“Miracle Schools” and Unweaving Rainbows

/ 17 April 2012 / jennifer

Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020, April 17, 2012 –

Keats wrote that “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,” and “unweave the rainbow,” in a passage often interpreted as a condemnation of science taking the wonder out of the natural world. When we describe a rainbow merely as white light refracted through a prism, goes the argument, we take some of the mystery and the miracle out of it. Look too closely, seek too much to understand something beautiful, and you risk destroying the sense of beauty.

Others have pointed out that understanding the mechanics of a rainbow doesn’t actually make rainbows less beautiful, and that often the natural world becomes more wonderful and beautiful upon further examination. There’s still a human tendency, however, to resist those who look too closely at venerated objects. I’ve noticed that we’ve started doing this in education with so-called “miracle schools,” and I think it’s time to stop.

“Miracle schools” are the ones you see glowingly described every so often in articles or documentaries. They’re the schools that work with the student populations on the losing end of the achievement gap – low-income students and/or students of color – and that many laud for getting amazing results. Perhaps the best local example would be Harvest Prep, a metro area charter school with an African-American student body that’s posted impressive math and reading scores on the state test.

The school was favorably cited by Michael Ciresi in a Star Tribune column on the achievement gap, and Harvest Prep’s founder, Eric Mahmoud, was the subject of a Star Tribune profile about a week and half earlier. Conservative columnist Katherine Kersten wrote a similarly positive report on the school for the Star Tribune a few months before that. The school’s success has led to the Minneapolis Public Schools reaching out to Mahmoud to spread the Harvest Prep model beyond its current walls.

There’s no question that Harvest Prep’s students are doing better on the state tests for math and reading than many demographically similar peers in nearby traditional public schools. I know many of their teachers through shared experiences with Teach For America, and I know those teachers to be deeply committed to the success of their students. After putting in 20 years with Harvest Prep (and more with the pre-school Seed Academy), there’s no question that Mahmoud and his wife, Ella, are invested in the school and its success.

Despite all of this, I’ve still criticized the school for its obsessive focus on the math and reading state tests. In particular, I point to the school’s science proficiency, which has fluctuated between 0% and 6% in the four years since the test debuted. As more attention is brought to that test, I am sure that Harvest Prep will find a way to bring the scores up, but it does raise questions about what other, untested subject areas might look like.

If a criticism is factually incorrect, it should be called out as such. If a criticism is factually correct but materially insignificant, that should be called out, too. However, when a criticism is factually correct and materially significant, it shouldn’t be considered taboo. It’s not as if a school being criticized makes it a bad school; clearly Harvest Prep is having successes other schools aren’t. I do get anxious when we rush to put the school on a pedestal and claim to have found The Answer.

Harvest Prep succeeds at preparing its students for the math and reading MCAs. That does not make it the right model for all students (and that’s OK). By all means, let’s work to expand access to similar schools for similar students. At the same time, we should also work to increase the overall variety of schools in traditional districts for the kids that won’t do well in a Harvest Prep-style environment or that might have different goals.

There are a few other schools out there that are getting excellent results (though they’re generally fewer and farther between than the Waiting for “Superman” crowd would have you believe). Even in Milwaukee, an urban area with more dysfunction and segregation that the Twin Cities, Milwaukee College Prep and the Bruce-Guadalupe Community School have started to produce results competitive with the rest of Wisconsin. There are many individual lessons to learn from these schools, not least that critical self-examination is key to success.

Applauding success is good and necessary. Using one school’s success to bludgeon others isn’t. Being willing to take a hard look at the different components of success is healthy and can help us better understand the rainbows in our school system. Our end goal should be a well-supported public school system with many different schools working well in different ways and always open to fair criticisms and the need to improve.