Miracle school debunking has been my most important contribution to the ed reform debate. The first miracle school I ever debunked was Urban Prep in Chicago after Arne Duncan touted it at the 2011 Teach For America 20 year alumni summit. I’ve probably debunked over 100 such schools and districts over the past 6 years.
A miracle school is one that has managed, with no additional resources but just harder working teachers with higher expectations, to beat the odds and get students in a high poverty school to get exceptional standardized test scores, thus proving that lazy teachers who have jobs for life and the unions who represent them, are the cause of the achievement gap. Debunking a miracle school claim is important since the existence of a miracle school will be used as Exhibit A by reformers as evidence that the other 99.99% of schools must be failing.
Most alleged miracle schools are charter schools. Since charter schools must have PR to attract students and wealthy donors, it would make sense that they would find ways to make it look like they have some secret to raising test scores. Usually it turns out that the test scores are not very good, after all, and when the test scores are good it is because of massive attrition of the weaker students.
About four years ago I wrote my most widely criticized blog post ever called ‘The Status Quo Miracle District.’ The post was an analysis I did of a miracle district touted in the New York Times by David Kirp. He had written about a traditional miracle district in New Jersey called, most ironically, Union City. Even though many of my public school supporting friends had been enthusiastic about this article because it showed that a traditional district can be a miracle district too without resorting to reforms like charters and TFA, I did my fact-checking to find that the test scores at that district were not impressive. My post was not well received. People called me a traitor and an ally of the reformers.