WHERE ARE STANDARDS (PART 1)! Describing NYC school reform, Smith hands us a kooky chronology: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 7, 2005
LIBERALS CANT ARGUE (CONTINUED): Wed prefer to keep the partisan stuff separate from public school ruminations. But on yesterdays Meet the Press, we saw exactly the kind of argument we discussed in yesterdays rare Sunday post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/6/05). Tim Russert was chatting with Senator Kennedy. Here was Russerts 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:Kennedy, a much better-than-average spokesman, gave a fairly nimble response. But lets 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 arent serious in their approach to their partys business. Plainly, the party doesnt 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 wasnt clear that he realized what Russert was doing—and no, we cant say he gave the most able response after Kerrys name was revealed.
Second: Theres little excuse for Kerrys 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 cant 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 cant argue—a party which doesnt much seem to care.
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 dont 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 dont seem to be showing considerable improvement year to year, to the extent that we can judge from Spaughs 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, youd likely reconsider your purchase.
But then, standards are often thrown down the drain when journalists go looking for feel-good stories among the nations 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 nations 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 Citys 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 programs 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 Americas 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 Citys 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 Alvarados 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 Alvarados 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 doesnt make sense—Rigney only worked at one school—but its intended meaning is clear. Elaine Fink (identified only as Deputy Superintendent, 1990-98) describes Rigneys 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—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 Alvarados reforms. To quote Smiths introductory statement again: Principals like Daria Rigney were the key movers of Alvarados 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 programs web site.
But readers! One question: Where are standards? This story is pleasing, but it has a big problem—its driven by a kooky chronology. In fact, Rigney never worked in District 2 during Alvarados 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 Diegos public schools. Thats 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 Alvarados 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? Heres 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 didnt exist at the start of Alvarados reign. No, Rigney is describing the way she found P.S. 126 after eleven years of Alvarados reforms—the reforms for which Smith is vouching in this section of Making Schools Work! Rigney doesnt describe the school as Alvarado found it, as youre 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. Thats what School 126 was like after the reforms Smith promotes in this program. But you, the viewer, dont get to know that. Smith makes you think that Alvarados reforms produced the success at 126. He doesnt tell you that the school was still a miserable mess after Alvarado left New York.
Lets 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 Rigneys story. (Important note: None of this is Rigneys doing. This is the fault of Smiths program.) And note this: From Smiths interview with Alvarado (found here on the programs web site), its 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 Alvarados reforms, Making Schools Work plays a major trick in its presentation of Rigneys story. But then, so it goes throughout the programs treatment of the Alvarado era. What is the ultimate truth about those reforms? We dont know (more thoughts by weeks end). But all week long, well review the way Making Schools Work tells the story of New Yorks District 2. By the end of the week, we think youll 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 sites 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 Citys District 4 is named to lead District 2. [We didnt correct the sites punctuation.]Go ahead—reread the transcript, see how youre 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 Smiths interview with Alvarado, found here on the programs web site. Note: Alvarado says he started with the districts 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?No, this doesnt settle the question of District 2's reforms. It does suggest that we need to be careful about what were told in this program.