Trends Vs. Exceptions: Chicago Series Highlights Tensions, Tradeoffs

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The controversy over a recent WBEZ Chicago/Daily Herald package of stories about poverty and schools centers on whether the series gave enough attention to the relative success of Chicago schools (pink dots above the slanted line) compared to the overall trend of increasing poverty and the strong poverty-achievement correlation (blue dots clustered around the slanted line).

A recent series of stories that didn’t get nearly as much attention as it probably deserved is Poverty’s enduring hold on school success

Written in partnership with the Daily Herald, the piece is intense and vivid, seems to have been reported with great care, and marks the welcome return from the sidelines of WBEZ’s Linda Lutton, who has been on a Spencer Fellowship for much of 2014-2015.  

I had some quibbles with how the WBEZ overview presented data and used language.

Others were not impressed:

A reformy think tanker who didn’t want to named quipped that there was nothing new in the report, and the relationship between poverty and lower achievement has been known for 50 years. “This was pretty sophomoric stuff.” 

And Education Post’s Tracy Dell’Angela wrote an oped about the series lamenting its downplaying of successes in Chicago.  “There are schools that cause achievement gaps, where those small gaps become huge over time,” according to Dell’Angela.  “And then there are schools that close gaps.” 

The WBEZ response to Dell’Angela’s oped is still in the works, but in the meantime let’s take a closer look at what Lutton and WBEZ wrote and what various folks might think about it.

Lutton is an education reporter at WBEZ who’s probably known best for her work on This American Life’s “Harper High” series. She was joined in the project by Daily Herald education reporter Melissa Silverberg  and news presentation editor Tim Broderick.

All told, the story package included the WBEZ story (Poverty’s enduring hold on school success) a four-day series focusing on the Chicago suburbs called Generations At Risk (Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4) and a chat with Lutton and Silverberg on WBEZ’s Morning Shift show.  

The following focuses primarily on the WBEZ overview (bylined by Lutton, Silverberg, and Broderick) and the Morning Shift discussion.

Much of what the series covers is an update on what most of us probably think we already know: There is the sad but not surprising report that 2,244 schools across the state saw at least a 10 percentage point gain in the proportion of their students considered low-income. There are also some surprises: Roughly 70 percent of poor kids are now coming from suburbs and downstate, rather than Chicago. A decade ago, Chicago served nearly half of the poor kids in the entire state.  

There is also a surprising amount of candor regarding the role of poverty in education from the Republican-appointed state superintendent of education Tony Smith: “There’s something about how we’re structured that is sorting opportunity,” says Illinois state superintendent Tony Smith in the piece. “We’re wasting massive, massive human potential by not figuring out a way to increase access and support for all of our kids.”

There is some also bracingly clear writing: “Schools full of middle-class kids rarely perform below average on state tests; schools made up of low-income kids rarely score above.”  And there are a few points not commonly made in education stories focusing on poverty, such as this closing quote from UC Irvine’s Duncan: “You can’t just say, It’s too complicated—let’s redistribute income, so family incomes are more equal. You just can’t give up on K-12 schooling.” 

In the couple of weeks since the pieces came out, there have been the predictable and fairly minor complaints about the use of free and reduced-price lunch as a proxy for poverty, the confusing terminology of poverty and low-income, and the absence of a map showing the poverty-achievement scores. The report also doesn’t look at growth over time, controlling for poverty. 

There were no complaints from UC Irvine researcher Greg Duncan, who co-write a 2014 book with Richard Murnane featuring a handful of effective interventions (Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education). Lutton “sent me a draft [of their preliminary findings] in advance and we spent quite a bit of time talking about the data and what they might and might not mean,” according to an email from Duncan. “Her quotes from me and her statements about my work are on the mark.”   

I didn’t hear back from others quoted in the piece, including Larry Joseph, director of research at Voices for Illinois Children, Robin Steans or Elaine Allensworth, the EdTrust’s Natasha Ushomirsky. (To be fair, it was the day before the holiday weekend.)

