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Daily Howler: When Smith goes into our low-income schools, he seems to say this: It's all good!
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WHERE ARE STANDARDS (PART 2)! When Smith goes into our low-income schools, he seems to say this: It’s all good! // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 8, 2005

APPLYING WHAT WE’VE LEARNED: This morning’s Post gives us a chance to apply what we’ve already learned! In an intriguing report, Mary Jordan discusses a new book by Christopher Meyer, British ambassador to the U.S. from 1997 until February 2003. In various ways, Meyer criticizes Tony Blair’s conduct before the war with Iraq. But at one point, Meyer discusses what he himself thought about WMD:
JORDAN (11/8/05): Meyer, reached by telephone Monday, said he could not comment beyond the published excerpts until the book is released.

In the excerpts, Meyer said he did not doubt that Blair sincerely believed Hussein needed to be ousted and that his decision to stand with Bush was made from "from the highest of high moral ground." Meyer was privy to "a great deal of intelligence material in 2002" and said he was persuaded that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Still, he faulted Blair.

Here again, a major player—and a critic of the war—says that he did believe Iraq had WMD.

But let’s apply what we’ve already learned—the facts many liberals have failed to argue in public. Most public figures (including Clinton and Gore) thought Iraq had chem and bio. But chem and bio posed little threat to the U.S. So the Bush Admin began pimping the nukes—misstating the intel about that crucial question. It was Saddam’s access to nukes that got overstated—not the question of whether he might have some chem/bio lying around.

Yes, even Clinton said that Iraq had WMD. But Clinton didn’t make all those scary claims about nukes. Three years later, many libs and Dems still can’t argue this point. We ask again: Why can’t we libs argue?

Special report: Where are standards?

PART 2—IT’S ALL GOOD: It’s almost shocking to watch Making Schools Work with Hedrick Smith for a second or third time—to watch it one more time after you know the real chronology of Daria Rigney’s stint at P.S. 126, the New York City District 2 school where Rigney served as principal. Rigney served at 126 from 1998-2003—after Anthony Alvarado’s eleven-year tenure as head of District 2 ended (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/7/05). Early in Smith’s fifteen-minute segment about District 2, Rigney describes how dysfunctional this failing school was when she first arrived on the scene. But uh-oh! As it turns out, the dysfunctional school which Rigney describes was performing that way in 1998—after Alvarado’s ballyhooed tenure, the tenure Smith promotes all through this program. But alas! Throughout Smith’s segment on Alvarado’s reforms, he gives the impression that Rigney came to P.S. 126 with Alvarado—that her apparent success at the school is the prime example of what Alvarado accomplished in the district. This misleading presentation starts less than three minutes into Smith’s segment—and, as late as the twelve-minute mark, Smith is still actively giving the impression that Rigney’s success at 126 happened under Alvarado. Example: Late in the segment, Smith discusses the way Alvarado worked with the United Federation of Teachers:

SMITH (10/5/05): Alvarado held many meetings to woo the union. Old ties helped ease inevitable frictions.

UFT OFFICIAL: We had worked with him previously. And we established a very, very close working relationship, because essentially what he did was, which was unusual, he came to the UFT and he said “I really want to make this the best school district in all of New York City.” And we said, “Well, this is a ride we want to take.”

ALVARADO: The luck that we had was at the highest levels of the citywide union. We had leadership that believed in the work that we were doing.

SMITH: Collaboration paid off. Low-performing schools, like P.S. 126, saw dramatic improvement under Daria Rigney.

The chronological implication is obvious. But if 126 saw dramatic improvement, it only started in 1999-2000—Rigney’s second year at the school. (More on Rigney’s tenure in Part 4 of this week’s series.) During Making Schools Work, Rigney describes the dysfunctional school she found when she arrived on the scene—and that was in 1998, after Alvarado’s eleven-year tenure. But viewers have no way to know this. This is truly egregious narration—a gross misrepresentation of fact in pursuit of a pleasing, feel-good tale.

But then, journalists often throw standards away when they go hunting for pleasing tales among the nation’s low-income schools. We’re told that schools with vastly mediocre records are actually school that work. Indeed, we’re told that they’ve produced “small revolutions”—small revolutions with “enormous implications for public schools nationwide.” Famous journalists turn into boosters—cheerleaders for the claims of success. Every test score seems to show great success. And every reform plan sounds peachy.

