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GUSH, GUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (PART 3)! Everyone gains—except the kids—when bogus claims go uncorrected: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 18, 2005

A SPELL SEEMS TO LIFT: If you didn’t see John Murtha’s press conference, we strongly recommend that you watch the whole thing. (The video clip is available here, from C-SPAN, under “Recent programs.”) Right or wrong? That’s a matter of judgment. (John Kerry said on last night’s Hardball that he doesn’t agree with Murtha’s proposal.) But to see how authentic a Dem pol can look, we suggest that you listen to Murtha. In particular, note his obvious personal familiarity with the young (“red-state”) people who are serving in Iraq. (Note how often he frames his replies around conversations he has had with these soldiers.) Of course, you can neither teach nor mandate sincerity. But we strongly recommend this final Q-and-A, in the last minute of the clip:
REPORTER (10/17/05): Senators Warner and Stevens just talked to reporters on the other side of the Capitol and they said they have yet to meet a single soldier in Iraq, or at the hospitals here, who thought it was time to pull out of Iraq—

MURTHA: Is that right? What do you think they’re going to tell you? We’re here to talk for them! We’re here to measure the success. The soldiers aren’t going to tell you that! I told you what the soldiers say. They’re proud of their service! They’re—they’re—they’re looking at their friends! [Pause] We are here—we have an obligation to speak for them. [Pause] Thank you very much.

It was hard not to think of Nestor, the seasoned charioteer, responding to hot-headed young Diomedes on the plains before the walls of Troy. “How young you are,” the noble driver begins. “Why, you could be my son, my youngest-born at that.” Among mature leaders—among men like Murtha—speeches like the one we quote above have been given for thousands of years. (Fuller excerpt below.)

And how does the White House respond to this? It sends its callow young Scott McClellan out to link Murtha to Michael Moore! But a spell has been lifting around this conduct—conduct which has bamboozled press and public for years. In film, we see such a spell lift at the end of The Natural, and earlier, at the end of On the Waterfront. Sometimes, after too many years, people see through the tricks of bosses. And yes, such a spell seems to be lifting now, after these past several years.

YOU ARE THERE: In The Iliad, headstrong Diomedes speaks back to Agamemnon, urging precipitate action. And, according to Professor Fagles’ translation (we think the professor has it just about right), “all of the Achaeans shouted their assent, stirred by the stallion-breaking Diomedes' challenge.” But seasoned Nestor quickly rises. As Professor Fagles has it, "His advice had always been the best:"

THE ILIAD (Book II):
But Nestor the old driver rose and spoke at once.
"Few can match your power in battle, Diomedes,
and in council you excel all men your age
But you don't press on and reach a useful end.
How young you are—why, you could be my son,
my youngest-born at that, though you urge our kings
with cool clear sense: what you've said is right.
But it's my turn now, Diomedes.
I think I can claim to have some years on you.
So I must speak up and drive the matter home.
And no one will heap contempt on what I say,

not even mighty Agamemnon.
The excitable troops gain from Nestor's advice. How do they respond to his seasoned suggestions? “The troops hung on his words and took his orders./
Out they rushed, the sentries in armor, forming under the son of Nestor, captain Thrasymedes.” It was hard not to think of this ancient transaction when Murtha replied to that query.

Special Report: Gush, Gush, Sweet Charlotte!

PART 3—EVERYONE GAINS BUT THE KIDS: So how about it? Has the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district broken the bank in the past dozen years? Has it created a “small revolution in public schooling,” with “enormous implications for public schools nationwide”—the lofty standard adumbrated in the web site of Making Schools Work? Sorry, but we’d have to say no, it has not. Yes, Charlotte’s passing rates have risen sharply on the North Carolina statewide reading tests. In 1994, 53 percent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg kids passed their “end-of-grade” reading test; by this past spring, the district’s passing rate on these tests had jumped to 84 percent. But uh-oh! A similar jump in passing rates has been observed all over the state (58 percent up to 86 percent statewide)—and those same state kids have shown no gains on the “gold standard” NAEP reading tests (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/17/05). Best guess? Those state-run, end-of-grade tests have gotten easier—a familiar bow to political pressures, one observed in various states. Yes, Charlotte’s kids have gained some ground on the end-of-grade tests when compared to the state as a whole—but that state population has been standing still, according to the “gold standard” NAEP. On the NAEP—the “nation’s report card”—North Carolina’s kids have shown no progress since 1994. Judging from scores on the state-run tests, Charlotte’s kids have only done slightly better.

