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Quotes: In Praise Of Moderately Successful Schools

Quotes2This doesn't mean moderately successful schools are a bad thing. They're a very good thing, especially if the alternative is failing schools and especially if they're serious about acknowledging the need for improvement.. and improving.  -- Chicago Schools Wonks Seth Lavin on Urban Prep (see full statement below)


Urban Prep just announced that for the third consecutive year 100% of its seniors will go to college. Good news, sure, but the more interesting story here is how Urban Prep’s self-presentation has changed in those three years and what that says about the charter school movement.

I’ve always seen Urban Prep as the quintessential moderately successful charter school misrepresented as phenomenal. It’s a problem you see all over the place and one that drives me crazy. I’ve written before about how important I think it is that we scrutinize results data coming from innovative school models—particularly ones with strong PR. I’ve also said that I think it’s critical we stay clear-eyed and applaud success only for what it is, without ever pitching it as more profound change than the data shows. 

I say all this not as a reform opponent but as a charter school believer. My feeling has always been that we on the inside need to demonstrate the most skepticism about charter school performance. It requires a lot of discipline and patience to adopt this stance and not just trumpet anything that looks like charter school success. But we must, because it gets you closer to the truth and because we hugely damage the already fragile credibility of the movement every time we put a so-so school on an undeserved pedestal. This doesn't mean moderately successful schools are a bad thing. They're a very good thing, especially if the alternative is failing schools and especially if they're serious about acknowledging the need for improvement.. and improving. 

Which brings us back to Urban Prep. Urban Prep is a small network of all-male, predominantly black charter high schools in Chicago. The network (and its founder Tim King) have gotten serious press and political love since the first school opened.

Urban Prep’s main talking point has been that 100% of graduates go to college. That’s been enough to make a lot of supposedly data-obsessed politicians and journalists swoon, calling Urban Prep the answer, a miracle, or “exactly right” for Chicago.

Below the surface, though, three persistent questions have dogged the argument that Urban Prep’s producing meaningful change. 

  1. 100% of graduating seniors go on to college, but what % of freshman actually become seniors? How big a role does attrition play in Urban Prep’s success? 
  2. College admission as a metric doesn’t actually say a lot about college preparedness. What do the student test scores say? 
  3. Do graduates actually persist in college through graduation? Or is this a college counseling success unsupported by an academic one?

Urban Prep is definitely not alone here, which is why I’m presenting it as a case study. For the last decade or so the miracle school narrative’s ridden high, inspiring many (including me) and angering a more skeptical few who’ve said for a while that we weren’t showing these schools enough scrutiny. So-so schools on high pedestals.

Over time the skeptical voices have grown louder and the triumphalist voices have lost credibility, at least as I see it, leaving a very different public perception landscape. Urban Prep’s self-presentation is a great illustration of this shift. 

Last year Diane Ravitch and Gary Rubinstein took aim at Urban Prep through Ravitch’s NYT op-ed “Waiting for a School Miracle” and Rubinstein’s later piece “Miracle Schools: Where Are They Now.” They hit Urban Prep for low student performance, pointing out that only 15% of Urban Prep students pass state tests, and high attrition, noting that more than 50 of ~160 students in that original class left before senior year.

King pushed back with “Educating Beyond Poverty,” which acknowledged Urban Prep’s weak performance and attrition relative to CPS as a whole but argued that the school outperformed when compared to neighborhood schools with similar students. King was making fair points but his new message—Urban Prep students do better than neighborhood peers while still standing far below the college readiness threshold—is less inspiring than the one usually presented by lazy press and politicians.

By February King moved even further with “More Than Money: Making Colleges Student-Ready,” which to my mind adopts his critics’ point as his own: that we should talk more about college graduation and less about college acceptance. 

Which brings us to this week. Urban Prep just announced its 3rd year with 100% of graduating seniors admitted to college. Same news as previous year, completely different talking points. Now it’s all about college persistence.

After talking to King, the Trib editorial board (repeat offender in the world of charter promoters lazily but condescendingly trumpeting under-deserving schools) wrote this: “More success from Urban Prep: Students get to college ... and stay there.” 

Read it. It’s all about Urban Prep’s success, only now it’s about their college persistence numbers. ~80% of Urban Prep grads that started college came back for sophomore year. This is presented as a good thing. Trib even defends Urban Prep grads’ relatively low ACT scores, saying Urban Prep students with low ACT scores outperform other low-ACT college students in persistence.

For my money this is a significant change and actually a very positive one. Whether you like Rubinstein/Ravitch or not, it sure looks like they and skeptics like them are winning the scrutiny battle. Urban Prep talking to press about college persistence? Fantastic. The Trib saying college admission doesn’t matter without college readiness? Even better. I just hope they show UNO and everyone else the same kind of scrutiny going forward. And I hope it’s a sign of a broader change in this direction.


Sign up here. @sethlavin


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If the charter sector didn't lie incessantly to begin with, the debunking wouldn't be so emphatic. And failing to mention the attrition when trumpeting the college admission rate is a lie, a deliberately misleading sin of omission. Lies backfire.

If the school promoted the message "only the best students will make it to graduation, but those who do will succeed..." -- that would be something else.

Speaking as a parent who just (legitimately) navigated the college admissions process for the second time, I'll point out that it would also be quite possible for a school to manipulate the process to get underqualified students into college in any case.

Here in California, all students in the "catchment area" of one of the California State Universities are guaranteed admission if they meet basic standards -- completing the required set of classes and hitting a certain GPA. (This guarantee is getting shaky in our budget crisis, but it has been the case.)

Charter schools, which are utterly un-overseen and unaccountable, can do whatever they want -- anything they want at all -- in terms of juking their students' GPA and "ensuring" that the transcript shows completion of the required classes. So yes, unqualified students can easily be admitted to college based on that system.

And if the school is blatantly lying by neglecting to mention its attrition rate when trumpeting its supposed college enrollment rate, why would we believe it had a sudden attack of honesty with its students' grades and transcripts? Editorial boards may be hopelessly gullible, but the rest of us shouldn't be.


I live in Chicago and I have been watching this school for quite sometime. I even know some board members and met teachers there. Their data shows recently that only 80% of the 2010 class is still enrolled. We should be concerned that after numerous of calls no one is concerned about the overall data. This school is like a selective enrollment ( they kick you out for behavior , truancy, etc.)There is a school down the street Lindblom Math and Science Academy where a third of the students now are from Englewood but originally more were from the neighborhood and all their classes are honors( they must take Arabic and Mandarin Chinese ONly) and their average grade is a "C" yet, with three graduating classes they are #43 in the State of Illinois with the average ACT score of a 22.3.I know for a fact that many students from Urban Prep come from two parent homes and not from Englewood. Urban Prep needs to release their data. Recently , they got young men admitted into the great Liberal Arts College(Dr. King alma mater and Spike Lee) where the boys had to take remedial courses and I was told two couldn't hack the rigor(they didn't return the next year) yet they had awesome GPA'S at this school.Recently, Lindblom which is located in Englewood got its first college retention report and of the first class that graduated three years ago 92% are still in college.I just don't believe the hype !!!!

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