MEDIA WATCH: Another flawed 'study' that got major media play... 'Middle Class' being deprived study debunked

Hardly a day goes by without someone somewhere trying to field a supposed "study" showing whatever they want to prove. Recently, a study supposedly showing that "middle class" schools were deprived made the rounds. Examples of how a significantly flawed "study" can get major media play is worth noting: Education Week gave an uncritical report on the study on September 13, 2011, and The Wall Street Journal published a major news story by former Chicago reporter Stephanie Banchero that repeated the controversial claims in the report without noting any flaws, and then quoted the usual list of suspects punditing on the report. Among those quoted by Banchero are Ed Trust and Michelle Rhee.

The reception by the corporate media to the supposed study, even though in any sensible world it would be ignored as junk science, gives readers an indication of how corporate media slip such "studies" into the mainstream, and how they then become part of the conventional bourgeois wisdom about schools in the USA in the 21st Century.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) has now exposed its flaws. Their critique follows here. That is followed by the Wall Street Journal "news" story on the report.

Report on “Middle Class Students Not Making the Grade” Flunks Independent Review

Third Way Think Tank Claims “Fresh Thinking” But Report Marred by Spoiled Analysis

BOULDER, CO (September 22, 2011)—Who constitutes the middle class and how are their kids doing in school? Third Way, an organization led by centrist Democrats, claims in a report released last week that so-called “middle-class schools” are disadvantaged compared with wealthier and poorer schools. However, an independent review by Prof. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University finds that the report’s authors have an absurd view of who makes up the middle class and that the Third Way researchers misread their own data.

Baker, a school finance expert, reviewed Incomplete: How Middle Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade, for the Think Twice think tank review project.

According to Professor Baker, the report “suffers from egregious methodological flaws invalidating nearly every bold conclusion drawn by its authors.”

The biggest flaw is the report’s definition of “middle class,” which includes “any school or district where the share of children qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch falls between 25% and 75%,” Baker notes. “This classification includes as middle class some of the poorest urban centers in the country.” What this means is that the Third Way report drew conclusions about middle class schools by examining a data set that includes cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia. According to the most recent census data, Detroit is the poorest city in the nation; few people to consider Detroit to be middle class.

Besides that “crude classification” of middle class, however, Baker notes that none of the report’s major findings is supported by the data presented by the authors themselves.

For example, the report’s authors pay no attention to the fact that the schools they call “middle class” fall between higher- and lower-income schools on measures of student achievement. That is, schools enrolling lower-income students tend to have poorer achievement outcomes than schools enrolling higher-income students, and schools enrolling students with income levels between those extreme have outcomes in the middle. This is exactly what researchers should expect given the longstanding correlation of school achievement measures and the average incomes of the families those schools serve.

“This report provides no usable guidance for policy or practice,” Baker writes.

There is one small piece of value in Incomplete..., however, Baker concludes: “The report is an extreme exemplar of bad analysis and even worse reporting, thus offering an effective teaching tool for use with graduate students, education reporters and policymakers.”

The Baker review is published by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

Find Bruce Baker’s review on the NEPC website at:

Find Incomplete: How Middle Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade by Tess Stovall and Deirdre Dolan, on the web at:

The Think Twice think tank review project (, a project of the National Education Policy Center, provides the public, policy makers, and the press with timely, academically sound, reviews of selected think tank publications. The project is made possible in part by the generous support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on NEPC, please visit .

This review is also found on the GLC website at

CONTACT: Bruce D. Baker

(732) 932-7496 ext. 8232 William Mathis, NEPC

(802) 383-0058



Middle-class public schools educate the majority of U.S. students but pay lower teacher salaries, have larger class sizes and spend less per pupil than low-income and wealthy schools, according to a report to be issued Monday.

The report, "Incomplete: How Middle-Class Schools Aren't Making the Grade," also found middle-class schools are underachieving. It pointed to their national and international test scores and noted that 28% of their graduates earn a college degree by age 26, compared to 17% for lower-income students and 47% for upper-income students.

Third Way, a Democratic think tank that claims to "advocate for private sector economic growth," based its report on data from the Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education, and national and international testing programs. The report doesn't include parochial or private-school students.

Over the next decade, nearly two-thirds of job openings will require some post-secondary education, the report says, arguing that middle-class schools need to help better prepare their students to graduate from college.

"Middle-class schools produce students who are the backbone of the U.S. economy, and they are not performing as well as parents, policy makers and taxpayers think they are," said Tess Stovall, deputy director of Third Way's economic program and co-author of the report. "We need a second phase of education reform to ensure these schools get the attention they deserve."

During the past few decades, most prominent U.S. education reforms—charter schools, vouchers, school closures and the federal No Child Left Behind law—have been aimed in large part at low-income schools. But middle-class schools, defined as those where between 26% and 75% of students are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price federal lunch, have received less research and attention, the report says.

