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YOU KNOW THE DRILL (PART 3)! How does Charlotte teach the least among us? Hedrick Smith never quite asks: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 1, 2005

INCOMMODIOUS: Some have written to say that Duke Cunningham’s “commode” isn’t a toilet—it’s a fancy chest of drawers. (We had seen Jon Stewart do a short piece on that, but we thought we were missing some joke.) That said, let us adjust yesterday’s statement: You really have to be a fool to want to put your shorts in an antique French commode. But yes, Duke Cunningham fills the bill nicely. Yesterday, at TNR’s Plank, Michael Crowley gave a recent example of Cunningham’s disgraceful public behavior. Here’s what this utterly fake, stupid man had to say about Candidate Kerry:
CUNNINGHAM (4/04): Mr. Speaker, Colonel Bud Day, former Vietnam prisoner of war for over 6 years, recalls in his book on how Jane Fonda, Ramsey Clark, and John Kerry energized the enemy through their accusations and hurt them as prisoners of war. Mr. Speaker, I was shot down over North Vietnam at that time. I can remember the anger and the disparaging remarks that John Kerry made about our service. I remember the rage in all of us from his slander. I am proud of the men and women that I served with in Vietnam and those that are serving us at great risk today in Iraq and Afghanistan and all over the world. Even today, John Kerry votes against defense, the military, veterans, and intelligence bills that would enforce the safe return of our men and women. We do not need someone that would vote like a Jane Fonda as commander in chief.
Now we see how clownish it was when Cunningham complained about being “slandered.” At any rate, in 1992, Candidate Clinton was a “traitor” (because he took a trip to the Soviet Union). Here was the dope about Candidate Kerry. Of course, as Cunningham was making these stirring remarks, he was selling his nation’s defense contracts—so he could put his sweaty old socks into a fine French commode.

For several decades, from Rush on down, people like this stupid old fake have been making an absolute joke of our discourse. Bill Clinton is a traitor! Al Gore said he invented the Internet! John Kerry would vote like Jane Fonda! He voted against every weapon system! Now that everyone on earth can see just what a consummate fraud this man was, Dems and libs should revisit these comments. At some point, voters will see the fraudulence here—will see the clownish way they’ve been played. But that will happen only if we aggressively show them the clowning—and frame it. Voters deserve the chance to rethink the fake, phony things they were told in the past. But given the way our lib elites work, we won’t be holding our breath.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, did you know that liberals are trying to take away Christmas? That Democrats pelted poor Michael Steele with a hail of Oreo cookies? Many people believe these idiot claims. We need to provide a framework which lets these claims be reassessed. To this day, we still haven’t done that.

Special report: You know the drill!

PART 3—THE LEAST AMONG US: For starters, let’s make one thing clear. Fairly obviously, Charlotte has expended a lot of effort as it gathers “data” by use of the Drill-Down, and in some cases, it may well be that the Drill-Down yields useful information. Beyond that, it’s fairly obvious, when one watches Making Schools Work, that the teachers and administrators whom Hedrick Smith interviews are deeply concerned with real children. (We have some concerns about Eric Smith, the tightly-wound former superintendent, but his assistants clearly seem like superlative people—the kind of people who go to work every day trying to help low-income kids.) But is it likely that Charlotte’s Drill-Down provides the stuff of academic revolution? That seems extremely unlikely to us—and Charlotte’s test scores suggest no revolution, although that one NAEP score in fourth-grade math is worthy of further examination (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/30/05). But if you’ve followed urban ed for the past four decades, you may well feel that you know this old drill. Teachers and administrators are always convinced that the latest educational “reform” is the best, and well-meaning scribes like Hedrick Smith routinely accept whatever they’re told about this latest miracle. Result? The latest in a string of feel-good tales about low-income “schools that work”—and all too often, the latest trip down a path of “reform” that, in the end, just won’t pan out. Large chunks of time get lost this way as we chase after schools that (don’t actually) work.

