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TRUE STORY! Just in! Reporter at big Virginia daily decides not to trust lyin’ eyes! // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, MARCH 11, 2006

TRUE STORY: This is why we stopped calling journalists back in December 1999. We’re not calling that a good decision. But you can perhaps see how human it was.

Yesterday afternoon, we spoke with an education reporter at a major Virginia daily newspaper. We had originally spoken with her on Tuesday, telling her about the state’s apparent inflation of school passing rates—and about the fact that Virginia’s school report cards had been removed from public view.

She seemed quite interested at the time, but nothing appeared in the paper. So we called her back. This is a close approximation of our short conversation:

HOWLER (3/10/06): This is Bob Somerby in Baltimore—I believe we spoke on Tuesday about the state test scores.

REPORTER: Yes.

HOWLER: I was wondering if you’d had a chance to check it out at all, or if you’d found anything out.

REPORTER: Yes, well I spoke to the State Department of Education, and they said it didn’t have anything to do with you when they took down the test scores. They just had a technical problem that day, and the guy who works on that kind of thing wasn’t there.

HOWLER (slight pause, with computer clicks now audible): Uh—yes, well [NAME], the school test scores are all still down! They’ve been down for over a week now. I’m looking at the web site right now. The test scores still aren’t available.

REPORTER: Yeah. Well, I’m just telling you what the guy at the DOE said.

We thought we heard an unspoken plea for the end of discussion and comment.

Surprising, isn’t it? Anybody could have seen that the test scores had been down all week—still were, as a matter of fact. But then, if you’re an “education reporter” at one of this state’s biggest “newspapers,” who are you really going to trust? The guy at the state Department of Ed? Or your own lyin’ eyes?

We post this here so you can ponder the way the “news” gets sifted for you.

By the way: We don’t know why Virginia’s “school report cards” are still “temporarily unavailable” at the DOE web site. We don’t know why they were taken down. But that remains a secondary issue. By contrast, here are the primary questions: How did the state come up with those high passing rates for Maury Elementary? Are those passing rates real—or are they inflated? And: Have other schools across the state been credited with artificial passing rates? We didn’t get to these primary questions during yesterday’s phone call. Let’s face it—the message was clear.

THE THREE TENETS: Yesterday morning, President Bush spoke to a meeting of the National Newspaper Association, then took questions. The final question dealt with No Child Left Behind. At the end of his answer, Bush described the basic tenets of his approach to education:

BUSH (3/10/06): I'm a strong believer in No Child Left Behind. My secretary of education—my good buddy Margaret Spellings, who helped me put a similar program in place in the state of Texas, is now the secretary of education.

She is obviously listening to complaints about certain aspects of [one part of No Child Left Behind]. But we're not going to undermine the basic tenet that says, “We believe in high standards, we believe every child can learn and we're going to measure. And when we see the status quo is unacceptable, we'll challenge the status quo."

That's what you need to do. And I'm sure you are doing that.

It ought to be unacceptable to opinion-makers when you find illiteracy—and you ought to demand change, not only for your own self-interests, but for the sake of this country.

“We believe in high standards, we believe every child can learn, and we're going to measure,” Bush said. For the record, this approach is hardly unique to Bush. These tenest also formed the basis of President Clinton’s approach to education, and of Bush’s father before him. Having said that, here’s our capsule reaction to the three tenets as they apply to low-income ed:
We believe in high standards. This statement is so vague as to be essentially meaningless. Do we believe in making third-graders take Calculus 1? Wouldn’t that be a “high standard?” This is a feel-good, Brownie-points statement. It can only be judged be seeing what kinds of decisions it leads our pols to make.

We believe every child can learn. Again, too vague to have real meaning—although it too is a heckuva way to gain those Brownie-points. We believe that every child can learn what? At what point in his or her education? Do we believe that every ninth-grader can learn Algebra 1? What if the ninth-grader in question is still puzzled by fourth-grade math?

We’re going to measure. We agree with this tenet whole-heartedly. Parents deserve an annual objective measure of how well their child is doing. The community deserves some similar measure of achievement levels in its schools. But if we believe in measurement (i.e., in testing), then the testing-and-reporting have to be done in an honest and professional manner. The president addressed his remarks to newspaper people. We’ve been surprised to see that some newspaper people don’t seem to care much about this.

Has Virginia’s testing-and-reporting been honest? Or has the state been pimping pure piffle? Some news orgs just don’t seem to care. Go check that approximate transcript.