Educating Beyond Poverty

One of the most baffling and counterproductive elements of school reform debates is when educators of different ideological persuasions look to diminish the accomplishments of public schools that are succeeding with disadvantaged students.

Recently, in the New York Times and Education Week, education historian Diane Ravitch criticized the performance of several schools that President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised for improving achievement and attainment among low-income students. Ravitch and a number of like-minded critics seem intent on demonstrating that schools cannot overcome the burdens of poverty.

As the founder of Urban Prep Academies, operator of one of the schools that Ravitch criticized, I respectfully disagree.

Every member of the first and second graduating classes at Urban Prep gained admission to a four-year college. Across our network of three schools, students are African-American males and admitted via a non-selective lottery; on average, about 85 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 15 percent have special needs, and over 85 percent enter high school reading below grade level.

Instead of examining the programs and supports we have in place at Urban Prep that made our achievements possible, Ravitch and other critics minimize the perfect college acceptance record of our graduates. They cite the number of students who left the school between 9th grade and 12th grade and misrepresent our 11th grade students' performance on standardized tests. These critics should be comparing apples-to-apples; not apples-to-grapefruits.

Rather than paralleling our students' performance to children from all across Chicago, let's examine how Urban Prep students stack up against their peers: other African-American males in non-selective public high schools.

The Black male high school drop-out rate in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is almost 60 percent -- nearly double the attrition rate at Urban Prep. We credit our ability to keep significantly more students than other schools to our engaging and unique positive school culture.

Ravitch cites a blogger's reporting that "only 17 percent passed state tests, compared to 64 percent in the low-performing Chicago public school district." Neither Ravitch nor the blogger she credits managed to get their facts straight; the district average on the 11th grade state test for the percent of students meeting/exceeding state standards is 29 percent, not 64 percent. And again, when one compares our students to their peers, our students do better--especially when you consider growth. On the English section of the state test, for example, 24.6 percent of our students are meeting or exceeding the state standards (90 percent of this class was reading below grade level when they started at Urban Prep), whereas for Black boys, the city-wide rate is just 16.3 percent and only 3.4 percent in our neighboring traditional public school.

To be sure, the test scores of our students still have plenty of room for improvement. But Ravitch implies that low test scores mean that our perfect college acceptance record doesn't matter. Our graduates, she and others suggest, won't succeed in college and so our school is not really making a big difference. Yet the fact is that our graduates are already succeeding in four-year colleges: roughly 80 percent of Urban Prep's 2010 graduates who went to college completed their first year. That is an impressive accomplishment, given that it's the same first-year retention rate as national averages reported by the College Board for students of all races, genders, income levels and high school types (i.e., public and private).

Our graduates' rate of college attendance makes a difference in their own lives and in the vitality of their communities. By conservative estimates, our first graduating class alone is projected to increase the total number of African-American male 9th graders in CPS who earn a college degree by as much as 12 percent. If subsequent graduating classes at our three schools have the same success with college admission and matriculation as our first class, Urban Prep could increase the number of Black boys starting as CPS freshmen who will earn a college degree by as much as 40 percent.

Even with these levels of achievement, we still work hard at getting better. And we welcome advice, counsel and constructive criticism from others interested in improving educational outcomes for our students. But there is a big difference between examining data to identify where schools should improve and misusing numbers in an effort to discredit real achievement or promote a political agenda.

At the heart of Ravitch's claim is a belief in the limitations of what good schools can accomplish with disadvantaged students; she no longer seems to believe in the transformative power of education. Ravitch argues that the efforts of the students, staff, and faculty at Urban Prep and other schools are largely fruitless until society eliminates the family and financial hardships of our students. While I agree that those issues matter, my years as an educator have taught me that the economic conditions of children and families should not be used as an excuse for failure. Poverty is not destiny. That's a lesson every school should teach, every educator should believe, and every student has a right to learn.