AVOIDING THE STUDIES! The studies say TFA isnt all thatbut Charlie Rose knew how to play it: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 14, 2008
CLARK HOYT STOPS GETTING RESULTS: If they ever build a Sanitarium for the Comically Insane, Maureen Dowd may be the first customer. After her June 22 rebuke by New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt, the cuckoo columnist sought redemption through several weeks of self-reinvention. She stopped trashing Barack Obama over every inane, sub-minor quibble; hilariously, she even criticized other observers for treating the hopeful this way. Why, she even slimed a Republican spouse for once in her long, inane life. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/08, for links to our previous reports on this struggle.
But last week, Obamas children appeared on TVand a certain columnists slender hold on sanity seems to have snapped. Liberals sometimes see a Damn kids! Get off my lawn! tone to McCain (just click here). How then might we characterize Dowds cuckoo-clock opening paragraph?
The diffident debutante/starlet is back, cast now as a hothouse flowerall thanks to those two $#%^ing kids! Dowds headline was: No Ice Cream, Senator? And no, were not making that up.
At any rate, heres the part of this latest crackpot column where Dowds thinking starts to emerge:
Well never know, Dowd sing-songs here. Unfortunately, she fails to grasp the basic idea: A person whos even slightly sane will also never care.
Dowds ludicrous column rambles on, teasing the secrets of Obamas character from every peep- and cubby-hole. You have to feel sorry for the New York Times editor forced to type this on-line synopsis:
Was Barack Obama irritated that he had exposed his daughters to a television interview or that his kids exposed more delicious details about his finicky, abstemious tastes?
In a sane world, a nations biggest paper would hang its head at that synopsis of its star columnists work. But you dont live in such a world. You live in a world which continues to melt awayjust outside the ornate walls of a pseudo-journalistic palace.
Inside the walls of that press corps Versailles, powdered inmates bellow and wail. On Hardball, the thinkers used to worry about why Obama prefers orange juice (to coffee). Now, the inmates tear their hair about his rejection of doughnuts.
By the way, must we tell you? On todays Morning Joe, Barnicle was one of the guestsand Mika Brzezinski seemed to say that Dowds column was great. And the gang seemed impressed with Barnicles insights. Eat the doughnut, Jack Welchs sage advised us all once again.
Carr gets it right: In todays Times, David Carr writes another worthwhile media column, examining the press corps reaction to the Obamakids interview. We were struck by this passage:
Lets be cruel. Things have deteriorated to the point where staffers at People are mystified by the inanity of the political press corps.
Remember the basic analytical category: Your political press spends vast chunks of time on things that arent worth discussing. If citizens want to improve the dialogue, we must avoid being drawn into these disputes. We must remind the public of the basic problem: Most of what gets discussed is sheer trivia. Topics that appeal to Dowd/Barnicle/Carlson are, at heart, not worth discussing.
They gave us Bush by discussing these topics. (Naomi Wolf told Al Gore to wear earth tones!) Happy with how that turned out?
Today, in part 3, Rose avoids the studies:
PART 3AVOIDING THE STUDIES: Teach for America isnt GMbut its no minor enterprise either. A lot of money is involved in the enterpriseand a lot of unfortunate influence. Just last month, Sam Dillon profiled TFA founder Wendy Kopp in the New York Times. He offered this overview of the program:
Kopp herself received a salary of $250,736 in 2005, the last year for which such data are availablethough this fact is almost never mentioned in profiles or interviews (including Dillons.) Six other TFA executives received salaries ranging from $125,000 to $202,000 in 2006.
Whatever! For that $120 million annual outlay, Kopp and her staff of more than 800 recruited roughly 3700 teachers this past yearteachers whose salaries are paid by the school systems which employ them. In short, Teach for America spends roughly $32,000 per teacher just to send its young hires to their schools. That strikes us as an astounding amount, though were willing to see our reaction challenged. And of course, you might not mind burning through that kind of moneyif the program in question really worked.
[For the record: TFA recently flunked an exam from federal auditors. What they found was shocking, CBS News reported. Details below.]
