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27 ISN’T ENOUGH! Newspapers should reconsider the tale of “The Low-Income School that Could:” // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2006

THERE THEY POSSIBLY GO AGAIN: There the headline went again! “In Bronx, a Possible Case of High School Cheating, but Not by Students,” it mordantly said, in yesterday’s Times. We do note one key word there—possible. But Michael Winerip reports a familiar story, built around high-stakes testing pressures. And of course, public school cheating scandals have been widely documented for decades. But as we mentioned just last week, the problem is rarely discussed.

Did Kennedy High fake its passing rates to keep itself off a New York State “bad list?” We don’t know, but this is precisely the sort of pressure that seems to have led the state of Virginia to invent the odd statistical procedure which turned a 27 percent passing rate into a 92 (see below). For ourselves, we strongly believe in annual testing; absent some objective measure, schools and school systems will tell wild tales about the amazing progress they’ve managed. But the key word there would have to be competent. As pressure builds on high-stakes exams, so does the pressure to fake good results. Result? If those testing programs are managed poorly, they become tools of deception. See below!

Let’s consider a pair of questions which arise from Winerip’s report. Should high school students be required to pass a test before they get a diploma? As a general matter, that strikes us as unwise, although we’d want to hear the arguments before we judged some particular program. And how about this: Should schools like Kennedy be seized by the state if their passing rates are low? There are pros and cons to that sort of thing too. But if you’re going to base such major decisions on high-stakes exams, you have to monitor those exams very carefully. More often, we proceed with winks and nods—and newspapers are soon writing stories about low-income schools with surprisingly wonderful test scores.

In Winerip’s report, we read about familiar pressures—and we seem to see some familiar reactions. Stories like this are extremely old hat. It’s why we always check the facts when we read stories with headlines like this: “A Study in Pride, Progress.”

Epilogue: There’s something about Maury!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Be sure to read each part of our report on those strange Virginia test scores. For Part 1, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/06. You can click forward from there.

27 ISN’T ENOUGH: Big papers have been in love with the story for at least thirty-five years. It’s a variant of The Little Engine That Could; let’s call it “The Low-Income School That’s Succeeding.” Newspapers love to present the tale, complete with photos of smiling children and quotes from their grateful—if misinformed—parents. Often, an “energetic new principal” is involved in the tale—one who transforms a failing school, helping us see how easy it is to make such miracles happen. And sure enough! In Saturday’s Post, the editors told it again:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (2/4/06): By helping to fine-tune and implement [No Child Left Behind] instead of constantly running it down, Democratic politicians, child welfare advocates and teachers unions could help fix broken school systems as well. A profile of once-disastrous, now-successful Maury Elementary School in Alexandria by The Post's Jay Mathews last week showed what can be achieved if teachers and administrators use the law well. It's an odd idea, getting the Democrats to embrace a Republican project. But if they are brave enough to do it, thousands of inner-city children will be better off.
It’s so easy to fix broken school systems! For ourselves, we have mixed views on No Child Left Behind; we think its testing-and-reporting requirements are great, its punitive aspects much less appealing. But once again, a room full of know-nothing, upper-class scions got to tell a much-treasured tale. Maury was a disaster—but now it’s successful! And this could happen for thousands of kids! If only the nay-sayers—in this case, Dem pols—would let the vast progress occur.

But now we see—we see once again—that success may not come quite so easy. As it turns out, Maury Elementary doesn’t seem real “successful;” only two grade levels were tested last spring, and in one of them, Maury’s kids performed very poorly. A bit of statistical legerdemain made it look like the school was succeeding. But in fact, only 27 percent of Maury third-graders passed the Virginia reading test—and 77 percent passed this same test statewide. Sadly, 27 just isn’t enough when we talk about passing rates for this test. But so what? Like many credulous colleagues before them, the editors rushed to endorse.