Results from recent national elementary math, reading, history and geography exams show low-income students—even though they still perform poorly—are making more progress than middle- and upper-class ones. On many of these exams, low-income students are posting double-digit gains toward proficiency, while middle-income students are posting single-digit gains.

Michele Rhee, the former chief of Washington, D.C., schools who heads the advocacy group Students First, said the country must focus on fixing fundamental flaws in public education, such as how teachers are paid, hired and laid off. "But for this movement to really gain hold, we need to engage the middle-class parents who think their schools are doing just fine," she said.

Middle-class schools educate 25.7 million, or 53%, of all public-school students, and more than half of all white and African-American students, 50% of Hispanic students and 45% of Asians, the report notes.

The average salary of teachers in middle-class schools is $48,432, compared with $54,035 for upper-income schools and $50,035 for lower-income schools, according to the report. Schools in the middle have an average student-to-teacher ratio of 17.5, compared with 14.6 for upper-income schools and 17 for lower-income ones.

Middle-class districts spend $10,349 per student, compared with $11,925 for upper-class schools and $11,799 for low-income schools, the report says. The report calculated spending by district because individual school data are not available on a national level. The disparities can be attributed in part to the fact that low-income schools get additional federal dollars and schools in upper-class neighborhoods have a higher property-tax base.

According to the report, less than a third of students who attend middle-class schools score proficient on national 4th- and 8th-grade reading and 8th-grade math exams. About 36% are proficient in 4th-grade math.

In upper-income schools, more than half the students are proficient on the 4th- and 8th-grade reading and 4th-grade math, while 46% are proficient in 8th-grade reading. In low-income schools, less than 20% of students are proficient on all of those exams.

"When we talk about closing the achievement gaps, we need to bring the low-income kids up, but we also need to raise scores of the other kids," said Amy Wilkins, Vice President of Government Affairs for Education Trust, a non-profit that focuses on poor and minority families. "Just chasing mediocrity isn't enough."

In the San Diego Unified School District, middle-class schools will have to get by on less after the school board voted in December to divert about $20 million in federal money from middle-class schools.

Under the plan, to be phased in over five years, the district will take the money from 60 schools with poverty rates between 40% and 75% and send it to poorer schools.

Michael George, principal of Taft Middle School in San Diego, which has a low-income rate of 60% to 80% depending on the year and is at risk of losing $146,000, said he uses the extra money to pay for a math teacher hired to help kids who are in the middle of the pack on achievement. Shifting the funds "is shortsighted and would be devastating," he said.

Linda Zintz, spokeswoman for San Diego schools, said board members didn't make the decisions lightly and shifted the money only after years of consideration, because "they felt higher-poverty schools really had some added issues and special needs and needed these resources badly."

Write to Stephanie Banchero at


September 22, 2011 at 2:19 PM

By: Rod Estvan

When middle class schools are actually wealthy schools

I have to agree this study of the supposed problems of middle class schools is completely divorced from the actual social class structure of the children in the schools. It is wrong to use free and reduced lunch percentages to completely characterize whether a school is wealthy, poor, or middle class. There is much more to the story than that.

The authors of this study state: "We define schools and school districts with 25% or less of their students eligible for the NSLP as upper-income schools. For lower-income, high-poverty schools, we parallel the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of high poverty and define them as schools and school districts with more than 75% of students qualifying for NSLP. The schools and school districts with 26% to 75% of their student population eligible for NSLP we define as middle-income, middle-class schools."

The study fails to understand that in some school districts there are supposedly middle class schools within school districts of great wealth where the teachers get paid the same as those who work in the most high income schools in the district and the nation. Here is one example. Northwood Jr. High School in Highland Park's SD 112 has 42% low income students but the teachers in that school get exactly the same pay as teachers at Edgewood Middle School also in SD 112 which has only 6% low income students.

Conversely there are upper income schools in districts like our own here in Chicago that would appear to be middle class schools based on the study's methodology. Payton College Prep HS formally has 33.4% low income students and would be considered a middle class school based on this study's method. But as we all know this high school has some of the city's most wealthy public school children attending it and has a parent fund raising organization that pulls down big bucks (by way of disclosure I had one daughter who graduated from Payton and our family income was 800% above the poverty line, many families earned three times what our family did). Families at the school for example can afford to send numerous students to France for several weeks to study there and pick up the tab for poorer kids too. Most of the low income students at Payton are children of the working poor usually from single family households with very "middle class" values and in some cases matriculated to Payton from private schools. As we know teachers at supposedly middle class Payton get paid on the same scale as teachers at truly poor high school like Manley.

Prof. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University drew the correct critical conclusions about how the authors of this report defined middle class schools and Stephanie Banchero whose review of the same report in the Wall Street Journal completely missed Professor Baker's analysis of this report. Thanks for publishing this interesting story.

Rod Estvan

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