Daily Howler logo
WILL THE REAL MAURY SCHOOL PLEASE STAND UP! Here at the Howler, we like Jay Mathews. But this time, he still has it wrong: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MARCH 7, 2006

EXCITING ADVANCES IN QUANTIFICATION: Standard post-Oscar recriminations continue. “It's hard to believe that professional entertainers could have put together a show less entertaining than this year's Oscars,” Tom Shales wrote, a bit predictably—and he went on to blast Jon Stewart for a lackluster hosting job.

We’re surprised that the hipsters still haven’t caught on; for a version of the Oscars which is actually entertaining, you watch the Independent Spirit Awards, which airs one night before. (This year, the program aired on AMC.) You get to ogle all the same stars, but they’re wearing more attractive clothing. (It’s amazing how much better Hollywood’s women look when they don’t crawl into those ludicrous gowns and affect dystopian, once-a-year hairdos.) And the atmosphere is completely low-key; for example, each “Best Picture” nominee gets sent up by a song parody, and they’re actually amusing. Meanwhile, Sarah Silverman hosted this year’s Independents—and was consistently funny. But then, this is a much easier gig than the Oscars; Stewart would have relaxed a bit and scored in this setting too.

In short, the Independent Spirit show is the Oscars without the pomposity. And thanks to the Independent Awards, that pomposity can now be quantified. Instead of Oscar’s standard 3.5 hours, the “Independent” program—taped and edited—comes in at exactly two hours.

Special report: Will the real Maury School please stand up!

PART 1—FIRST, A BIT OF REVIEW: We come in for well-deserved praise at the start. Jay Mathews, the Post education reporter, gave us an A for effort—and for spelling too. In February, we had critiqued one of Jay’s reports—a front-page story about Maury Elementary, a low-income school in Alexandria, Virginia (links below). We had worked extra-hard to dot our I’s—and cross all our T’s—as Jay noted in the response he posted on-line last week:

MATHEWS (2/28/06): Somerby is a careful reporter. I knew that the minute I saw that he spelled both my name, and the differently-spelled name of NBC talk show host Chris Matthews, correctly in the same issue of the Howler, something that many other publications have failed to do.
Damn straight! We hadn’t faced such an orthographic challenge since Hedrick Smith interviewed Eric Smith on a major PBS program, driving us to semi-distraction as we typed their transcripts for weeks. By the way, the non-standard spelling of Jay’s last name makes him a delight to search for. He’s hard to spell—but easy to find. In the age of electronic searches, no one should spell his name in the standard way. We’ll chalk this up as one more complaint about cable’s double-T Chris.

We like Jay Mathews (although we don’t know him) because we share the old school system tie (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/28/05). Beyond that, we like him because he has spent a lot of years writing about public education—including the low-income version. Indeed, when Jay responded to our critique, he described an early career experience. We think the passage is worth reviewing. We like guys with stories like this:

MATHEWS: Since I wandered into Garfield High School 23 years ago and found that that inner city Los Angeles school was outperforming all but four high schools in the country in Advanced Placement test participation, and beating the national passing rate on the tests, I have been convinced that the majority of Americans are wrong to think kids from low-income backgrounds cannot be expected to achieve at high levels. And this column, as regular readers know, has been full of other examples of that, because it is No 1 on my list of obsessions.
In one of Jay’s (relatively) early experiences, he watched an urban high school achieve. By contrast, one of our early experiences in low-income schools was watching an inner-city grade school cheat its keister off on standardized tests, then get showered with praise by the Baltimore Sun for its impressive, high test scores. (Even after we informed the Sun columnist of this school’s extravagant cheating, he wrote another ill-advised piece heaping praise on the school for its efforts.) Here at THE HOWLER, we believe that low-income kids can achieve, and Jay knows that low-income schools sometimes cheat. But we tend to come at these issues from different angles—and good news! That can be extremely productive if we want to generate dialogues in which the issues of low-income education get hashed out in greater detail.

And so, before the hashing begins, let’s review the basic facts at play in the current dispute.