But then, as we discussed last fall, nothing can stop the endless spread of this foolish but long-treasured tale. Mainstream news orgs have been pimping this piffle ever since we began teaching in Baltimore, back in 1969. Last autumn, thirty-six years later, we watched as a two-hour PBS special (Making Schools Work) boasted about low-income schools whose surprising success was supposed to have “enormous implications for public schools nationwide.” (“This is an often surprising story of educational success,” said the host.) But when we actually examined the schools, we found that some—just like Maury—were functioning far below their state’s norms, while others seemed remarkably average. (We were told that one school’s students were “thriving.” Their actual test scores were a disaster, a fact which the program left out.) What in the world makes big news orgs keep presenting this same phony story? We’re not sure, but they ought to stop, if only because of this telling passage from Jay Mathews’ front-page report:

MATHEWS (2/2/06): Mary Jo Smet, who has a third-grader at Maury, credits many people for the gains. "We have a wonderful principal...and the hardest-working teachers in the city," she said. "I think the parents who are there have made a commitment to make it work. It is a confluence of energy and effort."
Smet has a third-grade child at Maury. But has she seen Maury’s actual third-grade passing rates? Or has she been sold a big load of goods, through the use of those gimmicked-up data? If nothing else, we’re sick to death of parents being toyed with this way.

But something else is ultimately wrong with the tale of The Low-Income School That Could. That takes us back to the ultimate problem with the “standards movement”—a problem we discussed on Monday, in Part 1 of this report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/06).

No Child Left Behind has some outstanding features. As a matter of theory, we love the testing and reporting. But what is wrong with this ballyhooed program? Just this: No Child Left Behind “demands” that schools improve their test scores every year. As we noted, that “demand” makes absolutely no sense (except as a tool of motivation). But even if it did make sense, there’s another problem with NCLB. The imperious program “demands” success—but offers no guidance into how to achieve it. It orders schools to improve—but it doesn’t say how. As we’ve said again and again, this is great work—if you can get it.

No Child Left Behind “demands” success—and newspapers love to pretend that it’s easy. Soon, individual schools—entire state systems—are finding “creative” ways to “provide” it. But success isn’t easy in low-income schools, and editors should stop pretending otherwise. That familiar fairy-tale feels very good—but it helps shut off more serious discussion. After all, if an “energetic principal” can transform a “disaster,” it must be fairly easy to do. Sitting pompously on their tuffets, editors have to worry no further. They can just criticize everyone else for failing to author fake gains.

Do we recall our Chekhov—our Lady with a Lapdog? We often recall the master’s words as he ends his tale of Gurov and lady:

CHEKHOV (1899): And it seemed to them that in only a few more minutes a solution would be found and a new, beautiful life would begin; but both of them knew very well that the end was still a long, long way away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.
Success is still “a long way away” in our nation’s low-income schools. The most difficult part is still just beginning. But big news orgs love the alternate tale, in which success will appear in a few minutes more and a beautiful life will be beginning. They’re too indifferent to fight the real fight; for them, 27 percent is enough. But then, such toffs are found in this Chekhov tale too. We’ll recommend that you go find them.

THE POST’S OBLIGATION: We do hope the Post will report on this matter. No, they can’t exactly run a new page-one story, saying that Maury really didn’t do well. But the weird manipulation of this school’s passing rates does demand a thorough review. (Again, this seems to be a state problem, not one invented at the school or city level.) Indeed, as we continue to ponder this puzzling incident, we’re struck, more and more, by the scam of it all—of a 27 percent passing rate transformed to a fine 92.

Meanwhile, there’s one more question which ought to be asked: Are other states “adjusting” their data this way? Are other states turning their water to wine? Are other states creating numbers with which they can fool trusting parents?

MORE TO COME: We still plan to review the generic state-of-Virginia “school report card”—a document so jaw-droppingly inept that it gave us flashbacks of our years inside a large, ineptly-run urban system. And we plan to share some material from Jonathan Kozol’s latest book—his musings on the never-ending myth of the energetic new principal. For one brief excerpt from that excellent chapter, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/14/05. Remember Joe Clark, boys and girls?