Boiler Room Pedagogy

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #6 in June 2008]

The ailing Chicago Public Schools have a vestige of hope in its efforts to close the achievement gap and raise test scores across-the-board. It’s the data-driven model of assessing schools and is powered by a software system called COMPSTAT. It’s a portmanteau of the words “compare” and “statistics” and those two words dominate the process. This is another one of Chicago’s attempts at trying out a new program and evaluating its effectiveness. If successful, it will then be exported to other cities, making Chicago appear as a ground-breaking force in education. Programs that do not see quick, visible gains are discarded and forgotten, like the Chicago Reading Initiative.

The program is comprised of three major components: school performance classification system, program of rewards and sanctions, and a communications plan. The schools are first given specific benchmarks to attain in regards to standardized test scores. Principals are called into meetings with the board of education where individual school’s test scores are compared. Some schools will receive carrots; others sticks. A communications plan is then to be implemented to clue in teachers, administrators, and the public at large at the findings. This seems to be the step ignored by the Chicago Public Schools as there is little transparency in the program.

In interviews, Arne Duncan (Chief Executive of Chicago Public Schools) has compared school principals to CEOs. Under the COMPSTAT system, the principals become de facto CEOs who are rated by the numbers. Students, regardless of previous education and home environment, become plots on a graph like the sales of widgets. The principals who sell the least widgets find themselves under the gun to improve, using any available means.

Perhaps Duncan was thinking about his days as an basketball star in Australia, pressured by his coach to score more points or find himself traded. However, Duncan did not invent the program. In fact, the program was not intended to rate students and curriculum; rather criminals and nefarious activity. The New York City Police Department, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani used this program to evaluate and compare crime statistics in the city’s various police precincts. Crime, at least on the books, has indeed gone down in NYC since its implementation. Between 1990 and 2001, crime has dropped by 73.6% in the Big Apple.

Once one looks deeper into the data, there are some troubling caveats. In the year 2002, representatives from Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s office boasted a 10% drop in aggravated assaults in NYC. This was the year he took office, the same year that the city government’s website reported the number of assault victims either hospitalized or treated in emergency rooms shot up 6 percent from the year before. Statistics can be selected to show which narrative more effectively proves the point of narrator. Certain planks of the big picture can be obfuscated and real solutions will be eluded.

The justification for the program in CPS is predicated on the notion that student performance is based entirely on what is going on in the schools. The data is not disaggregated to show external factors that may be affecting these outcomes. The CPS’s COMPSTAT does not factor in the rising rates of poverty in the city and how that may effect student achievement. According to the Illinois Poverty Report, for the 2004-2005 school year, 41% of low-income students are considered below the acceptable level for reading proficiency. Only 16% of their more affluent counterparts are considered below level. Cook County has one of the highest rates of poverty in the state. Poverty and school achievement seem to be correlated, but this program is not about root causes, it’s about placing blame.

The test scores are taken at face value, and the principals are often brow-beaten for their inability to raise them. The principals then bring this pressure onto the teachers, who have to add test scores to the laundry list of concerns like grading, planning, and classroom management. This exacerbates the stress levels of teachers teaching in high-needs schools and can increase the speed in which the revolving door turns, shuffling young teachers to teach in the suburbs or leaving the profession for more lucrative employment.

The test prep materials are also costly and take funds away from the already faltering budgets of art and music programs. When these programs become unavailable, students view schools not as institutes of learning and escapes from tumultuous home lives. School becomes a work camp where they are given reading and math skills for six hours a day.

This data-driven instruction is the new snake-oil of the testing companies. Unfortunately, there is no money to be made in addressing the root causes of these problems, but vast sums of money are to be gained by addressing the symptoms. Until the focus is widened to take the whole picture in account, students will continue doing poorly and the cycle of poverty will persist. ♦


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