Another Problematic Chapter in the Star Tribune’s North High “Cinderella Story”


I’m willing to bet my bottom dollar not a one of you has been following the tempest involving two very different stories put out by Washington, D.C.’s National Public Radio affiliate, WAMU, about Ballou High School. The first story, released in June, reported that for the first time 100 percent of the high-poverty school’s graduates had been accepted to four-year colleges.

A second, Nov. 28 story, “What Really Happened At The School Where Every Graduate Got Into College,” revealed that upwards of half of those Ballou grads missed three months or more of school their senior year. Dozens missed too much school to earn passing grades. Teachers told reporters few could read.

“An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate,” the second story reported. “In June, 164 students received diplomas.”

A journalist named Alexander Russo serves as the media watchdog for the education press corps, an endeavor you can easily track by signing up for his weekly column, The Grade. Almost immediately upon the second story’s publication, Russo began pointing out on social media that WAMU had not addressed the obvious: That its first story was badly flawed.

Some other folks joined him and on Friday NPR’s ombudsperson addressed the question. Though she ended up backing the reporter’s original work as done in good faith (more on that in a minute), the public editor conceded Russo’s point:

“The original piece is somewhat startling to read, given what we know now,” she wrote. “As the story points out, the graduation rate in the 2015-16 school year was 57 percent. That year, only 3 percent of students met citywide English standards and no one passed the math. The question in any reporter’s mind should then be: Was the 2017 progress simply too good to be true?”

I’m bringing this to your attention because last June, the Star Tribune ran a piece extolling the graduation rate at Minneapolis Public Schools’ “comeback kid,” North High. At the time I blogged about the problems with the piece, which wrongly cast former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson as the school’s nemesis, not its savior, and which glossed over data that should have thrown cold water on “North’s Cinderella story.”

Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote in response:

“Of the 63 members of the 2017 class who took a state reading exam in 10th grade, seven—or 11 percent—passed. Of the 54 juniors who took the math test the next year, four—or 7.4 percent—passed.

“Let’s countersink that nail: Two of 42 North 10th-graders—next year’s presumed grads–last year passed the reading test.

“The story takes no note of this. Nor does it actually include the 2017 graduation rate, just those of years past. And—not to quibble incessantly—it does not note that graduation rates all over the state rose when exit exams were done away with.

“It does note that the composite score of the 70 North students who took the college entrance ACT exam last year was 15.7. It’s amazing that 70 Polars took the ACT—really and truly. But that score is more than six points lower than the 22 that’s generally accepted as college-ready and more than five points lower than the score Minnesota State looks for.”

One of the first things you learn as an education reporter is that graduation rates are so fungible they tell you exactly nothing. They can be computed a variety of ways, and each method props up a different philosophy or ideology.

To be clear, the miracle doubling of North’s grad rate is likely not the administrative chicanery that went on at D.C.’s Ballou. Unless MPS fudged reports to the state – which would be pretty out of character — North’s attendance rate for the class in question ranged from 89 to 92 percent. Which is truly commendable.

I suspect something else is at play, namely that soft bigotry of low expectations.  How else do you pass along students who can’t read year after year, knowing they will not be admitted to the state’s least selective public colleges and lack the basic literacy skills for all but the lowest-paying jobs that don’t require higher ed.

For example, did you know MPS graduates students who earn Ds in core courses? I mean, that alone could explain it. Arguably, a policy that allows an entire district to graduate students who clearly haven’t mastered high school materials is worse than some corrupt – and easily discoverable — paper-shuffling at a single school.

Los Angeles Unified School District has also tinkered with graduation requirements – allowing Ds and suspect online credit recovery programs – and seen a miraculous hike in graduation rates to a record 77 percent. California’s state colleges require Cs for admission. Cut out students graduating with Ds and LA’s grad rate drops to 47 percent.

And NPR in particular ought to have known better about Ballou, having produced a multi-state investigation two years ago that outlined the sundry creative ways a school or district can boost its graduation rate seemingly overnight.

Also depressing, the Star Tribune story makes clear that its reporter knew there was a disconnect between what available data about academic achievement at North shows and that shiny graduation rate. But failed to probe or explain it.

It’s too bad it took a wave of embarrassing social media to get NPR to update its original story and to explain what happened. But at least it did – and in enough depth that this is one crack facts are unlikely to slip through anytime soon.

North High’s Polars deserve better.


One thought on “Another Problematic Chapter in the Star Tribune’s North High “Cinderella Story”

  1. Jerry Von Korff

    I think that those of us in education, and those who comment on education, need to rethink deeply about how we evaluate the performance of schools. Graduation rates are clearly deceptive, especially when we don’t have proficiency based graduation. Moreover, the graduation rate represents an accumulation of efforts, or if you will deficits. The graduation rate is falsely assigned to the graduating school. Falsely, because the students who come to that school may arrive already so far behind, that it is foolish to suggest that the school can make up the accumulated deficiencies. Some may arrive from other countries; some may arrive from different school systems. Some may have bounced around from school to school as a result of housing challenges, or other family difficulties.

    We need to look at program effectiveness by using indicators that have statistical integrity. But even more importantly, we need to focus on whether our schools are doing the things that they need to do appropriate to the challenges they face, and whether we are funding the staffing, the leadership, the professional staff development, and above all the learning time, necessary to do the job.

    As a former high school teacher, I can say that I was assigned to teach classes defined to provide coursework appropriate to the the grade and course level I was teaching. If I had thirty students, and if 20 of them weren’t ready to read the lowest level reading material provided in my text selection, then the claim that I should have to get them ready for the next year’s course level, in 8 plus months of school is, well, just silly. I can try to differentiate, and most teachers to, but what about the ten kids who are in fact ready for the material I am assigned to teach. “Who the heck was teaching these kids in grade school and middle school,” we used to say, or think. Now what are we supposed to do?

    We keep on doing the same thing over and over again. Then pundits keep rolling out the same statistics, over and over again. We try to make up all that lost ground in the same amount of time that the more advanced students get. Maybe we send them to a bit of uninspiring summer school where they sit in rows of uninspiring repeat lessons of material that they have grown to despise, because it signifies failure and repeated failure.

    Spare us the claim that the fix is in sending these kids to charter schools. The fix is in doing something radically different. It begins with attacking this problem in the early years, first, second, third and fourth grade. Year round school, for starters, with inspiring classes designed to inspire and thrill, but also designed to teach the value of hard work. Put some money behind this; change the curriculum; change the degree of rigor; make them feel that they are on track to be somebody, and then put them on that track.


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