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Daily Howler: The Journal Sentinel described voucher schools which were ''alarming,'' not fine
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ALLEGEDLY, MILWAUKEE’S FINEST! The Journal Sentinel described voucher schools which were “alarming,” not fine: // link // print // previous // next //

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 state’s “Remediation Recovery” program was enacted. We’ve 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 state’s 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 we’ve said, there was nothing wrong with this attempt at “remediation”—except for the way the results were reported. We think we’re 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 state’s testing program; they didn’t 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.”) Here’s 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 they’d never pass the tests designed for their own grade level. Would schools really do this, intentionally or otherwise? We don’t 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 that’s an outstanding idea, as a matter of general principle.

We were impressed by Schroder’s enthusiasm and knowledge—as we’d 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 won’t pick a favorite among them—that wouldn’t 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 we’d already noticed.

That said, there’s no doubt about it; the state produced a reporting system which simply can’t 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 board’s 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. We’d 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, we’re happy to stand corrected.

Special report: Allegedly, Milwaukee’s finest!

PART 3—ALARMING, NOT VERY FINE: Are John Tierney’s allegations correct? According to the New York Times scribe, vouchers have solved the problem of low-income schools—and Milwaukee’s 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 Tierney’s recent column appeared; writing at TPM Café, Anrig sought to shoot some holes in Tierney’s allegations (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/22/06). In Milwaukee’s voucher schools, standardized testing isn’t 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 Milwaukee’s public schools. Are Tierney’s 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 Tierney’s 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 Anrig’s 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.

Let’s be fair, and let’s make something clear—Milwaukee’s experience can’t define the potential value of all voucher programs. Even if Milwaukee’s program was sheer hell on earth, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that some other city couldn’t shape a worthwhile plan. And Borsuk and Carr seem to have judged that most of Milwaukee’s voucher schools are perfectly reasonable institutions. Indeed, in Part 1 of their valuable series, Borsuk and Carr present basic findings. Here’s the first one they list:

BORSUK/CARR (6/12/05): The Journal Sentinel found that:

The voucher schools feel, and look, surprisingly like schools in the Milwaukee Public Schools district. Both MPS and the voucher schools are struggling in the same battle to educate low-income, minority students.

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 Milwaukee’s 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, aren’t 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 couldn’t have observed all these schools in a lot of detail. And as we’ve 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 Milwaukee’s finest? Did Tierney’s 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 wouldn’t let them visit at all. How bad did things get at Milwaukee’s alleged finest? Here’s one capsule description from the series’ Part 1:
BORSUK/CARR (6/12/05): What school best reflects the realities of the voucher program?...

Is it Grace Christian Academy, in a dimly lighted, rented space in the basement of a church? Here, school leaders say they have developed their own curriculum, but one staff member said privately that there is none. When a reporter visited, many of the bookshelves were empty and students completed worksheets downloaded from an Internet site. Only one of four teachers on the staff has a teaching credential. The principal, Reginald Armstrong, said the founder of Grace Christian is a "very godly woman" who had a vision she should start a school.

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 wouldn’t open their doors. In Part 2, the writers described one more of Milwaukee’s 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.

Is it a problem that she doesn't have a teaching license and is principal? "It's not a problem at all....It's not necessary,” she said.

Zigler said, "All you need to do is to have common sense, good communication skills and work with people.”

It’s certainly possible that “unlicensed” staff could run a competent, vibrant school. But that isn’t 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.

In a combined third- and fourth-grade class, 11 students were present. The teacher was drilling students on multiplication facts. Four times six, four times eight—they were supposed to master facts up to 13 times 13. He called on them individually. An hour later, the math drills were still under way. On a wall was a poster set up to mark progress by students as they completed assignments. There were 21 names on the chart. No entries had been made in three months.

In a combined first- and second-grade classroom, the teacher was drawing animals such as a kangaroo and an alligator on a marker board, using letters as parts of the animals. The students copied what she did.

And remember—according to Borsuk and Carr, there may be as many as 24 schools which operate at this level. We must say: If you’ve ever worked with low-income kids—if you’ve 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.
In some cases, voucher schools are really only a step up from day care centers, serving only very young children.

For example, reporters tried to visit the Academy of Excellence Preparatory School twice, each time finding a large, empty classroom in the back of the Parklawn YMCA on the north side. The classroom appeared unused, with few books or toys in sight.

On a third visit, the school's principal, Joe Nixon, said she kept the supplies in a back room. On that day, she had only two students. The school said it had seven choice students on the January student count date. The two students, a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old, were drawing. Nixon said she was getting ready to take them on a field trip to McDonald's.

Where the children could learn about french fries. And yes, the reporters found other “alarming” schools. We’ll 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.

“It's a lot of just baby-sitting,” he said. “We try to teach them the fundamentals of pretty much every subject.”

At Carter's Christian Academy, 3936 W. Fond du Lac Ave., which is new to the choice program this year, James Carter, who runs the tiny school with his wife, said in February that the highest-paid teacher at the school makes $8 an hour.

"The amount we get from the DPI is not enough to pay staff, utilities and for a building," Carter said. Since the enrollment at the school is so small—14 kids in 4- and 5-year-old kindergarten—the school works with a small amount of revenue.

The two tiny classrooms have only bare-bones furniture. There are no toys in sight, and few books or other educational materials.

"The curriculum that we have is so basic that someone with just a high school diploma is able to teach it," Carter said.

As noted, the reporters say that these are not typical Milwaukee voucher schools; but they estimate that as many as 24 of the program’s 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 didn’t 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 Kennedy’s famous 1967 trip to the Mississippi delta, where he observed such searing poverty among the region’s forgotten residents. But there’s one difference; in the America of 1967, Kennedy’s 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.
Let’s repeat: Most of Milwaukee’s voucher students do not attend schools like this. But it’s 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 don’t know—and a city could run a voucher program without allowing such schools like these. But these schools escaped Tierney’s mention; he described Milwaukee’s voucher schools as “the most beautiful place in America” for low-income children.

One final note about Anrig’s critique; we thought he played it fair at the end. He criticized Tierney’s “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 Tierney’s, because the public school system in Milwaukee is a mess. It’s not surprising that parents have been jumping at the opportunity to try out vouchers there. But unless the Journal Sentinel’s reporters were hallucinating, there’s 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.
Anrig’s conclusion isn’t 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 don’t know if that is true. But we’ll ponder that claim on the morrow.

TOMORROW—PART 4: We’ve never thought that voucher schools were likely to solve the Big Problem.

NOTE: A reader has written to defend Caroline Hoxby’s study (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/22/06). We’ll 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.