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Daily Howler: The Times assumes that high-scoring schools know how to help low-scoring kids
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THE TIMES DOES TUSCALOOSA! The Times assumes that high-scoring schools know how to help low-scoring kids: // link // print // previous // next //

TIL TUESDAY: We’ll postpone our report on that important Times story until (we think) tomorrow.

LITTLE NOTED NOR LONG REMEMBERED: On the one hand, we cheered for E. J. Dionne this morning. Writing about Bush and SCHIP, he became the first big scribe we’ve seen in recent weeks who detailed Bush’s history as Texas governor with the troubling program:
DIONNE (9/25/07): Bush has been here before. He now says he wants to make sure the program is limited to children from families at 200 percent of the poverty level (roughly $41,300 a year for a family of four). But as governor of Texas, he wouldn't even go that far, seeking to limit coverage under SCHIP to families at 150 percent of the poverty line. Democrats in the Legislature finally pushed him to 200 percent. Bush was putting up his resistance in 1999, when Texas ranked second to last among states in the percentage of uninsured children.
Back then, like now, this compassionate conservative fought to limit the number of kids who got help from SCHIP. In recent weeks, many journos have discussed Bush’s present stance while skipping this part of his past.

But E. J. made the analysts cry earlier in his column. The tragedy of recent American history is semi-glossed near the start of his piece:
DIONNE: On no spending issue do Democrats have broader public support— or more Republican allies—than on expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program. That is why they have chosen this as the issue on which they want to take their first stand.

Bush, in the meantime, has confirmed what was clear when he was governor of Texas but little noted when he first ran for president: When it comes to expanding government-sponsored health insurance for low-income kids, he is a skeptic.
Bush is a “skeptic” when it comes to expanding SCHIP? Actually, Bush is opposed to expanding SCHIP. It’s very like our mainstream liberals to clean up this obvious fact.

But it’s the phrase we highlight above which made all the analysts cry. Was Bush’s record on SCHIP “little noted” when he ran for the White House? Actually, yes—and no. In fact, Lou Dubose discussed the record in this detailed report in The Nation—a report which appeared in April 1999, before Bush set foot on the trail. Bush’s record on SCHIP was duly “noted,” in ugly detail. It just wasn’t noted by mainstream and liberal pundits, who ignored Dubose’s important work to offer more pleasing tales about Bush. For unknown reasons, when Bush hit the trail in June 1999, the mainstream press corps stampeded hard, telling the world that he was a moderate, a man who was challenging his party’s right wing. Chris Matthews said it—but so did Tom Oliphant. A weird consensus spread through the corps. Dubose had laid out the Texas record—but reading the record is “hard work.” So the mainstream press pretty much punted.

Dionne mentioned Bush’s history with SCHIP in September 1999, as part of a long magazine story. But few other journos ever mentioned the unlovely record DuBose had laid out, on SCHIP and a welter of other matters. Bush’s record was little noted—but his slogans were widely recited. He’s challenging the right wing of his party, mainstream pundits said.

In the process, Dubose learned a valuable lesson. Even when you do their work for them, you can’t make these folk “note” the facts.

UNSTOPPABLE CLOWNISTRY: On June 14, 1999, Matthews sat with Howard Fineman to gush about Bush’s first campaign trip. In the course of the hour, he compared Bush’s comic timing to the late Jack Benny’s, and he compared Bush’s sense of purpose to that of the late Martin Luther. The boys declared that no one but Springsteen had ever scored so much publicity. Matthews’ fawning was extreme this day, ever by his own odd standards—and he said that Bush was taking on his party’s right wing. (“I think he tried to do one thing very clearly today, besides going after Bill Clinton, saying, I'm not Clinton, is to say he's not a member of the very angry hard right in the Republican Party.”) Beyond that, we thought you might derive a good solid laugh from this bungled assessment:
MATTHEWS (6/14/99): Well, [Bush] was pretty clear on one subject. He said he wasn't for getting rid of affirmative action. He also said he wasn't going to pick Supreme Court justices based on their positions on abortion. That seems to be plain talk, doesn't it?
Bush was being declared a “plain talker,” even as he misled Matthews. Meanwhile, if we showed you what Matthews said the next week about Gore’s official launch, you’d probably think we were making it up. But “the Nazis” were repeatedly and obsessively mentioned, along with a pair of conjoined twins. And that “bathtub ring,” of course—and of course, that “bathtub yuk.” Let’s put it this way: Chris compared Al to “the Nazis” so much that Cokie even asked him to stop! So it went as these consummate fools created the present disaster.

THE TIMES DOES TUSCALOOSA: Let’s say this about Tuscaloosa’s school system: It has not been involved in Seattle-style plans to increase racial balance in its schools. Instead, it has recently devised a school rezoning plans under which about 880 kids (in a 10,000-student system) have been forced to change their schools. The school system says that this was done to alleviate over-crowding and to save $10 million in future construction costs. In last Monday’s New York Times front-page report, Sam Dillon makes no real attempt to discern if there actually was over-crowding. If there was overcrowding, did the new plan address it? The Times pretty much skips that too.

As is often the case in reports of this type, Dillon’s focus goes elsewhere. Many black parents in Tuscaloosa don’t care for this rezoning plan, and their dissatisfactions, which may be perfectly valid, are the heart of his report. As he starts his front-page piece, Dillon explains these parents’ views—and he reinforces a view which can often be grossly misleading:
DILLON (9/17/07): After white parents in this racially mixed city complained about school overcrowding, school authorities set out to draw up a sweeping rezoning plan. The results: all but a handful of the hundreds of students required to move this fall were black—and many were sent to virtually all-black, low-performing schools.

