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24 September 1999

Our current howler: Critique the children well

Synopsis: When 60 Minutes reported on a middle school program, it recycled a tired old tale. (More to come.)

Commentary by Mike Wallace
60 Minutes, CBS, 9/19/99

Back to Basics in the Bronx
David Grann, The New Republic, 10/4/99

Prosecutor Says Indictment of Austin Schools Will Help Deter Test Tampering
Barbara Whitaker, The New York Times, 4/8/99

All praise to David Levin and Michael Feinberg, founders of a pair of unusual middle schools—in Houston and the Bronx—known as KIPP schools ("Knowledge Is Power Program"). If their schools even dimly resemble the portrait drawn in last Sunday's 60 Minutes, then Levin and Feinberg—both 30 years old—are powerfully serving the nation. After spending two years in public schools as members of the Teach for America program, the gentlemen started their urban academies to bring a more rigorous education to inner city neighborhoods. According to both 60 Minutes and a profile in the current New Republic, things have gone well for the "KIPPsters" (their term):

DAVID GRANN: Set in one of [New York's] worst neighborhoods, and in the same building as I.S. 151, the Knowledge Is Power Program has become an educational oasis, a public school that is defiantly and mysteriously working.

Children deserve to go to schools that are working. We hope the KIPP kids are being brilliantly served.

But in its report on the KIPP program, 60 Minutes recited a tired old story, told and retold by American journalists since the early 1960s. At that time, mainstream society finally began to care about the education of minority children—and there began a stream of feel-good stories suggesting that all will be right with urban schools if we can just get urban teachers to care. Several widely-read books, including Jonathan Kozol's brilliant Death at an Early Age, suggested that urban kids lag behind at school principally due to their teachers' disinterest and racism; and there began an intermittent stream of newspaper stories in which journalists profiled high-scoring urban schools, showing readers what could be achieved if urban teachers would just make a little effort. The stories continue to appear in local papers to this day.

60 Minutes' feel-good profile was straight from that template. The segment opened with a remarkable statement by its host, Mike Wallace:

WALLACE: Today we're going to show you something that apparently does work...Whether in Houston or the South Bronx, KIPP is proving that with hard work and the right kind of discipline, children from poor minority neighborhoods can perform every bit as well as the most privileged middle school students across America.

Given the drop-out rates and academic performance of urban school systems in the past thirty years, such "proof" would be revolutionary. Unfortunately, 60 Minutes makes no effort whatever to show that its statement is true. There is no attempt to describe the measured achievement of the KIPP students, or to compare that achievement with suburban norms. There is, however, plenty of boilerplate, straight from the script for these stories:

WALLACE: The students at KIPP are predominantly black and Hispanic, and almost all of them come from poor families—the kind of kids who somehow have never been expected to succeed at school.

One never sees a report like this without hearing the standard explanation for urban school failure—the alleged lazy indifference of urban teachers, who don't expect enough from the kids.

David Grann, reviewing KIPP in the New Republic, points to a few possible problems with Wallace's thesis. First this:

GRANN: [D]oubters say that the school is somehow "skimming"—getting the best students. There is some truth in this. Because parents choose to send their kids to KIPP and sign a contract stating that they agree to the rigorous hours, the students are more likely to come from families with at least a vague commitment to education.

But the commitment isn't really that vague. KIPPsters attend school ten hours a day, six days a week, including a month of summer study. They put in roughly 70% more time in class than typical public school students. To their credit, students and parents who commit to such a program are making a massive commitment to school. Without careful study, it would be hard to say whether results achieved with this group of kids could be achieved with other kids who are less committed.

Grann alludes to a second matter—one that is almost never discussed in reports on high-scoring urban schools:

GRANN: [T]he Bronx school, as well as its Houston counterpart, has produced such high success rates that other educators have suspected both schools—despite having absolutely no evidence—of somehow manipulating their statistics.

Grann makes only a cursory effort to describe KIPP's achievement data. And to state the obvious, we at THE HOWLER have no familiarity with the way the school's testing has been conducted. But it is worth pointing out what is never mentioned in feel-good reports on high-testing urban schools—documented cases of cheating on test scores have been widespread in American education over the past thirty years, since increasing pressure has been put on test scores to measure teacher/principal performance. Teachers cheat; principals cheat; cheating occurs on the school system level. Teachers have cheated in every imaginable manner; indeed, for a fee, test companies will electronically scan answer sheets for unusual erasure patterns. Reason? Because there have been many documented cases in which teachers systematically erase wrong answers from answer sheets, replacing them with correct answers! This past April, an article in the New York Times described indictments of school personnel in Austin for deliberately removing groups of low-achieving students from a school's assessment report. The story reported further:

WHITAKER: In the Houston Independent School District a teacher was fired after being accused of using an answer key to correct student forms, and two principals were reprimanded for not making the tests more secure. In the neighboring Fort Bend School District, a principal and teacher resigned in the midst of a test-tampering investigation.

How widespread have the high-jinks become? In 1987, education activist John Jacob Cannell published a study demonstrating a comical fact—that all fifty states were reporting test scores showing their students were above the national norm. This was quickly dubbed the "Lake Wobegon Effect," in honor of Garrison Keillor's mythical town where "all the children were above average," and a subsequent 1989 report was devoted to the topic of "How Public Educators Cheat on Standardized Achievement Tests." Cannell enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame, appearing all over the networks and in major news magazines, but the notion that there may be an endemic problem with test score fraud quickly disappeared from public school reporting. It is simply too enjoyable for local journalists to offer feel-good reports about high-scoring schools—never bothering to make any effort to examine the school's testing procedures.

We repeat: we have absolutely no reason to think that the KIPP schools have mishandled their testing. We thought the 60 Minutes footage of the KIPP schools at work was absolutely inspiring. Less inspiring was the lazy, predictable reporting that 60 Minutes did on KIPP. The program blended feel-good imagery with lazy analysis, to offer a tired, stale old report. What happens to urban kids is crucially important; reporters owe them rigorous study. The 60 Minutes report was lazy and shopworn, and avoided the simplest critical thinking. We were told that the KIPP kids work hard on their basics. Why can't Mike Wallace do the same?


More to come: Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts never tire of hearing about our own days in the classroom, teaching fifth graders in the Baltimore City Schools from 1969 through 1982. And they beg us to read them our old Baltimore Sun pieces about urban curriculum problems—and testing misconduct. Watching Wallace's report this week, we finally realized that public school issues will be widely covered in the next year. Therefore, construction now is underway on a brand new wing of DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, which will be devoted to study of public education reporting. For future reports from this state-of-the-art complex, please keep an eye on this space.

All praise to Levin and Feinberg: We thought the 60 Minutes footage of Levin, Feinberg, and other KIPP teachers was nothing short of inspiring. The pride of the parent interviewed by Wallace was plain for all to see. (Her son, who was plainly not a nerd, had learned that "it's not a shame to be a nerd," she explained. Good for him.) We have no doubt that the KIPP schools' staffs are working hard to serve their students. But urban students would also be served by careful, meticulous, dedicated reporting. It's time to drop the feel-good tales, told not to instruct, but to please.