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CORRECTING DEASY! Does anyone ever give accurate data to Post education reporters? // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2006

CORRECTING DEASY, RATHER MILDLY: Does anyone ever give accurate data to Post education reporters? In Thursday’s paper, Nick Anderson presented his latest profile of new Prince George’s superintendent John Deasy (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/21/06). But uh-oh! As Anderson noted, numbers from previous profiles of Deasy have now been declared inoperative. To his credit, Anderson does call attention to this matter. He notes that California state data contradict basic numbers which Deasy had given the Post:
ANDERSON (2/23/06): In many ways, Deasy's experience here [in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district] contrasts with what he will face when he moves east. This school district is one-tenth as large as the 133,000-student Prince George's system. State data show it has about 12,500 students through grade 12, lower than a 14,000-student figure Deasy had given The Washington Post. Deasy's initial total included about 1,500 students in adult programs.
Oops! In short, the Santa Monica-Malibu district is smaller than the Post has been reporting; by including 1500 “adult program” students, Deasy’s numbers gave a false impression about the district’s size. No, this isn’t the end of the world, and the confusion may have resulted from a simple mistake or misunderstanding. But in handing out those original numbers, Deasy did gain two advantages in his quest for the Prince George’s job. This matter is worth describing out in a bit more detail than Anderson did in this report.

First, Deasy’s numbers indicated that his current district is larger than it actually is. This is significant, because one concern about Deasy’s candidacy was his lack of experience in large school systems, like that of Prince George’s County. To a rational person, the apparent advantage gained here is slight. But these debates are rarely rational, and ramping up the size of the district was an advantage to Deasy nonetheless.

But Deasy’s data conveyed a second advantage, one which may have been more significant. In Anderson’s report, we are told that Santa Monica-Malibu is actually smaller than previously reported. But we aren’t told about the second misperception which stemmed from Deasy’s original numbers. As it turns out, Santa Monica-Malibu is also less diverse than we have been told up till now. Here is the relevant passage, as Anderson continues directly:

ANDERSON (2/23/06, continuing directly): His district is majority white, with state data showing 27 percent Latino students and 8 percent black students. The student body in Prince George's is three-quarters black with a fast-growing Latino minority.
To state the obvious, there’s nothing “wrong” with those student demographics—but Deasy’s original numbers told a different tale. Here’s how Anderson described the district in his first profile of Deasy:
ANDERSON (2/14/06): The president of the Santa Monica-Malibu school board confirmed Deasy's assertion that he had raised achievement at high-poverty schools in the district, where about half the students are non-Hispanic white, one-third are Latino and one-tenth are black.

"We're a school district that has great privilege and great poverty," said Julia Brownley,
president of the Santa Monica-Malibu board.
In short, Deasy’s numbers overstated his district’s minority demographics. (Presumably, those 1500 “adult program” students are disproportionately black and Hispanic.) Indeed, by the time Deasy was picked for the Prince George’s job, the misreported student demographics had tilted even more in his favor. “More than a third of the system's students are Latino, and about a tenth are black,” Anderson wrote on February 19 (our italics). In short, Deasy’s numbers bumped up Santa Monica-Malibu’s minority population by about ten percentage points. This is a significant matter, since Prince George’s was looking for a superintendent who knew how to improve minority achievement. Deasy was saying that he knew how to do that—and was handing out numbers which overstated the size of his district’s minority cohort.

One more point is worth noting from Anderson’s most recent report, although this problem doesn’t concern those original numbers from Deasy. Uh-oh! As it turns out, Santa Monica-Malibu also has substantial less poverty than Deasy will find in Prince George’s:

ANDERSON (2/23/06; continuing directly): Santa Monica and Malibu have more concentrated wealth than [Prince George’s] county and far less extensive poverty. The percentage of students here who qualify for federal meal subsidies—about one-fifth—is less than half the percentage in Prince George's.

Overseeing schools that are nearly filled with disadvantaged students and running a system that serves tens of thousands of them are "extremely different challenges than anything he would have faced in Santa Monica," said Stanford University education professor Michael Kirst.

Here, the fault belongs to Anderson, not necessarily to Deasy. Last week, Anderson compared Santa Monica-Malibu’s pleasing test scores to those of the state of California as a whole (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/21/06). In response, we noted that Santa Monica-Malibu was almost surely a fairly wealthy district, and we said that Anderson should have mentioned this basic factor before making such facile (and fawning) comparisons. Now we see that Santa Monica-Malibu has much less poverty than Deasy’s new district—and much less than the state of California as a whole. (Statewide, 49 percent of California students “qualify for federal meal subsidies.” Just click here. In Prince George’s County, 54.4 of grade school students receive these subsidies. Click this.) It was silly for Anderson to make those test score comparisons without noting this elementary variable. But then, all through the courtship of Deasy, we were hearing about Santa Monica-Malibu’s troubling, vast poverty. See the quote from school board president Julia Brownley in the excerpt above.

Is Prince George’s getting what it bargained for? For whatever reason, Deasy distributed elementary data which misrepresented elementary facts—and tilted the playing field in his favor. Meanwhile, we kept hearing about Deasy’s work with poverty students—although his current district is rather low on such measures. Meanwhile, back to our opening question—does anyone ever give accurate data to Washington Post education reporters? A few weeks ago, we watched as the Post pushed phony data right to the top of its front page (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/8/06). Now, Deasy has also gained from presenting some misleading data. And uh-oh! Anderson’s mild, truncated correction suggests this may be the way to go in dealing with this paper’s ed writers.

HIS BIGGEST FLAW IS THAT HE’S TOO HONEST: For the record, Anderson’s early profiles were also full of praise for Deasy’s honesty—praise which often came from Deasy himself. Since Prince George’s got taken by its last faulty choice for this post, this too was a “paramount concern:”

ANDERSON (2/14/06): During his visit, Deasy depicted himself as an educator with a squeaky-clean record and a passion for raising student achievement. Those are two paramount concerns for the nine-member Board of Education, which is seeking to replace Andre J. Hornsby, who resigned as schools chief last year amid an ethics controversy.

"All of us want someone who can come in here who is highly ethical, has integrity, has proven successes," said school board member Charlene M. Dukes (Glenn Dale), who is coordinating the search.

After making implausible statements about Prince George’s County, Deasy continued to applaud his own ethics:
ANDERSON (2/14/06): He said Prince George's, which has nearly as many students in public schools as Montgomery County and test scores higher only than Baltimore's, offered an alluring challenge for an educator looking to move up.

"This is a remarkable opportunity," Deasy said in an interview with The Washington Post. "It's a community that has a great base to launch from...There's no reason in my mind why this can't be the premier school system in Maryland." Deasy said he wanted the county to start drawing educational talent away from the Montgomery and Anne Arundel systems rather than the reverse.

Deasy also said he has never been fired, has excellent relations with his school boards and unions and has never been accused of scandal. "No allegations" would show up in a newspaper clip search, he said. "Do your LexisNexis. Not going to find a thing. Nor should you.”

As we’ve said, we don’t know if Deasy tried to mislead with those misleading numbers. We will admit to a “Gary Hart Moment” when we first read these words of self-praise about his own sterling character.