As noted, Jay’s original front-page report concerned Maury Elementary of Alexandria, Virginia—a low-income school which the Post presented, atop page one, as “a study in pride, progress.” Maury, a chronically low-scoring school, had received a new principal in the summer of 2004 —and the school’s test scores had risen accordingly in the spring of 2005, Jay was reporting. “Perhaps the best news was Maury's jump in English scores among third- and fifth-graders,” he wrote. (Those were the only two grade levels tested under Virginia’s statewide testing program.) “The percentage of children passing the test shot up from just over 50 percent to 92 percent.” In fact, this is the state of Virginia’s “Reading/Language Arts” test, and so this school’s apparent high passing rate was especially encouraging. According to the data Jay cited, some 92 percent of Maury’s kids passed the state reading test last spring. And these data were taken straight from Maury’s state-sanctioned “school report card.”

But this is where our basic instincts tend to differ from Jay’s. (And no, our instincts won’t always be “right;” sometimes high test scores are just high test scores). Based on our own experiences, we’re deeply suspicious of stories like this; we checked the Maury “school report card” on-line, and—as often happens with “schools that work” stories—the data we found there just didn’t add up. (The Virginia Department of Education has now removed its “school report cards” from view.) What did we find on the Maury report card? For starters, Jay was semi-right; as noted, right at the top of the long, detailed sheet, we found the data he had reported. But uh-oh! Farther down, in a separate chart, we found contradictory data. According to this state-sanctioned chart, only 27 percent of Maury’s third-graders had passed the state’s Reading/Language Arts test last spring! (Statewide, 77 percent of third-graders passed, as this same chart duly noted.) So which was it? Was Maury the impressive school of the Post report—a school where 92 percent of third- and fifth-graders passed the statewide reading tests? Or was Maury the floundering school of this second chart—a school where only 27 percent of third-graders passed, far below the statewide rate? Which school was the actual Maury? Would the real Maury School please stand up?

To this day, we’re still trying to tease out the origins of these dueling data. According to one part of Maury’s “report card,” only 27 percent of third-grade students passed the state reading test last spring—a classic, disastrous low-income performance. (According to these same grade-level charts, 83 percent of Maury’s fifth-graders passed their grade’s reading test.) But according to that other chart—and according to Jay’s front-page report—92 percent of Maury’s kids (third- and fifth-graders combined) had passed the state reading tests! Obviously, these official numbers don’t jibe; in the case of the third-grade kids, the numbers don’t even come close to matching. Result? We contacted the testing director of the Alexandria schools, and got his explanation for these puzzling data. We posted what he told us last month; Jay responded to our series last week.

And uh-oh! While Jay was right to praise our spelling, he did go on to make basic errors as he tried to explain these puzzling data. He misstated what we were actually told about the conflicts in those numbers. And he plainly misstated the state of Virginia’s official explanation for these data, an explanation which he himself quoted. Result? For ourselves, we still don’t know just how it is that Maury produced those contradictory data; we still want the real Maury School to stand up. But we do know this—Jay is wrong in his explanations for this latest “schools that work” story. Meanwhile, the state’s official data have been taken down—and the state’s absurd explanations still just plain don’t add up.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Next time, it will be our turn. But this time, Jay has it wrong.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Our five-part series, “There’s Something About Maury,” ran from February 6 through February 10. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/06, then click forward from there.

Jay’s original report—“A Study in Pride, Progress”—ran on February 2. Just click here.

Mercifully, Virginia’s “school report cards” have been taken down. To gaze on their absence, click here.

SMILE-A-WHILE: Speaking of that old school system tie, here’s Jay’s memoir of Dick Vermeil, the young football coach at Hillsdale High (San Mateo, Calif.) when Jay was a student there. But uh-oh! In 1961, our own Aragon High opened up and became Hillsdale’s Turkey Day rival. You can guess what came next. When he looked up the Alameda and saw what was building, “Coach” knew it was time to move on.

Luckily, Coach Vermeil landed fall-back posts—with UCLA, then with the Eagles. Meanwhile: All praise to Hillsdale’s Don Leydig. We like guys with stories like this. Read Jay’s piece to get an idea of what Don Leydig has done.