Black parents have been battling the rezoning for weeks, calling it resegregation. And in a new twist for an integration fight, they are wielding an unusual weapon: the federal No Child Left Behind law, which gives students in schools deemed failing the right to move to better ones.

''We're talking about moving children from good schools into low-performing ones, and that's illegal,'' said Kendra Williams, a hospital receptionist, whose two children were rezoned. ''And it's all about race. It's as clear as daylight.”
Is it “clear as daylight” that this rezoning plan is “all about race?” We don’t know, and Dillon doesn’t try very hard to figure it out. But in those opening paragraphs, he reinforces a vew of public schools which is often very misleading. A river runs throughout his report, and here it is: A “higher-performing” school—a school with higher test scores than some other school—is automatically judged to be a “better” school. That may seem to make sense on the surface. But in many cases, it may not be true. And if you care about low-income kids, this puzzling fact actually matters.

Kendra Williams knows her kids; we’ll assume that her judgments about their situations are sound. (It’s always possible, of course, that they’re not.) But Dillon presents a simple-minded take on the meaning of a given school’s test scores. It makes for a warm-hearted, feel-good tale—a tale in which the New York Times stands on the side of the right. (This sometimes seems to be the purpose of every Times piece about race and schools.) But it blinds us to the overall problem facing many low-income kids. It can feel really good when we craft simple tales. It also can harm decent children.

Throughout this report, Dillon promotes a simple notion: A school which produces higher test scores is automatically better. But depending on the children involved, that ain’t necessarily so. Let’s leave Kendra Williams in charge of her kids, and assume that we have two of our own. Let’s say we’re guardians for two seventh-graders—one white, one black—who come from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds. Let’s say that our kids are eighth-graders by age, but are in the seventh grade because they repeated a grade in the past. And let’s say they’re reading on third-grade level. The nation’s struggling low-income schools are full of deserving kids like this—kids who are struggling with a very difficult academic profile. And no, it isn’t necessarily the case that they will be better off in a “higher-performing” school—in a school which has better test scores.

Guess what, everybody? It’s hard to know how to help kids who are struggling with that profile. Seventh-grade textbooks are too hard for them; a great deal of normal seventh-grade instructional programming will be too hard for them too. It takes special kinds of skill and savvy to help kids with this profile; success for these kids is the exception, not the rule. And there’s no reason on earth—no reason at all—to assume that a “high-performing” school will know how to help our two kids achieve. There’s no reason to think that our kids will achieve well just because they’re now in a school which has higher test scores.

Why do some schools have good test scores? Usually, for an obvious reason—because good students attend them! These schools don’t score well because the teachers are smart—they score well because the kids are! The teachers who work in those high-scoring schools may be good, hard-working professionals. But that doesn’t mean that they will know how to help two children like ours. Most likely, they haven’t been teaching kids with our kids’ profiles. Most likely, they will have no more ideas how to help our kids than the teachers may have at a school with low test scores—at the school our two kids may have left.

That said, it’s galling to read reports like Dillon’s—reports which seem to derive their world-view from the 1960s, when concern about urban schooling was new. If only we get them in “better schools”—or as long as we give them “better teachers”— the kids will flourish, we all thought back then. But over the years, it just hasn’t been that easy. It’s hard to help kids from low-literacy backgrounds. Our kids—reading on third-grade level—have a very hard row to hoe. It isn’t clear that anyone knows how to help them prosper.

But so what? Today, the Times is still typing those feel-good tales about “high-performing” schools—and it lets the public see, in the process, how high-minded the New York Times is. Why, they’re on the side of Tuscaloosa’s black kids! They’re opposed to that old cracker school board!

But always, in these lazy reports, the interests of poor kids gets thrown down the drain. Here are the facts: In high-scoring schools—or in low-scoring schools—we still don’t really know what to do to help kids like the two we’ve described. Back in the 60s, we didn’t know that, and we dreamed that things would be very easy once we got our kids in “good schools,” in schools with non-racist teachers. But things haven’t turned out to be easy, and they likely never will be—especially as long as our leading newspapers keeps on typing these feel-good tales, tales which tell deserving kids that can go in the back yard and rot.

In which of Tuscaloosa’s schools would our seventh-grade students do well? The answer is obvious: Perhaps in none! But rather than confront this problem, the Times would get them into a high-scoring school, a school which might have no solutions for them. Then, the Times would boast and brag about the good thing it had done.

Quite probably, low-scoring kids in Tuscaloosa will flounder and fail in those high-scoring schools. We didn’t know that in the 1960s. The Times doesn’t know it today.

Goldstein gets it right: Hurrah! At Tapped, Dana Goldstein detects a similar sensibility in yesterday’s front-page Times report about the New Orleans schools. “The article is typical of the rather spurious ‘new superintendent is a godsend’ genre,” she writes. “Lauding [Paul] Vallas as a ‘veteran tamer of hard-case schools in Chicago and Philadelphia,’ there is no real assessment of his successes and failures in those districts.”

Very typical. In the earlier Tuscaloosa story, there was no assessment of the implied claim that high-scoring schools can help low-scoring kids. But then, this has gone on for decades; big newspapers have taken a novelistic, simple-solution approach to reports about low-income kids. High-scoring schools? New superman super? If it feels good, type it!