And make no mistake: Grandiloquent claims are made for the Drill-Down all through this segment of Making Schools Work. (Here is the program’s full transcript.) Eventually, we’re even told that the Drill-Down is used to address the problems of Charlotte’s high-poverty schools. “We crunch data every single day,” assistant superintendent Susan Agruso says. Then, Hedrick Smith explains how the Drill-Down is used to help low-income schools:

HEDRICK SMITH: Rapid response to students needs is critical at the district level, too. In the district’s nerve center, they use the Drill-Down to monitor the progress of every school. The focus is on schools in need. The commitment is to equity, shoring up schools often staffed by inexperienced teachers who need extra help.
Standing in the school system’s “nerve center,” Hedrick Smith never asks why Charlotte-Mecklenburg allows its low-income schools to be staffed by so many “inexperienced teachers who need extra help.” Instead, we’re soon whisked away to Spaugh Middle School, a high-poverty, inner-city school whose test scores are depressingly low—although we’re told, for unknown reasons, that it’s a school where the students are “thriving” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/05). Judging by Spaugh’s depressing scores, that remark is completely absurd. But then, you may know this old drill, which gets vicious at moments like this.

High-poverty schools—schools like Spaugh—are what this PBS show claims to study. But how have Charlotte’s vaunted “reforms” actually worked in such settings? More specifically, how have Charlotte’s reforms worked in high-poverty elementary schools—schools which send deserving (but low-scoring) kids on to their three years at Spaugh? Making Schools Work rarely asks such questions. Instead, it accepts vague word of praise about the Drill-Down’s great brilliance—and cruelly pretends that Spaugh’s students are thriving. But then, this is what we typically get when well-meaning but inexperienced journalists head off to investigate low-income schools. Like so many scribes before him, Hedrick Smith rarely shows any sign of knowing what questions to ask in these schools. Instead, he marvels at vague, mushy claims of “reform”—and accepts bogus claims about test scores.

What should Hedrick Smith have asked when he journeyed to low-scoring schools like Spaugh? We’ll cite the questions that came to mind when we watched this part of this program.

First, let’s recall what’s often at stake when we visit low-income schools. Back in August, the New York Times’ Bob Herbert described a new study about such schools (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/29/05). The study was commissioned by the Center for American Progress and the Institute for America's Future. This is the part Herbert quoted:

HERBERT (8/29/05): An education task force established by the center and the institute noted the following:

''Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting. By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students. Across the nation, only 15 percent of low-income fourth graders achieved proficiency in reading in 2003, compared to 41 percent of non-poor students.''

“How's that for a disturbing passage?” Herbert asks, for obvious reasons. Indeed, according to the passage he quotes, low-income students are “about three grade levels behind” in reading by the time they get to the fourth grade! There is, of course, no perfect way to quantify the achievement of our low-income students; some such kids do just fine in school. But in our experience, many kids are so far behind by the fourth or fifth grades that normal instruction becomes very difficult. These children can’t read the standard textbooks in any subject area, including science and social studies. And if they’re also years behind in math, normal instruction becomes quite maddening. In the real world, instructional programs are normally devised for kids proceeding at a more normal fashion. For kids in need of such deep remediation, it’s hard to find published instructional programs—programs devised with their instructional profile and needs in mind. Indeed, these childrens’ instructional needs are nothing like those of other kids their age. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a large, urban-suburban system, there are surely plenty of highly capable, fifth-grade kids who could work on seventh-grade level in math—and there are presumably many kids who are several years behind grade level. So here they are, the first questions we’d ask: How many low-income kids in Charlotte’s elementary schools are “about three grade levels behind non-poor students?” And what kind of instructional programming do you provide to children like these? How exactly do you teach math to fourth-grade kids who may be several years behind? Presumably, such kids can’t use a standard math textbook or standard math program—and, presumably, they won’t be given the same instruction as kids who may be years above grade level. In our experience, these are the actual problems which actually confront actual teachers in low-income schools. Are these problems found in Charlotte? Due, we’ll presume, to his lack of experience, Hedrick Smith never quite asks.

