Education Opinion

The Trouble With Student Success Stories

By Walt Gardner — February 29, 2012 1 min read
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It’s always heartening to hear how some students have managed to overcome Dickensian backgrounds to shine in school. They deserve the spotlight for their impressive achievements in spite of the huge disadvantages they brought to class. That’s why scholarships provided by The New York Times since 1996 are so welcome (“Resiliency Helps 8 Students Win Times Scholarships,” Feb. 25).

But at the same time, I wonder if these remarkable students will be used by reformers as proof that all students can post similar outcomes if they only applied themselves to the task. We already see this happening when critics claim that there are no excuses. If students just worked harder and teachers taught better, the achievement gap would disappear. The theme is on display in such books as Karin Chenoweth’s It’s Being Done (Harvard Education Press, 2007).

I don’t doubt that some schools are able to post impressive results. But they constitute an aberration in the same way that the winners of the Times scholarships do. In other words, the exceptions are not the rule. Even such anti-excusers as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom concede this point in No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (Simon & Schuster, 2003). They believe that the best we can hope for is that a few disadvantaged students can escape.

The latest example is an article about Rudi-Ann Miller, a student from Jamaica who is one of only 40 black students at Stuyvesant High School in New York City out of a total student enrollment of 3,295 (“To Be Black at Stuyvesant High,” The New York Times, Feb. 25). Stuyvesant is one of eight high schools in the city that accepts students only on the basis of an entrance exam. Competition for admission is so fierce that many students prepare for the exam years in advance. She scored 594 out of a possible 800, barely making the cut at about 560. After four years at the school, she applied via early admission to Yale and was accepted.

Because New York City does not track the race and ethnicity of students who take the specialized high school exam - only of those who are accepted at one of the schools - it’s hard to know how many other exceptions there are. But I’d be willing to bet that whatever the number, those students will be cited as evidence to support the claims made by the no-excuse crowd.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.