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Daily Howler: Describing NYC school reform, Smith hands us a kooky chronology
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WHERE ARE STANDARDS (PART 1)! Describing NYC school reform, Smith hands us a kooky chronology: // link // print // previous // next //

LIBERALS CAN’T ARGUE (CONTINUED): We’d prefer to keep the partisan stuff separate from public school ruminations. But on yesterday’s Meet the Press, we saw exactly the kind of argument we discussed in yesterday’s rare Sunday post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/6/05). Tim Russert was chatting with Senator Kennedy. Here was Russert’s too-slick-by-half question about the run-up to war in Iraq:
RUSSERT (11/6/05): You talked about Iraq. There's a big debate now about whether or not the data, the intelligence data, was misleading and manipulated in order to encourage public opinion support for the war. Let me give you a statement that was talked about during the war:

"We know [Iraq is] developing unmanned vehicles capable of delivering chemical and biological warfare agents...all U.S. intelligence experts agree they are seeking nuclear weapons. There's little question that Saddam Hussein wants to develop them. ... In the wake of September 11th, who among us can say with any certainty to anybody that those weapons might not be used against our troops, against allies in the region? Who can say that this master of miscalculation will not develop a weapon of mass destruction even greater—a nuclear weapon....”

Are those the statements that you're concerned about? [Deletions by Russert, in official transcript]

Kennedy, a much better-than-average spokesman, gave a fairly nimble response. But let’s make two key points about this question from Russert:

First: As any Dem should have instantly realized, Russert was borrowing a trick from Sean Hannity. As Russert later triumphantly announced, this statement was made by “John Kerry, your candidate for president,” in the fall of 2002. Russert had offered the unattributed statement to Kennedy, hoping Ted would roundly condemn it. Then, Tim could have played Ted for a chump, telling him Kerry had said it.

Hannity does this constantly on Hannity & Colmes. He reads a vaguely pro-war quote—and his hapless Democrat guest condemns it. Then he tells the hapless guest that the statement was made by a major Dem—by Kerry, or by Clinton, or by god-knows-who-else. And guess what? No matter how many times Hannity does this, Democratic office-holders are always fooled by his trick the next time. Why does this happen? Because modern Democrats simply aren’t serious in their approach to their party’s business. Plainly, the party doesn’t prepare its spokesmen for even the most obvious likely events. Over and over, Democrat spokesmen fall for this trick, looking like fools in the process.

On Sunday, Kennedy did much better; he quickly moved away from the quote, offering a semi-related speech. But it wasn’t clear that he realized what Russert was doing—and no, we can’t say he gave the most able response after Kerry’s name was revealed.

Second: There’s little excuse for Kerry’s gullibility on some of these points. But no—those are not “the statements Democrats are concerned about” regarding the run-up to war in Iraq. Dems and liberals should be concerned about statements made by Bush/Cheney/Rice—statements which vastly misstated the state of prevailing American intelligence. After all, in the speech which Russert quoted, Senator Kerry only said that Saddam might develop a nuke. By contrast, Cheney—pimping the nukes—expressly said that he was “convinced” that Saddam would have nukes within a year. Later, he dropped that down to six months, vastly exceeding the state of the intel. Meanwhile, Rice was saying, on network TV, that the aluminum tubes could only means nukes. That statement contradicted the state of the intel—but it did get us all good and scared.

Sorry, Tim: Those statements should have Dems concerned about the run-up to war in Iraq. But modern Dems and liberals can’t argue. With amazing persistence, Dems and liberals have failed to make this simple distinction in the past three years—and Kennedy failed again with Russert. But so it goes with a party which simply can’t argue—a party which doesn’t much seem to care.

Special report: Where are standards?

OVERVIEW: This week, we continue to look at Making Schools Work with Hedrick Smith, the two-hour PBS program we examined all last week. Our theme this week: Where are standards? Part 1 is found straight below:

PART 1—THE CASE OF THE KOOKY CHRONOLOGY: No, for all the efforts of their hard-working staffs, Centennial Elementary and Jordan Elementary don’t sem to have hatched “small revolutions” with “enormous implications for public schools nationwide” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/4/05). And no, the deserving kids at Spaugh Middle School don’t seem to be showing “considerable improvement year to year,” to the extent that we can judge from Spaugh’s test scores (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/05). But in Making Schools Work with Hedrick Smith, Smith and his staff do some picking-and-choosing when they offer scores from these schools; they give the impression that major gains are occurring, even where the reality seems quite different. But so what? Despite test scores which are quite mundane, Smith spends the first half-hour of his two-hour PBS program praising the progress at Centennial and Jordan—and suggesting that the educational programs in place at these schools should be exported to other schools nationwide. Would you rush to use these educational programs? You might—if you went by the things that Smith says. But if you got a fuller story, you’d likely reconsider your purchase.