So TFA is no minor enterprise when it comes to money. More important is Dillons note concerning the programs influenceits glowing reputation among corporate and journalistic elites. As Dillon noted, Time magazine recently listed Kopp as one of the worlds most influential people. The ranking is utterly silly, of course, but TFA is relentlessly pimped by major media playersfor example, by Charlie Rose on his July 1 program. Time, the New York Times, Charlie Rose: One after the other, big media players praise TFA to the skies, suggesting that Kopps 19-year-old program provides a solution to the problem of low-income educational failure.
You might not mind seeing TFA treated that wayif the program actually worked.
But does this program actually work? Therein lies the rub. Media outlets tend to avoid this question, along with rude talk about Kopps pleasing salary. Most specifically, they tend to avoid discussing the academic studies of TFAstudies which show that the program is something less than the miracle cure Kopp so plainly suggests. In last Fridays post, we saw Kopp recite two pleasing stories for Rosestories suggesting that TFA teachers frequently produce miracle cures. Kopp is always happy to recite these tales, and upper-end journalistslike Rose; like Timeseem to know that the stories mustnt be challenged. Indeed, when Rose posed the worlds most obvious question, Kopp suggested that miracle cures occur in TFA quite routinely. In this exchange, we meet the kind of pleasing deception Kopp seems to enjoy tossing off:
Many of TFAs alumni have obtained incredible success with kids, Kopp saidperhaps knowing how imprecise the word many is, and how useful it can therefore be to a propagandist. Many such teachers have helped low-incomes kids excel on an absolute scale, she seemed to suggest. And seconds later, she began to tell a pleasing tale. A young teacher in the Bronx brought fourth-graders reading on first-grade level up to grade level just in just two years time! Why do TFA teachers believe so strongly in the program? It`s seeing evidence that this is possible, like real hard-core evidence from working with kids, Kopp said as she finished her tale.
These are the stories Kopp enjoys telling. Unfortunately, the studies, such as they are, suggest that these stories are hokum.
Is it true? Are Kopps familiar miracle tales just a big pile of bunk? Do the studies suggest that such miracle cures are few and far betweenif they occur at all? Youd never think so from reading Timeor from reading Dillons recent profile. To his credit, Dillon did note that some prominent academics are less than thrilled with Teach for America. Since the mid-1990s, such academics have argued that Teach for America's two-year assignment ensures that recruits leave just as they are learning to teach, Dillon wroteand he quoted two academics expressing this skeptical outlook. Such critiques once damaged fund-raising, he oddly said. But he never mentioned the academic studies, such as they are, which have tended to support the skepticism voiced in such complaints. Meanwhile, Time simply treated its readers like fools. Unveiling Kopp as a major world leader, Time slickly cherry-picked this:
According to Time, two studies show Kopps idea is working. It made for a pleasing tale. But sadly, the claim is a hoax.
What is true about those studies? About the studies Time chose to avoid?
First, Time seems to have misstated the finding of that 2005 survey of principals. According to a 2005 press release by Teach for America, the surveywhich was paid for by Teach for America found that 75 percent of principals questioned rated Teach For America corps members training as better than that of other beginning teachers with whom they have worked (our emphasis). Such opinions, voiced as part of a TFA-funded survey, say nothing about how much gets learned in TFA-taught classrooms. But if Time overstated that 2005 survey, its presentation of that second studythe 2004 studywas an act of bald deception. This was an actual academic study of actual student achievement, not a survey of principals (stated) opinions. Times cherry-picked account of the studys findings will be familiar to those who understand the way the modern press corps massages, invents and cherry-picks facts to pimp its favorite people and causes.
