Some things, as we sometimes find out after the fact, are not always what they originally seemed. That may be the case at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, where President Obama is delivering the commencement address today.

The school won the administration’s Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, in which hundreds of schools competed to win an Obama apperance by showing how they have worked to increase their graduation rates and improve student achievement. Obama picked the winner himself from three finalists chosen by the public.

You can see the winning video made by the school below, and, let me hasten to add that the school looks like a terrific place.

The school in recent years has taken a number of steps to improve its academics, adding Advanced Placement courses while offering vocational and technical classes too, and setting high expectations for everyone.

The school says its graduation rate jumped from 55% in 2007 to 81.6% in 2010, an accomplishment that would certainly appeal to Obama, who has made increasing high school and college graduation a key education priority.

But here’s the thing: Veteran teacher and author Gary Rubinstein looked into the graduation rate rise and discovered something that casts a different light on that achievement.

Rubinstein, a Teach for America alumnus and author of two books on teaching -- “Reluctant Disciplinarian” and “Beyond Survival” -- wrote on his blog that he looked at demographic figures for Booker T. Washington and found this:

I found that there was a lot of attrition over that four year period. The school enrollment was 760 in 2007, 732 in 2008, 649 in 2009, and then in the ‘miracle’ year 2010, down to 566. So the school had lost nearly 25% of its students in that time period, which is also the exact percent that the graduation rate climbed by.

I looked into this sudden drop in enrollment to find if I could learn if the 200 students who disappeared were the ones who were less likely to graduate. It didn’t take long for me to locate this article, which explains that two housing projects right near the school were torn down, thus displacing the 200 students that account for the drop.

The actual demolition of the projects didn’t happen until a few months after the miracle, but surely people started leaving once they found out about it. Though some of the displaced kids, as the article states, found a way to continue going to their school, most didn’t.... The poorest, and thus least likely to graduate, kids were exactly the ones that the school lost.

The video Booker T. Washington submitted to the contest begins with images of the demolition of one of the projects so this is not something they were trying to hide.

There is more in his blog post about dropout rates and cohort rates that you can read here.

So this leaves an open question as to just how the graduation rate rose at Booker T. Washington.

Asking the question does not negate the real achievements at the school, or make it any less eligible for a presidential visit.

But it does raise the issue of how much stock we put in statistics when we aren’t sure how they were calculated or what they really mean.


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