The "Genius" edition

A suburban college readiness gap, rethinking the high school graduation age, fracking’s effect on male dropout rates, and racial density in high schools. 

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: "School Composition and the Black-White Achievement Gap," U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (September 2015).


Robert :                                Hello, this is your host Robert Pondiscio of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, here at The Education Gadfly Show and online at

                                                Now, please join me in welcoming my co-host making his podcast debut, the Lin-Manuel Miranda of education reform, Kevin Mahnken.

Kevin:                                   Thank you very much Robert, it's nice to be here.

Robert :                                You say that now.

Kevin:                                   Yeah, we'll see how this goes. I have no experience in any audio format to this point, so it could very well go off the rail very quickly.

Robert :                                I'm going to count on that. Speaking of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the reason I evoked him, do you know why?

Kevin:                                   Tell my Robert.

Robert :                                He just was named a MacArthur Genius Grantee, right? Well deserved.

Kevin:                                   Yeah, he has now been officially designated a Genius. That debate has now been squared away. The keepers of our culture have now elevated him to that status, and I appreciate it because I like his work.

Robert :                                I like his work, I loved Hamilton. If you haven't seen it, see Hamilton. Mortgage or keep your children's lunch money, save whatever you have to, go see it. It's great.

                                                Did you look at the list of the other ... because you're not on it this year, neither am I. Again.

Kevin:                                   No, I got it in 2012. They don't double up. It's considered wasteful. No, you see the top line winners who would be Miranda and I think this year it's Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Robert :                                Correct.

Kevin:                                   Then ...

Robert :                                Twenty-two people I've never heard of.

Kevin:                                   Yeah, as we've discussed, fairly obscure but brilliant people who have dedicated their lives advancing some cause that they're now being remunerated for.

Robert :                                Handsomely.

Kevin:                                   Yeah, to the tune of, what like, $700,000?

Robert :                                A lot of money and they continue doing it and we can continue not having heard of them.

Kevin:                                   Yeah indeed, and in the case of Miranda, it means maybe he will seek it to consecrate some other unjustly ignored founding father.

Robert :                                Benjamin Rush, The Musical.

Kevin:                                   Yeah. Dudley Wigglesworth, The Sage of Concord. I would love to see it.

Robert :                                Good. Get on that Mr. Miranda.

                                                All right let's play, Pardon The Gadfly. Clara, take it away.

Clara:                                    The achievement gap in suburban school districts does not get much attention. Why should stake holders be concerned that districts, like Montgomery County, are getting only 11% of their low income students college ready?

Robert :                                What a fascinating ... Did you read the speech by our good friend, brother Mike Petrilli?

Kevin:                                   I did. Yes. I read all his work.

Robert :                                Okay, of course you do.

Kevin:                                   I prefer his early work.

Robert :                                Pre 2012.

Kevin:                                   Yeah.

Robert :                                He sends his sons to the Montgomery County Schools and he came up with this remarkable piece of data, that shows a well regarded suburban school district. When you look at it by sub groups, only 11% of the kids of color, low income kids of color, in Montgomery County are college ready as determined by SAT and ACT scores. I was kind of surprised by that.

                                                How about you?

Kevin:                                   I was surprised of the two figures that he shows in his piece that's the more striking one of kids who have taken, I think it's the ACT/SAT, you see higher figures for black and Latinos. It's somewhere a little bit closer to 20%, but of course you want to take a broader numbers.

                                                It is surprise, what makes them stark I think, is that you've got these huge scat's of white and Asian students who are being deemed college ready, according to these metrics, and the gap is therefore much, much wider and it cuts against what we would normally think of a somewhat affluent district like Montgomery County.

Robert :                                The point is a good one I think, and one that I think we think of ourselves as education reformers, we tend to focus on urban schools, right? Some of the same population that we focus on are in these suburban schools, and guess what? They're doing just as badly here or there as they are in the intercity. It's kind of fascinating.

                                                He starts out, Mike's piece, I was going to call it my favorite quote from John Dewey but I mean that archly or ironically, this business about, "What the best and why does this parent want, so should every parent want for his/her child and I think less is un-levelly and undemocratic."

