ALLEGEDLY, MILWAUKEES FINEST! The Journal Sentinel described voucher schools which were alarming, not fine: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 23, 2006
HE LIVED AND BREATHED THIS STUFF: On Tuesday, we had a long (and interesting) telephone conversation with Kirk Schroder, a Richmond lawyer who was president of the Virginia Department of Education during the period when that states Remediation Recovery program was enacted. Weve discussed this program at length in the past six weeks. Schroder wanted to tell us why the program was adopted in the first place.
Back to the basics: Under the program, third-graders who failed the states third-grade reading test were placed in a remediation program. (Ditto for math—and for fifth-graders.) They then were given the third-grade test again the next spring, when they were fourth-graders. As weve said, there was nothing wrong with this attempt at remediation—except for the way the results were reported. We think were being fair when we say this: Schroder agrees that the recent Maury example highlights a reporting problem. For those who want to review this matter, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/20/06.
That said, Schroder wanted us to know why this program had been enacted, and we were impressed and intrigued by his explanation. Impressed, and even a tiny bit startled: In part, he said that the board adopted this program because they wanted to avoid a possible unintended consequence of the states testing program; they didnt want low-scoring students left by the wayside as schools sought high passing rates. (The board wanted to give schools every incentive to remediate a child, Schroder said—every incentive to try again with that child, to keep them within one year of grade level.) Heres how that unintended consequence could imaginably have occurred: Since schools are ranked by their passing rates on state tests, kids working substantially below grade level could imaginably end up being ignored, since the chances were fairly good that theyd never pass the tests designed for their own grade level. Would schools really do this, intentionally or otherwise? We dont know—but everything is possible. At any rate, Schroder said the board wanted to give schools every incentive to keep working with kids who were in danger of falling far behind and getting onto non-diploma tracks. We think thats an outstanding idea, as a matter of general principle.
We were impressed by Schroders enthusiasm and knowledge—as wed been impressed last week by Virginia education activist Mickey VanDerwerker, who surely disagrees with Schroder on a range of points (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/06). We wont pick a favorite among them—that wouldnt be fair—but we were impressed to see how much time and energy both people have invested in these matters. I lived and breathed this stuff for four years, Schroder said at one point during our conversation. We jotted that down, because the statement seemed to capture something wed already noticed.
That said, theres no doubt about it; the state produced a reporting system which simply cant be defended. To this day, the passing rates which appear on Virginia school report cards inflate the actual passing rates of the schools third- and fifth-grade students. At some schools, the rate-inflation is vast. The board was right when it looked for ways to give schools every incentive to remediate children. But as it turns out, this reporting system was an incentive too far. The boards technical staff should have seen this when this system was adopted.
On this one, the critics were right. (And still are—the state should correct its current reporting.) But then too, out of the turmoil comes progress. Wed like to see the state of Virginia find new ways to steer attention to its deserving, below-grade-level kids. But test-score reporting must be straight up. This is still not the case in Virginia.
Final point: VanDerwerker writes to tell us she has five children, not three, as we wrote last week. She lays the correction off on her mom—she wants all the grandchildren accounted for. Since nobody wants any kids left behind, were happy to stand corrected.
PART 3—ALARMING, NOT VERY FINE: Are John Tierneys allegations correct? According to the New York Times scribe, vouchers have solved the problem of low-income schools—and Milwaukees 16-year experience has proved it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/21/06). But uh-oh! Greg Anrig (The Century Foundation) swung into action when Tierneys recent column appeared; writing at TPM Café, Anrig sought to shoot some holes in Tierneys allegations (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/22/06). In Milwaukees voucher schools, standardized testing isnt required, Anrig notes; for this reason, there are no studies which really tell us how voucher kids have done as compared to similar kids who stayed in Milwaukees public schools. Are Tierneys allegations correct? If you want to see inner-city children getting a good education, is Milwaukee the most beautiful spot in America? Anrig said Tierney was full of old shoes—and he made a valuable suggestion:
ANRIG (3/7/06): Tierney might have at least referred to the 7-part series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last June on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the original incarnation of the program. The reporters personally visited all but nine of the 115 private voucher schools to try to assess their quality (presumably the nine that barred the reporters were not exactly models of effectiveness). Much of what they found undercuts Tierneys claim that the results so far in Milwaukee and other cities are more than enough to declare vouchers a success.As he continued, Anrig presented some sobering quotes from the Journal Sentinel series. (Creating a new school through the choice program is easier than most people expected. Creating a good new school is harder than most thought it would be, the Journal Sentinel reporters had judged.) But for ourselves, we acted on Anrigs suggestion; after we read the short Anrig piece, we read the entire Journal Sentinel series. (For links to the entire series, click here.) Most of the series was penned by two reporters, Alan Borsuk and Sarah Carr; they produced a long and detailed series about the functioning of the Milwaukee program. And although they produced a balanced report on the strengths and weaknesses of the program, we thought a good chunk of their work was just shocking—especially their reports about voucher schools which were, simply put, not so fine.