But then, standards are often thrown down the drain when journalists go looking for feel-good stories among the nation’s low-income schools. Schools which are barely “working” at all sometimes find themselves featured as “schools that work.” And when reporters do come upon schools with steep score gains, no one ever seems to ask if the gains are really real, despite three decades of cheating scandals in the nation’s public schools (links to follow). Yes, standards often go down the drain in the desire to make low-income schools (seem to) work. This is a bit ironic in the present case, since Smith is in effect hailing the education “standards movement” all through the course of Making Schools Work. But to our ear, journalistic standards of every type go down the drain in this two-hour special. Consider the story of Daria Rigney, a highly-acclaimed former principal in New York City’s District 2—the first of the two large public school districts in which Smith finds successful reform.

In Making Schools Work, District 2 is the story of Anthony Alvarado, a charismatic administrator who became the head of the district in 1987. (At the time, there were 32 separate school districts comprising the New York City system.) At the start of his program’s second hour, Smith sets the scene for this story:

SMITH (10/5/05): By the mid-90s, leading education reformers and some cities had grown impatient with re-engineering America’s 90,000 schools one-by-one. To make real progress, they said, America needs to ramp up, go to scale. And so cities like Sacramento, Houston and Charlotte decided to launch wholesale reform across entire school districts, affecting tens of thousands of students at a time.
“As it happened, a bold district reform was already under way in New York City’s District 2,” Smith continues. “So all eyes turned to District 2.” Smith then plays tape of Kati Haycock (The Education Trust) praising the District 2 example—and he narrates an extended segment featuring the aforementioned Rigney. “Principals like Daria Rigney were the key movers of Alvarado’s reform,” Smith says. How bad were things when Rigney arrived? Soon, Rigney is describing her school—P.S. 126—at the time she first showed up for work there:
RIGNEY: What I remember from that time was coming and passing all the parks where people were just hanging out and smoking dope, lots of drinking; hardly any places to play; very, very poor neighborhood. Mostly Latino, African-American, Chinese. If you walked into any classroom you would just find kids misbehaving, kids not paying attention, lack of engagement. There was a sense of helplessness. I needed the school to be calmer so that we could move on with instruction. But I also felt as though the best discipline plan was a good lesson plan.
Rigney described a difficult neighborhood—and a failing, disorderly school. “At P.S. 126, Daria discovered that the teachers were not reaching the students,” Smith intones. “Reading through hundreds of report cards, she realized the kids were turned off. So Rigney set out to show her teachers how to engage students, get kids to think aloud, not just lecture them into boredom.” In a lengthy passage, Smith interviews Rigney, Alvarado and some teachers at the school, discussing the way Alvarado’s reforms worked at P.S. 126 under Rigney—and throughout the district generally. “Collaboration paid off,” Smith declares. “Low-performing schools, like P.S. 126, saw dramatic improvement under Daria Rigney.” No, that last sentence doesn’t make sense—Rigney only worked at one school—but its intended meaning is clear. Elaine Fink (identified only as “Deputy Superintendent, 1990-98”) describes Rigney’s success:
FINK: Daria did great things. Look at that school [P.S. 126]. It had some of the lowest performance in all of Chinatown. Also started out in the 20s, with kids performing on grade level. And Daria has—

SMITH: You mean 20 percent of the—

FINK: Twenty percent of the students. And Daria has taken it over 70 percent of the kids are now performing at very high standards. It’s just been incredible and it’s holding.

Rigney took over that disorderly, failing school—and its numbers went to the roof. In the fourteen-minute segment on District 2, this is the prime example of the success created by Alvarado’s reforms. To quote Smith’s introductory statement again: “Principals like Daria Rigney were the key movers of Alvarado’s reform.” Smith does go on to say that Alvarado had “success in all kinds of schools—higher scores in reading and math across the board.” But Rigney is the featured example. Her success is also widely discussed in the program’s web site.