                                                I've referred to that before, you see this all the time where good ideas, and I'm making air quotes around good ideas, that work pedagogically for affluent kids we say, "Hey it worked so well in the Upper East Side." Let's take it to the inner city where it crashes and burns. This is the same phenomena within a district. What's working well for affluent kids in a place like Montgomery County, it may not be working so well for low income kids. Mike's point, and I think its a good one is, do we need to rethink the instruction program to differentiate it more to give kids what they need just not what they think what we think they should have?

Kevin:                                   Even access to, in a case of low income kids, resources that have been earmarked for then but have not been delivered. You may have seen, there was a new report released by essentially a small think tank associated with the county, research that says something like, "50 million out of about 128 million in funds from the state for low income students didn't go directly to programs benefiting low income students. It went to general operating budgets."

                                                That may be. That's certainty legal and since the district saw a huge amount of funding cuts on the wake of the recession, the cut a lot of positions, that may even be the right thing to do but it makes you think you're seeing these fast gaps in the income levels. Perhaps if low income kids had the resources that they were meant to have in the first place, would it be different?

Robert :                                Good question. I'd love to see this same data run done for suburban school districts across the county I think we would learn quite a lot.

                                                Number 2 Clara.

Clara:                                    In the book Split Screen Strategy, Ted Kolderie suggests that some students could benefit from graduating much earlier. Do you think rethinking the high school graduation age is a healthy or productive way to rethink the traditional education model?

Robert :                                Boy, oh boy, oh boy. I'm going to say something I've probably said a thousand times on this podcast which is, "It's complicated." I know that this is a very, "Which vain of ore to mine." A lot of people think, "We should have competency based classes. Why are having this lock, step, march, k-12, 13 grades and then you graduate. Let's let students proceed at their own pace, etc, etc."

                                                I get it. I'm sympathetic to it. The only counter argument that I would like to hear more of is, kind of the cultural orientation of school. I'm guessing all of us at this table, all of us listening to this, had that classic k-12 experience and yes we can see ways to improve it, but that's just the way we do school. Am I being fussy by just saying, "Well that's just the way we do school?" There's some intrinsic value to that. Let's be very, very careful about messing with that?

Kevin:                                   I guess this makes you the Edmund Burke of the educational reform.

Robert :                                That's right.

Kevin:                                   Educational reform has been pointed out by a contributor like Andy Smarick. It is sort of inherently seemingly bias toward change. Toward shacking up the status-quo. I think that's probably to it's benefit. The status-quo exists for a reason, of course.

                                                In the case of Kolderie's book, there is something persuasive about this case to me. He makes sort of a broader claim, and perhaps a indefensible claim, it's quoted in our review in this weeks Gadfly by Kate Stringer, that he reckons that with the number, I'm paraphrasing, with the number of restrictions that are in place, basically on the freedoms and the freedoms of movement and opportunity on adolescents, that they are the most discriminate against segment of people in our society.

Robert :                                Come on, that's a little bit of over statement.

Kevin:                                   Yeah, he's making sweeping claims. I see some truth in it. By 16 it seems to me, at least some high school students ought to be able to choose their own path.

Robert :                                Sure.

Kevin:                                   If that own path includes seeking employment outside of school. In high school I didn't even have the option of seeking part time employment.

Robert :                                Okay, I did. Name a fast food restaurant? I worked there.

Kevin:                                   How long did you stay, though? That's the question.

Robert :                                Longer than I should have perhaps. Maybe the job is still open.

                                                I don't want to over argue the case because I think there really is some wisdom, and he's Ted Kolderie, and who am I? I just get very, very nervous when we suggest just blowing up these models that are not merely academic. I'm bias here, my daughter's an athlete okay for example, it had been a very great big part of her schooling. I was involved in theatrical productions when I was in high school.

                                                We have schools for things other than academics. There's civic institutions. There are cultural places. They're athletic institutions for our kids. You can't pull one of these levers without disrupting some of the other ones. Do I think that there should be more high school models that allow the kinds of kids Ted is referring to to be better served? Of course. Do I want to upset the entire the apple cart and say, "Let's change the way we do high school in America?" I'm not quite there yet.

                                                Speaking of which, this is kind of related. Number 3 Clara.

Clara:                                    Dartmouth economist have suggested that the boom of the fracking industry has increased high school dropout rates. Are students being forced to chose between work and school?