Some will find this analysis outrageous, impossible, hard to believe. After all, given the present culture of American education, almost every big organ reflexively peddles pleasing tales of success in our low-income schools—and former superintendent Eric Smith has long been a master at spreading the word about his brilliant achievements. For example, when Smith announced, in May 2002, that he’d be leaving the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, the Charlotte Observer praised his tenure in the following way:

CHARLOTTE OBSERVER (5/26/02): You have only to look below at another editorial to understand the value of Schools Superintendent Eric Smith to this community. In six years here, he has sparked dramatic results in academic performance of all groups of Charlotte-Mecklenburg youngsters, and the end-of-grade test scores this year attest to that fact.

His work in raising scores and in narrowing the performance gap between student groups is recognized nationally.
He kept his focus on that even through a protracted court fight over school desegregation—managing to build and sustain public support for the schools.

So, we'll miss Dr. Smith, who on Friday said he was leaving Charlotte-Mecklenburg by June 30, and anticipates taking over as head of the Anne Arundel school system in Annapolis, Md., July 1.

Ah yes, those (endlessly rising) “end-of-grade test scores!” The Observer attributed Charlotte’s gains to Smith’s reforms—but failed to note that the scores have risen by a similar amount all across the state. But clearly, that editorial was right on one point. As he left the Charlotte schools, Eric Smith had been nationally praised for “raising scores” and for “narrowing the performance gap between student groups.” Indeed, when the Washington Post announced Smith’s likely hiring by the Anne Arundel school system, its reporter—Darragh Johnson—stressed those same familiar points. “Arundel Set to Hire Touted N.C. Superintendent,” the headline read. “Charlotte-Mecklenburg Educator Praised for Boosting Test Scores, Minority Student Achievement:”
JOHNSON (4/25/02): A nationally acclaimed superintendent with a penchant for sailing and a reputation for boosting test scores, especially among minority students, is expected to become the next superintendent of Anne Arundel County schools.

Eric J. Smith, 52, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools chief who was North Carolina's 2002 Superintendent of the Year and a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year, is expected to make about $300,000 in salary and benefits once negotiations are completed, sources close to the hiring process said yesterday.

By comparison, longtime superintendent Carol S. Parham was making a $141,170 base salary when she retired from the 75,000-student Anne Arundel system in December.

Thanks to Eric Smith’s reputation, he earns twice as much as the previous supe. Everyone gains when achievement rates (seem to) go up! Everyone but low-income children. (According to the Observer, Smith’s final salary at Charlotte-Mecklenburg had been 196 large.)

But golly Ned! Could it be? Could it possibly be that Eric Smith had gained his national reputation presiding over illusory score gains? Could it be that illusory claims of success could shape a school leader’s reputation? Surely, no such thing could occur. Surely, our top journalistic organs would see right through that sort of fandango. Surely, fiery advocates of low-income kids would put a quick stop to such games.

A top journalistic organ—like PBS? Fiery advocates—like Hedrick Smith? In fact, to see how easy it is to peddle claims about success in low-income schools, let’s take another look at the claims we posted yesterday—the claims about the Charlotte schools which appear on the web site of Making Schools Work, Hedrick Smith’s PBS program. In this passage, three claims are made on behalf of the Charlotte-Meck schools:

“MAKING SCHOOLS WORK” WEB SITE: Charlotte-Mecklenburg under [Eric] Smith took a centralized approach to reform... Smith and his staff set high expectations for all students and then promoted Equity-plus, a concept that insured low-performing inner city schools were given sufficient resources to lift their students to district-wide levels of achievement.

After eight years of system-wide reform, Charlotte-Mecklenburg shot to the top on NAEP tests in early 2004, with each ethnic group outperforming its peers in nine other major urban school districts in reading and math. Moreover, from 1995 to 2001, the number of African-American students in Charlotte schools reading on grade level more than doubled, rising from 35 percent to 70 percent. What is especially significant is that Charlotte maintained educational momentum and continuity after Eric Smith left the district in 2002.

In this passage, we meet three claims about the Charlotte-Meck schools. To see the way our biggest news orgs will accept almost any pile of crap in this area, let’s take a look at the first two claims—the ones we didn’t examine yesterday.

First claim: Insuring district-wide levels of achievement. According to the PBS web site, Eric Smith’s reforms in Charlotte “insured [that] low-performing inner city schools were given sufficient resources to lift their students to district-wide levels of achievement.” But is that claim in any way accurate? As we’ve noted before: In the PBS program itself, the school that was chosen to illustrate this claim was the low-income Spaugh Middle School. But is this school, the Spaugh Middle School, displaying “district-wide levels of achievement?” As an obvious matter of fact, it is not. Here are the percentages of kids who passed this year’s end-of-grade reading tests—first at Spaugh Middle School, then in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg District as a whole:

Students passing end-of-grade reading tests, spring 2005
Grade 6: Spaugh: 51.9 percent. Charlotte-Mecklenburg: 78.3 percent.
Grade 7: Spaugh: 60.0 percent. Charlotte-Mecklenburg: 81.8 percent.
Grade 8: Spaugh: 60.2 percent. Charlotte-Mecklenburg: 85.6 percent.
Do you get the feeling that low-income Spaugh has been “lifted to district-wide levels of achievement?” We don’t get that feeling either. Yet this is the school which Making Schools Work featured as an example of inner-city achievement, with its principal, Jerry Brown, discussing the various brilliant practices which explain why the school’s low-income students are “thriving.” It’s hard to know why a journalist like Hedrick Smith would want to put such a foolish claim forward. But clearly, Charlotte’s reforms have not lifted Spaugh to “district-wide levels of achievement.” Such a claim is implied on the PBS site—but it’s plainly absurd.

