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20 April 2001

The Howler postscript: Seeing no evil

Synopsis: William Raspberry’s piece in this morning’s Post makes our point for us quite nicely.

Merit Pay: No Answer for Schools
William Raspberry, The Washington Post, 4/20/01

We could hardly have made the point better ourselves. In this morning’s Post, William Raspberry writes a column arguing against merit pay for teachers. What’s wrong with merit pay in the schools? Quite rightly, Raspberry says it’s hard to determine a teacher’s merit. But midway through, as he states his objection, the scribe sticks his head deep in the sand:

RASPBERRY: The criterion most often proposed [for determining merit]: the test scores of the teacher’s pupils. But that system tends to reward the teachers lucky enough to get the brightest students and to punish those who like to work with difficult children. Besides, it’s academically unsound, leading to an unhealthy emphasis on teaching testing skills or, worse, teaching to the test.

Horrors! In Raspberry’s world, the worst thing that can happen in a merit pay system is something called "teaching to the test." He doesn’t explain what that might be, though it’s clearly different from "an unhealthy emphasis on teaching testing skills." The quoted paragraph is the only passage where Raspberry discusses this topic.

But the worst result of high stakes testing is clearly not "teaching to the test." The worst result is something much worse—outright cheating by teachers. As we noted in yesterday’s HOWLER, Raspberry’s own paper described an overt cheating scandal at an area school less than one year ago, in June 2000 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/19/01). And when he wrote about that school in a series of articles, Jay Mathews, the Post’s education reporter, described a wave of similar incidents at schools around the country. "In the past two years alone," Mathews wrote, "schools in New York, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Rhode Island, Kentucky and Maryland have investigated reports of improper or illegal efforts by teachers, principals and administrators to raise test scores." As we noted, Nightline did a full report on the cheating in Potomac, Maryland, also noting "the apparent outbreak of cheating scandals nationwide in the past six months or so," and saying that the "epidemic" of cheating seemed to result from high-stakes testing. Furthermore, some of those cheating scandals received a high profile due to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign; there had been a wave of cheating incidents in Texas school systems, one of which had led to indictments of school-based personnel. The documented cheating in Texas school systems was also described in the Post.

Raspberry writes about schools quite often. But in today’s column, he displays the standard head-in-the sand approach that has characterized the mainstream press corps’ approach to this topic for the past thirty years. It doesn’t matter how many times cheating scandals dog testing programs. In short order, white-shoes journalists send these unpleasant reports straight down their favorite memory holes, never to be mentioned again. To all appearances, mainstream journalists simply hate to tell you that teachers and principals cheat on these tests, preferring to substitute more pleasing phrases in which they are said to be "teaching to the test."

As we noted yesterday, the press establishment cried out in surprise when widespread cheating surfaced in the late 1980s. And sure enough, the press establishment cried in surprise at the "epidemic" of cheating last year. In fact, there has never been a dearth of documented cases to show that outright cheating is dogging our schools. But courteous columnists prefer to play nice, badly deceiving the people who read them. Result? The public is kept from crucial knowledge about what may be transpiring in the schools.

Ten months ago, Raspberry’s Post wrote rather frankly about the nationwide cheating cases. Today, the memory loss is securely in place. Raspberry manages to discuss the topic without ever mentioning unlovely facts. Say hello to the see-no-evil reporting that has plagued the schools for the past thirty years.

Who is hurt by Raspberry’s courtesies? Black kids in big urban schools. Yes, cheating sometimes occurs in affluent schools like Potomac—but the problem matters most in the cities. The public simply has to understand the plight of the kids who attend city schools. But the Raspberries—courteous courtiers all—keep helping us see past the evil.