Robert :                                I don't know if they're being forced to choose, but this data that's kinda fascinating says that they are choosing. Guess which one is losing?

Kevin:                                   It's school.

Robert :                                Right. It's kind of interesting. I know 1 or 2 young people who actually went out to North Dakota a few summer ago to work in the fracking fields and made a boat load of money, and they were real happy about that. This piece of research, I believe was from Dartmouth, suggested I think there was a 1 1/2% or 2% decline in graduation rates because they're linking this with job opportunities in fracking, which is kind of fascinating.

Kevin:                                   Yeah. It's actually even more stark than that. I think I saw 1.5% to 2.5% increase in the drop out rate for each percentage point increase in employment in the oil and natural gas fields. That's pretty striking.

Robert :                                It sure is.

Kevin:                                   It could very well be that this is another area that's impacted by the recession. Jobs are hard to come by and you have extraordinarily high paying jobs for extraordinarily low skilled workers.

Robert :                                Yup.

Kevin:                                   Perhaps it's only logical that they should seek employment outside of school, but there's a down side to that because these fields, which arise basically out of nowhere, often end up turn in to ghosts towns. Since it's peak in December of 2014, the national oil and gas industry has shed 8% of it's jobs.

Robert :                                Peek fracking.

Kevin:                                   Peek fracking. We may still see yet another spike at some point, but right now we got depressed fuel prices and that's leading to a lot of these places being shut down. While it makes perhaps short term sense, I think this case probably argues against my point from the previous segment.

Robert :                                Pick one Kevin.

Kevin:                                   Yeah, exactly. Let a 17 year old choose and he may choose $15 an hour in a fracking facility, but that could not be a good decision for long.

Robert :                                Aaron Churchill, our colleague, reviewed this report for The Gadfly and makes the point I think is the good and obvious and correct one, which is students should not have to choose. This perhaps reinforces Kolderie's point in the previous segment. If we want kids struggling, there's an interest in seeing them being upwardly mobile so that $15 hour job, yeah it's hard to say no to that, and let's applaud the initiative. That's great, but we don't want them dropping out of school. Is there a way, is there an educational school model that will allow them to do both. That will allow them to take advantage of short term economic opportunities, while continuing to matriculate. I don't know what that model is but maybe Ted Kolderie could get to work on that for us.

Kevin:                                   More over, I think it's just as a final point it's worth pointing out, that fracking is not necessary solely to blame for this. You see this in a lot of parts of the country where all of a sudden, employment opportunities blossom for folks without a lot of job skills. Construction would be a great example of the housing boom. If a 16 year old is sitting board in pre-calculus and he knows that he can be making oodles of money, literally 10's of dollars an hour working a low skill job, then they're going to be doing it regardless of whether it's fracking or another field. It's probably something we should keep in mind.

Robert :                                Yeah, exactly. Fracking is the current phenomenon, but there will be other opportunities like this. If you want to rethink high school, that's not a bad way to start is by looking at the economic opportunities that exist in making it possible for kids to take advantage of both their academic trajectory and the short term opportunities. Why not? Makes all the sense in the world.

                                                That's all the time we have for Pardon The Gadfly, and now it's time for Amber's Research Minute.

                                                How are you doing today Amber?

Amber:                                 Doing great. Just tired of the rain already and this thing has turned into a hurricane I hear.

Robert :                                Really?

Amber:                                 Yeah. Category 1, that's what I heard on the news this morning.

Robert :                                I did not know that. I was just going to ask you if you made the short list for The MacArthur Genius because Kevin won in 2012, which I didn't know until this morning.

Kevin:                                   This was a couple years ago. It was for my musical about James Otis.

Amber:                                 I did not know that.

Kevin:                                   Yeah.

Amber:                                 They have Geniuses of all different stripes, right? You can be a Genius in all different things, as I recall when I looked at it last time.

Robert :                                Indigo child theory of genius? We're all Geniuses.

Amber:                                 We're all Geniuses in some way. Yes.

Robert :                                I get that. I'm revealing myself to be completely unsophisticated with the exception  Ta-Nehisi Coates and Lin-Manuel Miranda, there were 22 people I could not have picked out at a police line up.

Amber:                                 Right.

Robert :                                Not that I expect to.

Amber:                                 Right. They're artists and musicians and thought leaders.

