Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Twelve years ago, Bessemer Elementary was the Tim Tebow of Colorado schools. Hundreds of visitors from across the nation flocked to Pueblo in an effort to learn how a school with a poverty rate of more than 80 percent could boast some of the state’s highest test scores rates and gains.
As a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, I was one of the many who made the Pueblo pilgrimage. Like others before me, I was duly impressed. “From ‘F’ to Ace in 3 Years, Failing Pueblo School has Become Governor’s Model of Success” was the headline that ran with my 2001 feature on the school, where the walls were covered with laminated photographs of smiling Bessemer kids hugging politicians.
In the years that followed my visit, this political poster child of a school has all but disappeared from the state and national consciousness. A quick glance at the state data explains why. In 2011, Pueblo 60’s three-year, median growth rate was in the 38th percentile statewide. The district is “accredited with a turnaround plan,” with 44 percent of students proficient or advanced on Colorado Student Assessment Program exams.
Bessemer, the miracle/no excuses school, has a 38 percent proficiency rate. It is also under a turnaround plan.
If I am a little more skeptical these days of educational miracles, it might be because I have been around long enough to witness personally the disappearance of some of the most lauded wonders of my reporting days . All of them follow a pattern. High poverty rates. Amazing results. Pat explanations, short enough to fit on a political button. Some of Pueblo’s pat explanations have been adopted throughout the state.
I am only one of many people who have identified this problem: For instance, in her 2009 book, “Changing the Odds for Children at Risk,” Susan Neuman writes of returning two years later to a miracle school she had visited early in her term as Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education under George W. Bush: “After the original media attention had turned to other matters and the specialists and scholars had moved on to other projects, the school once again slid back into the murk of poverty’s inertia.”
I often wonder what really happened to Pueblo, to Bessemer and to their highflying, no-excuses peers of the early 2000s. But more than that, I wonder, which current miracles will be the Pueblos of tomorrow?
It makes sense to me to study and replicate high-poverty schools with high test scores and high growth rates. But it also makes me nervous because time so often proves us wrong. I admire and share the sense of urgency surrounding the need to improve education for our low-income students.
I just wonder if our obsession with outliers may, in the long run, be giving us the impression of speed without any forward movement, like a group of bicyclists who have somehow mistaken a spinning class for the Tour de France.