Standard (read liberal) journalists, for example, Jonathan Alter, will uncritically publish statistics trumpeted by heads of programs designed to close the achievement gap.
The principal of Central Park East , the Harlem public school whose reported amazing successes resulted in two gushing features on 60 Minutes, admitted to Dr. Barbara Nemko and me on a site visit that the reality was far worse than the publicity indicates. Central Park East had had a one-of-a-kind extraordinary principal, Debbie Meier. When she left, the school's test scores reverted to that of other Harlem high schools.
Another program I'm very familiar with is EdTrust. It touts that by putting all kids, no matter how low achieving, into a rigorous college prep curriculum and providing lots of support, kids will learn much more, graduate at a higher rate, and succeed in college. But a wide range of experts have called Ed Trust data misleading, even dishonest. I would have thought that such criticism would most likely come from right-wing groups but most of the outcry has been from Democrats. For example, respected liberal U.S.C education professor Stephen Krashen wrote an article entitled, "Don't Trust Ed Trust." Gerald Bracey, who for two decades in the prestigious Phi Delta Kappan has authored reports on the state of education, wrote an article in the Huffington Post called "The Education Trust's Disinformation Campaign." A Democratic member of the California State Board of Education, Jim Aschwinden said "Everyone knows Ed Trust is a sham. Go talk to Carol Liu, a Democratic senator who wanted to investigate Ed Trust and was stonewalled but eventually found out that the statistics EdTrust reports about its poster-boy program--San Jose Unified School District--were bogus."
Even the vaunted Head Start, so popular with politicians because it intuitively sounds so good, does not, after 50 years, have good data to support the massive amounts we spend on it. In fact, the just released major study found that Head Start produces "no lasting benefit."
In the 30 years since I finished my Ph.D. at Berkeley specializing in education program evaluation, I've examined dozens of so-called model programs, starting way back with Marva Collins Prep, also the subject of a glowing 60 Minutes profile, and now closed because "lack of enrollment and lack of funds."
I've come to conclude that a model program is one you haven't visited.
The U.S is #1 in the world in per-student spending and the U.S. school districts that spend the most money (like DC--$30,000 a year per child--even with super-superintendent Michelle Rhee) have scores at the bottom. Yet for the first time, China just participated in the worldwide comparison of student achievement. It ranked first despite far smaller expenditure on education.
In these tough times, before asking the taxpayer to dig yet deeper into their already depleted pockets, after already having spent more than a trillion(!) dollars to try to close the achievement gap, we must face the unfortunate truth that education can only do so much.
UPDATE: I've just perused a book called Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, written by a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, who makes the same case as made in this blog post but with tremendous rigor. I commend it to you. I've invited him to debate the question of the closeability of the achievement gap with outgoing California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O'Connell. Both of them have accepted. The debate will occur on my KALW-FM radio show on Jan 23 at 11 am Pacific time. It can be heard live, worldwide, on www.kalw.org and archived permanently soon after on my website, www.martynemko.com.