Second claim: Shooting to the top on the NAEP. According to the PBS web site, Eric Smith’s reforms in Charlotte “shot” the district “to the top on NAEP tests.” Fuller quote: “After eight years of system-wide reform, Charlotte-Mecklenburg shot to the top on NAEP tests in early 2004, with each ethnic group outperforming its peers in nine other major urban school districts in reading and math.” That is, of course, a pleasing story—but once again, it’s absurdly misleading, a case of Charlotte-Meck propaganda. This claim refers to a one-time NAEP program called the Trial Urban District Assessment, which conducted testing in ten “urban” districts in 2003 (results were released in 2004). Of the ten districts, however, Charlotte was by far the least “urban.” In fourth grade reading, for example, only 44 percent of the Charlotte students qualified for free or reduced lunch; by contrast, 89 percent of New York students qualified. (Boston: 81 percent. Chicago: 85 percent. Cleveland: 100 percent. Los Angeles: 83 percent.) Almost surely, this large difference in poverty factors explains Charlotte’s modest success on the measures the web site mentions.

Yes, Charlotte’s black kids scored (marginally) better than black kids from Boston and New York in this study. (As is typical with the NAEP, kids were tested in fourth and eighth grades.) But in all likelihood, Charlotte’s black kids were less impoverished than their counterparts from these large urban centers. Indeed, here’s what the PBS web site doesn’t tell you: Among kids who qualified for free or reduced lunch, Charlotte-Mecklenburg did not “outperform its peers” in this trial NAEP study. How did Charlotte fare among low-income kids? In the fourth-grade reading portion of this study, Charlotte-Mecklenburg actually finished fourth (out of ten) among such children. (Low-income kids from Boston, Houston and New York scored higher than low-income kids from Charlotte.) In eighth grade reading, Charlotte finished fourth again (behind Boston, Chicago and New York.) Let’s say it again: Among students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, Charlotte-Mecklenburg finished fourth out of ten at both grade levels, not at the top of these ten “urban” districts. But this fact would kill the “small revolution” story, so the PBS web site leaves it out.

Do we start to see the way mainstream press organs pimp and peddle the “schools that work” narrative? No, Charlotte-Mecklenburg hasn’t lifted low-performing inner city schools to district-wide levels of achievement.” Spaugh, the low-income school which PBS featured, sits light-years behind district norms. And no, Charlotte-Mecklenburg didn’t “shoot to the top on the NAEP tests in early 2004” if you adjust for low income. Among the low-income kids this show claims to feature, Charlotte-Mecklenburg finished fourth out of ten “urban” districts. And no: From 1995 to 2001, “the number of African-American students in Charlotte schools reading on grade level” almost surely didn’t “more than double.” On North Carolina’s end-of-grade tests, Charlotte’s black kids have gained some ground on the statewide black student population as a whole. But North Carolina’s student population has been showing no progress on the NAEP reading tests. We’d guess that those “end-of-grade” passing rates on the state tests are just another pleasing fantasy.

Do we care about the interests of low-income children? If so, we have to find respectable ways to identify low-income schools that (actually) work. As we see from Eric Smith’s salary, everyone gains when we pimp phony claims. Everybody gains except low-income kids, the kids we’re pretending to care for.

MONDAY—PART 4: Sources of success.

AFTER THANKSGIVING: Curriculum.

ECHOWONK: We’ll admit it—we’d never read Eduwonk until Kevin Drum mentioned the site last week. So we checked it out, and aaarrgh—we found this gusher interview with Hedrick Smith about Making Schools Work. “The Charlotte school system has 150,000 students, many of them from high poverty neighborhoods, and they have an impressive track record of steadily lifting student performance over the past decade,” Smith tells the Wonk. “There are others in America who are doing well at scale, too,” he says a moment later. But he says the Charlotte example is “striking in [its] track record and [its] reach.”

Aaarrgh! Edu! Eduwonk! Smith’s various claims about Charlotte’s schools seem to be samples of pure Grade A tripe. If we actually care about low-income kids, we must learn to challenge the endless tales about low-income schools that (seem to) work.