Robert :                                Right, but nobody from the world of education.

Amber:                                 Philosophers, yes. Right.

Robert :                                Right, so maybe next year.

Amber:                                 Maybe next year.

Robert :                                You and me. What do you got for us?

Amber:                                 All right. We got a new study out by NCES called School Composition and The Black-White Achievement Gap. We spend a lot of time talking about this achievement gap, don't we?

Robert :                                We do indeed.

Amber:                                 Uses data from the 2011 NAEP Grade 8 Math Assessment to examine the black-white achievement gap in light of the make up of the school. Specifically, how does the gap look in schools where the density of black students is high or low, which is simply the percentage again, of black students in a school. They use this density word which is a little off putting to me and maybe I'm just being overly sensitive here, but anyway, we talk about density of the school. That just is code word for how many black kids are in that school. Okay?

Robert :                                Okay.

Amber:                                 Key findings on average nationally, white students attended schools that were 9% black, while black students attended schools that were 48% black.

Robert :                                In the averages. Makes you wonder.

Amber:                                 On average nationally.

Robert :                                Okay.

Amber:                                 No surprise here, but the highest density schools were mostly in the south. Okay, we know that, and in cities. Low density schools were mostly in rural areas. All right, so that's no big surprise.

Robert :                                Right.

Amber:                                 Three-quarters of of public schools, that about 77%, are the lowest density, meaning 0% to 20% black students and 10% are highest density, which is 60% to 100% black students. Okay. That's all the descriptive stuff.

                                                Then they do another annalists where they control for factors such as social economic status and all these varies school and teacher and student characteristics. Then they apply all of these controls.

                                                Then they find that 1 white student achievement in the highest density categories, I mean highest density schools, did not differ from white student achievement in the lowest density schools. The white student achievement stayed static.

Robert :                                Regardless of ...

Amber:                                 Relative of whether you're in high density or low density. Yes.

                                                Number 2 for black students overall and especially black males, here we go with our black males again, achievement was lower in the highest density schools then in the lowest density schools. The black male kids had lower achievement in the higher density schools then in the lower density schools. Okay?

                                                Number 3, this is kind of interesting, there were no significant difference between the percentage of black student in a school in achievement for females. Whether the female was black or white, we didn't see statistically significant differences for the females.

                                                Again for the males, the black-white achievement gap was greater in the high density schools by about 25 points of a gap. In the lower density schools to was only 17 points with the gap. One thing to keep in mind, because it's descriptive, it's not causal, is that they can control first off things like family income, teacher credentials and all this other stuff but you still have a self selection bias. Your not going to wipe out that self selection bias no matter how many controls you try to throw in there. What we're saying is, there's something about parental motivation, for instance right, that we just can't measure. We've got to concede that students in these mostly, I'll use the word, "Segregated schools," right if you will, are going to be different then those who are in integrated schools in ways that we can't really measure. Okay?

                                                In the end I was just thinking to myself, the fact remains whatever you think about the study, it's mostly descriptive, it's correlational. We fret a lot about whether schools are segregated or not and what to do about them. I think this study is light on the answer to that because it's obvious a very complicated problem.

Robert :                                Sure.

Amber:                                 It's good descriptive information but I think that they really short change the fact that these kids are still different in fundamental ways that we can't measure.

Robert :                                The answer is, we need to know more?

Amber:                                 Yeah. I think we need to know more and I think that we need to concede that we can talk about these gaps and we can talk about how many black kids are in a school and how that impacts achievement and correlational away, but we can't be real definitive about these differences that we're seeing because we're not able to really figure out how these kids are fundamentally different.

                                                There's something going on here that these models can't capture. I was just saying, let's not die on the toward relative to these research finding's in particular. I think, and you guys know this more then anyone, in the school choice world right? Some of these no excuses schools are being sort of beat up on because they're not caring so much about integration. They're setting up schools in these inner-cities where these kids are and some folks are beating them up for that. I think this kind of research is trying to speak to that problem of what do we still do about these schools where you just don't have a lot of diversity?

Robert :                                Right. Great question and it's not going to go away anytime soon. Thank you Amber. That's all the time we have for this weeks Gadfly Show. Until next week.

Kevin:                                   I'm Kevin.

Robert :                                I'm Robert Pondiscio from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.