director, Tim King, the former president of Hales Franciscan Catholic School. According to Saturday's Sun-Times, Urban Prep's entire first class of 107 graduating seniors has been accepted to four-year colleges. Quite an accomplishment, right? King and his staff should be complimented on their great work.

But Urban Prep's success also raises questions about the way charter schools have been pitted against neighborhood schools with results being used, under NCLB and now under Race To The Top, to punish those schools and their teachers.

I have no solid numbers about Urban Prep's attrition rate or how it selects its students, compared with neighborhood schools. I know it's supposed to be purely through a lottery process but there's no available data on UP's percentage of ELL, and students with disabilities and special needs. I also wonder whether students who don't see college in their immediate future or who are more interested in (or of necessity) going straight into the world of work, are accepted after going through the application and interview process.

The larger questions raised by Urban Prep's success have to to do with test scores, the cornerstone of Arne Duncan's school closing and turnaround policies under RTTT. Urban Prep's are nothing to write home about (I don't think test scores in general are anything to write home about, but that's me). According to the Sun-Times:

The average ACT score of Urban Prep's all-black male student body -- 16.1 -- is below the Chicago Public Schools average of 17 but above the CPS black male average of 15.4. On state tests, Urban Prep kids fell below even the CPS black male average, with only 15.3 percent of juniors passing last year.
It's interesting that the school's entire graduating class has been accepted to four-year universities even though only 12% of them met the college readiness benchmark in reading and only 36% met the benchmark in English on the ACT exam. And while UP's composite ACT score is a few (3) points higher than nearby high schools, it's important to remember that UP ISN'T a neighborhood school. It draws its students from 31 different zip-codes in the city.

If Urban Prep was a neighborhood school with scores like these, instead of being heralded by the mayor, Arne Duncan, and CEO Huberman, the school would likely be facing sanctions under NCLB or worse ones under RTTP. It's possible that King would be fired along with his entire dedicated faculty, and the school hit with turnaround, since current policy relies almost entirely on standardized test scores as an indicator of school success. And you can forget about so-called merit pay which is tied directly to student test scores.

But UP isn't a neighborhood school. Its curriculum isn't all about testing. Rather it offers students a longer school day, "core values," a strong push towards college, along with basic skills instruction and a strong complement of after-school and sports programs (all neighborhood schools just had their sophomore sports programs gutted). While Chicago Public School budgets are being drastically cut, Urban Prep gets more than a million dollars in extra financial support from foundations and outside funding sources like Oprah Winfrey. That gives the school an annual budget of some $5 million-plus with which to educate its 500 students. The extra funding allows the school to provide each student with his own personal counselor as well as with a college counselor in each of his four years of high school. Neighborhood high school guidance counselors each have to counsel 400-500 students. With all the extra dollars and corporate partnerships, you would expect the school to be scoring higher than regular neighborhood schools.

There's no reason why every public school student shouldn't or couldn't be getting these kinds of supports. You don't have to be a charter school to do most of what Urban Prep is doing and you don't have to do it Urban Prep's way. There are also many ways to measure school success.

Then again, this is a race to the top and that presupposes a small group of winning schools and a large group of losing schools. Doesn't it?


  1. I e-mailed the reporter yesterday when I first read this story to ask about the attrition rate, and point out that the college matriculation information is meaningless without it. What a surprise -- no response.

  2. I would also like to know about the attrition rate. It's quite an accomplishment to get 107 students into 4-year colleges, but I agree that without the attrition rate, we don't get an accurate picture of their program's success.

  3. According to their Wikipedia entry -- -- the school opened with 150 9th graders, which means about 70% of their initial cohort graduated.

  4. The reason you have "no solid numbers" on Urban Prep is that the numbers their PR firm puts out to the media aren't very solid. Check out PURE post on this for more.

  5. Obama needs to listen to Alfie Kohn, not Arnie Duncan. Race to the Top is a race to bad education and bad educational witchcraft.


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.