But readers! One question: Where are standards? This story is pleasing, but it has a big problem—it’s driven by a kooky chronology. In fact, Rigney never worked in District 2 during Alvarado’s eleven-year tenure; in fact, she was hired by the district in 1998, shortly after Alvarado left New York to become second-in-command in San Diego’s public schools. That’s right—Alvarado was District 2 superintendent from 1987 through June 1998. After that, Rigney was hired as principal of P.S. 126—hired by Fink, who originally served as Alvarado’s “deputy superintendent” but then succeeded him as District 2 superintendent. In fact, Rigney started at P.S. 126 in the 1998-99 school year. She served at the school through 2003—leaving to become an instructional superintendent for the city system.

Why does this kooky chronology matter? Here’s why: That failing school which Rigney describes—the school where all the kids were “turned off;” the school where “if you walked into any classroom you would just find kids misbehaving”—that school didn’t exist at the start of Alvarado’s reign. No, Rigney is describing the way she found P.S. 126 after eleven years of Alvarado’s reforms—the reforms for which Smith is vouching in this section of Making Schools Work! Rigney doesn’t describe the school as Alvarado found it, as you’re led to believe by the program. Instead, she describes the school as the wunderkind left it—in chaos and disorder, with the kids all “turned off.” That’s what School 126 was like after the reforms Smith promotes in this program. But you, the viewer, don’t get to know that. Smith makes you think that Alvarado’s reforms produced the success at 126. He doesn’t tell you that the school was still a miserable mess after Alvarado left New York.

Let’s ask a rude question about Hedrick Smith: Would you buy a used “reform plan” from this man? Making Schools Work pulls quite a scam in its presentation of Rigney’s story. (Important note: None of this is Rigney’s doing. This is the fault of Smith’s program.) And note this: From Smith’s interview with Alvarado (found here on the program’s web site), it’s clear that Smith understood this chronology. He knew it was Fink who hired Rigney, after Alvarado left. But you, the misled PBS viewer, have no earthly way to know that. Whatever is true about Alvarado’s reforms, Making Schools Work plays a major trick in its presentation of Rigney’s story. But then, so it goes throughout the program’s treatment of the Alvarado era. What is the ultimate truth about those reforms? We don’t know (more thoughts by week’s end). But all week long, we’ll review the way Making Schools Work tells the story of New York’s District 2. By the end of the week, we think you’ll ask the following question: Where are journalistic standards—the standards we once thought we got when we watched important PBS programs? More significantly: Where are the standards which ought to obtain when we talk about low-income kids?

ONE MORE LINK: Here is the principal link for the Smith web site’s section on district-wide school reform.

FOR THE RECORD: Here are the basic facts which comprise the Alvarado/Rigney chronology. The first two items are taken from the District 2 “Chronology of Events” on the Making Schools Work web site:

1987: Anthony Alvarado, a former English teacher and superintendent in New York City’s District 4 is named to lead District 2. [We didn’t correct the site’s punctuation.]

June 1998: The District 2 board names Deputy Superintendent Elaine Fink as Alvarado's interim and then permanent replacement.

1998: Fink hires Rigney for P.S. 126. Presumably, Rigney now observes the failing school she is shown describing in Making Schools Work. “There was a sense of helplessness,” she says on the program—describing the school as it existed after Alvarado’s long tenure.

June 2003: Rigney leaves P.S. 126. The school’s test scores have massively risen. More on these topics to follow.

Go ahead—reread the transcript, see how you’re fooled, and join us in asking this basic question: Where are the standards we ought to observe when discussing our low-income kids?

FIXING THE INTEL: Here is a segment from Smith’s interview with Alvarado, found here on the program’s web site. Note: Alvarado says he started with the district’s “lowest performing schools”—then quickly cites Rigney as his example:

SMITH: When you came in District 2, and you looked at what you had to do, literacy, improving professional development, where did you see you had to put the emphasis first? You were going to do it district-wide. I know you did, but where did you have to put it first and why?

ALVARADO: We started in the lowest performing schools. The challenge of teaching students who come in at an academic disadvantage and the standard for teaching in those schools is more challenging than the standard for teaching in a regular school. It's a systems responsibility to get that high quality level of teaching in those particular schools so that's where you have to go immediately.

SMITH: Your best teachers and your best principals tend to gravitate toward the upper east side, it's more comfortable and it seems to me you're turning around—

ALVARADO: Let's look at PS 126. When you look at the faculty that was developed and recruited by Daria Rigney, who was able to produce the student achievement gains in one of the lowest performing schools in the city, it was, first of all, the quality of leadership at the school level. So the attention you have to pay to the knowledge and skill base and leadership level of people who teach in those schools is paramount to solving the problem.

No, this doesn’t settle the question of District 2's reforms. It does suggest that we need to be careful about what we’re told in this program.