Yes, Betsy DeVos, Public Schools Do Make Gains

Summary: Public schools also show progress, as has one in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so says Cal Professor David Kirp in calling out Betsy DeVos in a NY Times Op Ed. True statement, but the context makes the perception just so simple and not so simple.

In this new climate where educators anticipate a Betsy DeVos assault on public schools, it is well to publicize success stories in the public school arena, and so has Cal Berkeley professor David Kirp in a recent Op Ed in the New York Times. Mr. Kirp centers his article on the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Union School District, which has since 2004 made some major shifts in how they have approached low income students. 65% of the overall district population qualifies for free or reduced lunch, but higher concentrations inhabit particular elementary schools.


Within a growing national consensus that high expectations and a focus on creative thinking is one pillar of school progress, the Union schools have implemented a STEM heavy curriculum that exposes all levels of students to the types of intellectual processes normally expected primarily of so-called gifted students.

With a nod to growing consensus on the importance of early childhood preparation for school, 80% of four year olds within the Union boundaries attend a pre-K classroom. It wouldn’t be a quibble to ask for outreach to the parents of even younger kids, as some programs across the country attempt; even so Union is ahead of many districts across the country in addressing early school readiness.

And the District has adopted a full community school narrative — child care before and after school, family health clinics, and job training and food and clothing banks for parents – with recognition of the stresses that often beset low income families, and which inevitably affect their children.

The attention to the social needs of kids and families seems to extend to personal attention to individual students, who can get lost in the shuffle of school without staff intentional action otherwise.

The bottom line? The district graduation rate has risen 14 points to 88%, approximately five to seven points above the national average. All this in a district and state known for its penurious approach to school funding. New York State, Kirp tells us, spends three times as much per pupil.

The track record of DeVos’ vouchers and charters in Detroit and Michigan generally are more marginal, and fraught with questions about cherry picking of more capable families and kids. Union, as a public school district, takes all comers. In relatively polite academic terms, Kirp essentially says, “take that, Betsy DeVos!”

Remembering the old Mark Twain adage about lies, damned lies, and statistics, I restrain my own enthusiasm for the same reasons I resist the claims of some advocates that charters constitute the Second Coming. The closer I look at educational statistics that trumpet progress or innovation, the more qualified they become, to the point that these days I assume only the most clear cut conclusions can be drawn. Adjudicating the finer points is a much heavier lift.

Closer but still casual scrutiny of this feel good story in the Union Public Schools delivers context that modulates the enthusiasm, but at the same time bolsters the impression of a well-constructed public school district.

For example, a follow up article to that of Kirp’s in the Seattle Times gushed that the state of Washington funds each student 41% higher than the skin flinty Oklahomans, by way of comment on the efficiency of the Okie success. Behind the scenes, however, the cost of living is approximately 38% higher in Washington State than in Oklahoma, which implies the practical level of funding is comparable, though in truth both Washington and Oklahoma rank lowly among states on school funding. The upshot is that Oklahoma isn’t quite so parsimonious with school funding as it first appeared, once cost of living comparisons are introduced.

Another case in point: the before and after school resources and social services offered by the “community schools” in the Union District are pivotal interventions. Someone is paying for the adults who supervise or provide these services, which may not be represented in standard per pupil cost. Perhaps, in a move patented by the Harlem Children’s Zone, the school district has orchestrated a presence in the schools for various adult job training and social service providers, thus leveraging already existing resources for minimal additional expenditures.

Also, pre-K teachers will require an extra grade level for the state to fund, but (misleadingly) will not increase the per student expenditure because proportionately more students are also added to the equation.

In addition, Kirp in his Op Ed mentions “modest” additional monies obtained by the district outside of standard state expenditure. Modest in the overall picture can be significant on the margin, for example as additional funds for a couple of social workers whose interventions help reduce parent stress or intervene with struggling students.

Finally, the profiled elementary school in the Kirp article, McAuliffe Elementary, is part of what sounds suspiciously like a suburban school district, not an ossified urban one. The Union School District started as a consolidation of schools in rural communities a century ago, and now includes suburban Broken Arrow (whose Caucasian population is approximately 80%), the third largest manufacturing center in Oklahoma, and a solidly middle class relatively affluent community with a median household income above the national average. Since the white student population of the school district is approximately 63%, and the free and reduced lunch population is 65%, the southeastern sector of the city of Tulsa, which is included in the school district, is more heavily populated by students of color and of low income, who benefit from inclusion in a more well to do district that includes Broken Arrow. In general, students who live in poverty, including African Americans and to some extent Latinos, perform scholastically at a higher level in such socioeconomically heterogeneous school districts than in more homogeneously low income communities.

This is not to minimize the progress the Union School District reports, nor the importance of its innovations, but to point out that a salient factor in the Union School District progress may be the relative absence for low income students of the intractable and stress inducing hard streets of urban poverty. It is not just a story of a troubled school district doing more with less.

Despite these contextual quibbles on my part, the Union District appears to have taken full responsibility for all of its students, for which it is rightly to be celebrated.

To return to Betsy DeVos, her champions point to the Stanford CREDO charter study that finds some Detroit charter schools have marginally superior test scores to those of comparable public schools. Putting aside for a moment questions about charters “cherry picking” more ambitious and better behaved students, and the charge that the Detroit public schools have been further savaged by the charter onslaught, it is fair to suspect that, just as in the Union Schools in Oklahoma, attending class with other relatively ambitious students in the Detroit charter environment might raise a low income student’s ability to progress, quality of instruction and curricula aside. Here, too, the story is more complex than jousting statistics imply.

In the big picture, certain themes of constructive intervention keep poking their metaphorical heads above the contradictory march of statistics and studies put forward by warring partisans, and for this the Union Schools story is instructive. Challenging curricula, attention to early childhood growth, and alleviating the effects of poverty with supportive structures consistently are prominent among promising narratives that arise across the country, even while the primary culprit, poverty and its cousin income inequality, appear to get a pass.

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2 Responses to Yes, Betsy DeVos, Public Schools Do Make Gains

  1. Sharon Mattioli says:

    And did you see that she is getting round-the-clock secret service protection? Who would have thought educational policy could generate such hostility!

    How was your Southeast Asia tour? I sure hope you had a good time and didn’t catch any bugs!

    I come home from Mexico tomorrow and then head down South on Saturday. Then after I get home on May 3rd and will be home for awhile. Cheers! Sharon

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Bruce Brand says:

    Well, DeVos is certainly polarizing, but Secret Service protection wouldn’t have occurred to me. There must have been some kind of credible threat.

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