That 2004 study was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research (MPR); for the its full text, just click here. The findings: In reading, TFA teachers did no better than other teachers in the schools studied. Repeat: In reading instruction, no difference. In math, TFA teachers performed somewhat better than other teachersbut note how tiny the achievement gains were, as compared with the glorious claims Kopp imposed on Rose. What did that MPR study find? Again, in reading instruction, no difference. In math, students taught by TFA teachers progressed from the 14th percentile nationally to the 17th percentile in the school year studied; among other teachers, students began and ended at the 15th percentile. That gain is not nothing, but its dwarfed by the tales of incredible success Kopp kept throwing in Roses face on his unfortunate program. For example, Kopp told Rose that students taught by Michelle Rhee had progressed from the 13th percentile to the 90th percentile in two years of instruction. Did that really happen in Rhees classroom? We think its extremely unlikely, for reasons weve explained in the past. But the study to which Time refers shows nothing like that sort of achievementand yet, this study was the evidence cited by Time to show Kopps idea is working.
In other industries, people get suedcan end up in jailfor this type of blatant dissembling. In modern American pseudo-journalism, thats the way our corporate elites pimp their darlings forward.
Yes, Time massaged the results of that MPR study. But please note: Others studies had shown results that were even less favorable to Teach for Americaso Time skipped them altogether! The Teach for America entry at Wikipedia does a decent job reviewing two such studies (along with the 2004 MPR study). But just to give you a quick review, Stanford researchers found this, in 2005: Controlling for teacher experience, degrees, and student characteristics, uncertified TFA recruits are less effective than certified teachers, and perform about as well as other uncertified teachers. A 2002 study by Arizona State researchers was even less flattering. Its title:
But so what? In best pseudo-journalistic style, Time simply ignored these studies, just as it ignored the part of the MPR study which showed no advantage in reading.
This brings us back to Charlie Rose, one of the nations best-known broadcast journalists. Roses program appears on PBS, the gold standard in American broadcast journalism.
Tomorrow, in part 4 of this series, well give Rose his (very limited) due. To his credit, Rose asked Kopp a very good question at the start of his unfortunate program. And when Kopp gave him a series of the worlds worst answers, he asked his question again and againuntil he finally gave up. But what did Rose refuse to do, through forty minutes of propaganda and blatant dissembling? As Kopp told tales of her teachers incredible success, Charlie Rose never said the following words: But what do the studies show us? As with so many other upper-end journalists, Rose avoided the studies completely. He let Kopp rattle her fanciful talesand avoided the actual evidence.
Surely, Rose understands a basic fact: We dont learn the truth about a program like this by letting its founderits chief benefactorrecite pleasing stories about it. And surely, Rose knows that real studies existstudies which basically give the lie to Kopps self-serving bull-roar. Speaking frankly, Kopps presentation on Charlie Rose cant be squared with the current studies. But for the past forty years, people like Kopp have routinely lied about the lives of low-income kidsand people like Rose have politely sat by as music men tell them their tales.
TOMORROWPART 4: Worst answers ever!
ABOUT THAT FEDERAL AUDIT: As noted, TFAs current annual budget is $120 million (its operating budget is $75 million); ten percent comes from the federal government. On Friday, the CBS Evening News reported a recent federal audit. Heres part of what Sharyl Attkisson said:
For ourselves, were prepared to assume that there actually was such a class. Though we wouldnt bet 12 million on it.
For the fuller report, just click here. (Attkissons broadcast can be seen at that link.) For ourselves, we dont know enough about accounting to judge this matter. It may be that this sort of thing is fairly routine. At any rate, the federales want their money back.
ABOUT THAT URBAN INSTITUTE STUDY: In March, the Urban Institute published a study which found that TFA teachers out-performed other teachers in North Carolina high schools (just click here). We dont know why Time didnt cite this study; they wouldnt have had to massage the data as much as they did with the MPR study. On the other hand, this study deals with high school instruction only; young teachers from high academic backgrounds may do better at that level, while being less effective in grade school instruction. (Trust us: High school physics and grade school reading are very different critters.) Most importantly, were still dealing with relatively small instructional advantagesgains that bear little relationship to Kopps glorious claims.
On balance, this study is favorable; others are not. But none of these studies reflect Kopps endless music man act. Do we care about whats really true? Again and again, when it come to low-income kids, it seems fairly clear: We do not.