Instead, Hedrick Smith stares off into air as former superintendent Eric Smith makes claims which strike us as quite remarkable. How does Charlotte teach low-scoring kids—kids who may be years behind by the fourth grade? In his extended interview, the superintendent seems to make a remarkable statement; it sounds like these low-scoring kids get the very same instruction as kids who are years beyond them. Here’s part of the lengthy, Eric Smith background interview which is used in the actual show:

SUPERINTENDENT ERIC SMITH: I knew from Day One that all the kids could do the same level of work. They could accomplish it in the same time frame. In terms of calendar days they would respond to the expectation to work at an extraordinarily high level. I knew that Charlotte had the capacity to make that happen.

HEDRICK SMITH: But there are a lot of people in this country who say public education can't work and it specifically can't work for kids who come from minority families and high poverty areas.

SUPERINTENDENT ERIC SMITH: People who say that low-income children, minority children can't excel at extraordinary levels are flat-out wrong. They just haven't seen the evidence. And the evidence has to be seen with children that are given the kind of instruction that is required to allow children to excel at that level...Kids will perform at the level at which they are taught. And if you teach at a low level you're going to get performance at a low level.

“All the kids can do the same level of work?” The fourth-grade kid who’s three years behind can do the same level of work, that year, as the kid who’s a year or two above grade level? Based on our years in high-poverty classrooms, this strikes us as a preposterous statement—and Superintendent Smith’s pleasing claims about “[high-poverty] minority children excelling at extraordinary levels” really come off as a nasty deception when you look at those dismal test scores from Spaugh—the test scores which are swept away in the false claims offered by Making Schools Work, which tell us that Spaugh’s kids are “thriving.” Yes, plenty of minority kids are performing “at extraordinary levels;” such kids can be found all over the country. But Eric Smith’s high-minded, crowd-pleasing statement ignores another unavoidable fact; if that recent study is accurate, there are also large numbers of deserving, high-poverty minority kids who are several years below grade level, even by the fourth grade. In our experience, it’s absurd to suggest that these kids should be given the same instruction as kids who are far more advanced; in our experience, that’s a ticket to disaster for kids who are already years behind (more on this tomorrow). But all through the PBS segment on Charlotte—and all through the program’s supplementary materials—it sounds as if every fourth-grader gets the fourth-grade curriculum, then the corresponding Drill-Down. For example, here is Superintendent Smith, in his extended interview, explaining his first move in Charlotte:
SUPERINTENDENT ERIC SMITH: The first thing we had to do was to make sure we had clarity around the nature of the teachers' work in every school. This discrepancy in the quality of teaching between inner city and suburban had to change.

We established the clarity of our purpose by writing specific documents. Very clear concise documents that would tell every teacher that you had to be covering these kind of materials in this time frame and these were the ways that other good teachers recommended getting the job done. We set the agenda right down to the last detail.

The second piece we found was that we had to have equity in terms of strategies. First define the work. Second, make sure there is equity, which we didn't have and which wasn't in place. We had to bring equity to all classrooms. We couldn't expect teachers to teach physics at the same level, using the same pacing guides and model lessons, if they don't have the physics equipment to teach with, or the labs. And so we went through the equity effort.

Persistently, it sounds like every fourth-grade teacher is on the same page in the same teaching guide, whether she has above-grade-level students in a leafy suburb or struggling kids in the inner city. This strikes us as a remarkable approach. But perhaps you know this old drill. Hedrick Smith doesn’t ask a single question about this peculiar approach.

What’s happening in Charlotte’s low-income schools? It’s extremely hard to tell from this program. But one thing is clear—Spaugh Middle School has very low scores, and PBS viewers get deceived about that. But then again, you may know this pleasing old drill, in which deserving, low-income kids become props for the public’s amusement—characters pushed around the boards to produce a new feel-good tale.

TOMORROW: High scores at Highland.