Lets be fair, and lets make something clear—Milwaukees experience cant define the potential value of all voucher programs. Even if Milwaukees program was sheer hell on earth, that wouldnt necessarily mean that some other city couldnt shape a worthwhile plan. And Borsuk and Carr seem to have judged that most of Milwaukees voucher schools are perfectly reasonable institutions. Indeed, in Part 1 of their valuable series, Borsuk and Carr present basic findings. Heres the first one they list:
BORSUK/CARR (6/12/05): The Journal Sentinel found that:After visiting almost all the voucher schools, Borsuk and Carr stressed a less-than-thrilling point—when it came to basic instruction, the majority of these schools seemed like schools in Milwaukees public system. About 70 percent of the students in the program attend religious schools, they write; generally speaking, these are long-established Catholic and Lutheran schools whose educational practices, they report, arent hugely different from the public schools left behind by the voucher students. The voucher program has brought some fresh energy to the mission of educating low-income youth in the city by fostering and financially supporting several very strong schools that might not exist otherwise, the reporters write. There are at least as many excellent schools as alarming ones.
These judgments, of course, are subjective. Borsuk and Carr visited 106 schools; plainly, they couldnt have observed all these schools in a lot of detail. And as weve noted, there are no systematic testing programs in the voucher schools whose data can be analyzed. The reporters judged that many voucher schools seemed much like their public school counterparts—and they judged that some of these vouchers schools were excellent. But they were frank in their report about those schools they found alarming. We thought much of what they wrote about these schools was often shocking—and appalling, a disgrace.
Are these schools really Milwaukees finest? Did Tierneys column paint a complete picture? The large majority of [schools] visited were either conventional parochial schools, with professional staff and clear, well-executed academic programs, or newer schools, both religious and non-religious, some of them very good, some of them mediocre, Borsuk and Carr wrote in Part 2 of their series. But as they continued, we got the bad news. The pair began explaining what they meant when they said that some schools were alarming:
BORSUK/CARR (6/13/05): But it was also clear that there were about 10 to 15 schools where professionalism appeared lacking, facilities were not good, and the overall operation appeared alarming when it came to the basic matter of educating children. And the quality of several of the nine schools that did not allow visits has been questioned by voucher school experts who are familiar with their operations.According to Borsuk and Carr, ten to fifteen schools were alarming; nine more wouldnt let them visit at all. How bad did things get at Milwaukees alleged finest? Heres one capsule description from the series Part 1:
BORSUK/CARR (6/12/05): What school best reflects the realities of the voucher program?...Again: Based on firsthand observations and other reporting, Journal Sentinel reporters concluded that at least 10 of the 106 schools they visited appeared to lack the ability, resources, knowledge or will to offer children even a mediocre education. Most of these were led by individuals who had little to no background in running schools and had no resources other than the state payments. As they continued, Borsuk and Carr gave the feel of some of these schools—and helped relate how hard it has been to shut these alarming schools down:
BORSUK/CARR (6/12/05): Alex's Academics of Excellence, a school started by a convicted rapist, continued to enroll students even after facing two evictions, allegations of drug use by staff on school grounds, and an investigation by the district attorney.Four of the worst schools have closed, they report (including this one)—but that ten to fifteen are still in operation, plus the nine which wouldnt open their doors. In Part 2, the writers described one more of Milwaukees less-than-finest:
BORSUK/CARR (6/13/05): The Sa'Rai and Zigler school is not run by people grounded in school operations. Zigler is administrator of the school. Nance is principal. According to the state Department of Public Instruction, Zigler has an expired license as a substitute teacher. He said he has taught and worked as a security guard in schools in Chicago and Milwaukee. Nance said she has worked as a teacher's aide in Chicago and Milwaukee and is a certified reading tutor.Its certainly possible that unlicensed staff could run a competent, vibrant school. But that isnt what the reporters found when they visited this particular school, which officially enrolled 80 children:
BORSUK/CARR (6/13/05): On an afternoon in March, fewer than 50 students appeared to be present. There were almost no signs of student work in any classroom or in the hallways. Most rooms had few textbooks or other reading material. "We have what they need," Nance said, but she added they could use more.And remember—according to Borsuk and Carr, there may be as many as 24 schools which operate at this level. We must say: If youve ever worked with low-income kids—if youve seen the raw, crummy deal they typically get—you might understand how disgusting it is to read the following passage:
BORSUK/CARR (6/13/05): There are schools where even brief observations of classrooms left strong and troubling impressions about the quality of the teaching.Where the children could learn about french fries. And yes, the reporters found other alarming schools. Well just present what they wrote:
BORSUK/CARR (6/13/05): At Milwaukee School of Choice, the teachers and principal, Michael Hutchinson, did not appear to have a well-developed curriculum. The school, at 5211 W. Hampton Ave., has only 4- and 5-year-old kindergarten students, and works in collaboration with Milwaukee Multicultural Academy. Hutchinson, in his first year as principal, was vague on the goals and teaching approach.As noted, the reporters say that these are not typical Milwaukee voucher schools; but they estimate that as many as 24 of the programs 115 schools could be in this ballpark. It shocks the senses to read these description in a major American paper—and to realize that this startling report produced little national discussion (and didnt stop Tierney from praising Milwaukee as a nirvana for low-income children). Indeed, when we read these extended passages, we could only think of Robert Kennedys famous 1967 trip to the Mississippi delta, where he observed such searing poverty among the regions forgotten residents. But theres one difference; in the America of 1967, Kennedys observations were regarded as shocking, and helped spawn a presidential campaign. In the America which exists some forty years later, the disturbing work of Borsuk and Carr seemed to be regarded as business as usual.
Meanwhile, back to one of the alarming schools described by Borsuk and Carr. The reporters finished Part 2 of their series with this dispiriting anecdote:
BORSUK/CARR (6/13/05): As for Sa'Rai and Zigler Upper Excellerated Academy, more than a half-dozen calls to the school on different days since June 1 have been answered by a recording that urges applicants to file enrollment applications for this fall by Feb. 20. No one has responded to messages left on the answering machine. A secretary at St. Patrick's, the school's landlord, says the church is trying to get in touch with the school's owners to find out the status of the school.Lets repeat: Most of Milwaukees voucher students do not attend schools like this. But its shocking to see these reporters judge that as many at 24 of these schools may be alarming, as this one is. Why were these alarming schools performing in the manner described? We dont know—and a city could run a voucher program without allowing such schools like these. But these schools escaped Tierneys mention; he described Milwaukees voucher schools as the most beautiful place in America for low-income children.
One final note about Anrigs critique; we thought he played it fair at the end. He criticized Tierneys warm and fuzzy stories—and made an intriguing statement:
ANRIG: Tierney loves warm and fuzzy stories. I could go to Milwaukee and just as easily tell a few of my own about some of the good public schools there. But that would be presenting a dishonest portrait, just like Tierneys, because the public school system in Milwaukee is a mess. Its not surprising that parents have been jumping at the opportunity to try out vouchers there. But unless the Journal Sentinels reporters were hallucinating, theres little reason to think that moving students from high-poverty public schools to high-poverty private schools in the city is going to improve their education.Anrigs conclusion isnt quite right. The reporters said there were excellent voucher schools; moving to one of them might be a big improvement for some public school student. But Anrig made an intriguing claim—the public schools are a mess in Milwaukee, too. We dont know if that is true. But well ponder that claim on the morrow.
TOMORROW—PART 4: Weve never thought that voucher schools were likely to solve the Big Problem.
NOTE: A reader has written to defend Caroline Hoxbys study (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/22/06). Well report more tomorrow.
IN CASE YOU MISSED THE LINK ABOVE: The entire seven-part, Borsuk/Carr series is available. All praise to the Journal Sentinel! You know what to do—just click here.