For my part, I felt like the WBEZ piece sometimes presents raw numbers without much context: For example, readers are told about a “vast expansion” of poverty in which “2,244 schools have seen their proportion of low-income students increase by at least 10 percentage points” without being told what percentage of schools in the state that represents. 

Only later on are we told that the portion of schools considered low-income has risen from 39 percent to 51.5 percent over the past decade. Over all, the story feels a bit number-drenched, as if the reporters couldn’t make up their minds about which data points to use and decided to throw them all in. 

Another quibble might be the notion that talking about school performance related to poverty is a “new way to think about school success.” The approach may not be well-understood or widely used, but it doesn’t seem new to me.

However, the strongest rebuke to the series comes from Education Post (who sponsors this site along with the AFT):

In an oped titled Don’t give up on reforms for schools in poverty, EdPost’s Tracy Dell’Angela praises the WBEZ/Daily Herald series for giving “suburban parents ample reason to start caring about this issue, because it’s now very much in their back yard” but dings the package for claiming that reformers think teaching quality and standards are all that matters (without quoting any who do) and failing to give adequate credit and emphasis to the successes that Chicago has had.

“How is school reform a failure if all the growth in poverty (and poor outcomes) is focused outside the city and in the suburbs, while all the school reforms in the last decade — charter schools, multiple-measure teacher evaluation, turnarounds and closures for failing schools — has been focused inside Chicago Public Schools?”

To be fair, the Daily Herald’s pieces focus in on higher-performing schools in the suburbs. “The most interesting part of this analysis was finding a few schools that are overcoming their demographics and finding success compared to others with similar levels of low-income students,” emailed Daily Herald reporter Melissa Silverberg. “I spent several days embedded in two such schools, profiled in Day 2 and Day 3, and found inspiring teachers, innovative practices and kids who might have a shot at breaking the cycle of poverty.”

And the WBEZ piece does describes the relative success of many Chicago schools: “Dozens of high-poverty schools are consistently performing much better than the average for their income level. Among them are many Chicago schools. Two-thirds of city elementary schools in 2014 had a positive score on the Poverty-Achievement Index, beating the odds when it comes to poverty. … CPS has gotten better vis-a-vis the rest of the schools in the state, our analysis shows.”

However, there’s no closer look at Chicago schools or in-depth profile of any individual efforts. And the data showing Chicago’s success isn’t highlighted or easily found.

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The pink dots above the line on this chart (above) show that Chicago schools do well compared to other schools with similar poverty rates. The blue dots on the chart (below) are schools outside of Chicago, showing a mix of performers (above and below the line):

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In the end, the controversy may be about emphasis and balance more than anything else.  Should the series have focused on the correlation between poverty and lower student achievement over all, or on the exceptions to the rule. Should the focus have been on the statewide trends or on Chicago’s relative success? 

Lutton obviously takes the view that the focus should be on the whole, not the exceptions, and that the reform narrative needs to be questioned: “There’s a narrative in this country that says schools should be able to overcome poverty—they need good teaching, they need good climate, high expectations, students need to work hard,” writes Lutton. “We do see schools in this analysis…beating poverty’s odds, outscoring other schools with the same challenges. But we do not see on any sort of large-scale a weakening of the impact of poverty.”

There’s a reasonable case to be made that the package should have included more about Chicago’s success, district-wide and at the individual school level.  It seems like a curious decision on the part of the folks putting the package together to leave Chicago out, essentially.  Whether it was based on lack of time, narrative tyranny, or other factors I have no idea. 

But at the same time I can’t argue with the rise in poverty and the overall correlation between poverty and academic achievement.  It’s a story that needs to be told as long necessary, and the overview piece makes clear that there are exceptions including Chicago. Maybe WBEZ will follow up with a story about Chicago schools in subsequent reports. 

Lutton dismisses the Dell’Angela oped as “a criticism based mainly on ideology” and tells me that the station is planning a response of some kind.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.