With Smith, things are no different. When he visits his featured schools, every word—every program—seems to be a work of high genius, no matter how mundane, tired or fatuous the alleged “reform” may actually be. When he visits Centennial Elementary, for example, he marvels at one of the ways this hard-working school groups kids for instruction (click here for transcript):

SMITH (10/5/05): Did you catch that? Most of [teacher Garnett] Mell’s second-grade re4ading group are first graders on a fast track. That’s a crucial hallmark of “Success for All”—the way it groups children, not by age or grade, but by the level of their reading skills.
But that’s like saying that using pencils is a “crucial hallmark” of some program. When we entered the Baltimore City Schools as a fifth grade teacher all the way back in 1969, this unremarkable type of grouping was in common use in the low-achieving system; there is absolutely nothing new about this absurdly common procedure. Despite that, Smith engages in credulous talk with Bob Slavin, “Success for All” founder:
SLAVIN (continuing directly): Rather than having the top group, the middle group, the low group within a given class of children who are all at one age, we have one group of children who are all reading at the third grade level whether they’re third graders or second graders or fourth graders.

SMITH: Why do you do that?

SLAVIN: The concept is to provide a reading class that is exactly at the level that every child needs, even if that means putting together children who are of different ages.

SMITH: Teaching children where they are generates success, Slavin says.

That’s great—but so does using pencils. But then, Smith is amazed by virtually everything he sees, in every school or district. At several stops, he’s willing to be amazed when he’s told that districts decided to focus on reading—a “decision” so obvious that it could be compared to the decision to put roofs on all classrooms. And he fails to ask obvious questions about reform plans that may not make obvious sense. Next week, we’ll look at one such “reform,” in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) district—the second large district Smith examines, after he visits New York.

We might as well just come out and say it: Smith doesn’t seem to know much about schools. Smith built his considerable journalistic reputation as a New York Times foreign correspondent; his famous books, The Russians and The New Russians, were widely-acclaimed portraits of the Russian people during the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras. But does Smith know anything about public schools? That early exchange about grouping was laughable, and, throughout the rest of the program, he seems to perform as a booster or cheerleader, not as a well-informed, skeptical journalist. He seems to think that his role in this show is lobbing slow softballs at honored players. Indeed, Rigney seems to suppress a quick laugh when Smith lobs this high slow one at her:

SMITH: So you want kids as active learners? Is that it?

RIGNEY: Oh, yeah, very active learners. And that was so much of what I had to convince teachers was worth doing.

As stated, Rigney seems to stifle a laugh as she observes the high arc of Smith’s softball. And just one minute after praising “active learners,” Smith lobs another one skyward. He’s speaking with Emily Jarrell, once one of Rigney’s teachers:
JARRELL: I think the tone [Rigney] set was more like we are in a lab, a science lab, and we are scientists trying to figure out the answer. And the only way we can do that is by doing it together and by constantly studying. We can’t pretend that we know the answer.

SMITH: So this is continuous improvement?

JARRELL: Continuous, constant. And it’s what is exciting me about the profession. It’s why I stay.

District 2 doesn’t just want “active learners;” the district also wants “constant improvement!” Soon, Smith is engaged in conversation with Alvarado over whether he thinks “all children can learn.” (Alvarado does think that.) Later, down in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the principal of Spaugh Middle School—a very low-scoring, inner-city school—tells Smith, in all seriousness, that—well, why not just read it:
SMITH: You say these kids can be educated. Is there a link between poverty and the ability to learn?

SPAUGH PRINCIPAL: Poverty and ability? No. No, and I can’t say that emphatically enough. No. There is no link between poverty and the ability to learn. There is a different framework for providing learning to those kids.

CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG SUPERINTENDENT: The science that we were trying to build was one that said that the success of a school isn’t dependent on the children we serve. We can compensate for any deficiencies or additional needs children bring to us. Our job is to educate children to a comparable level, to a competitive level.

“There is no link between poverty and the ability to learn,” Smith is told. The principal “can’t say that emphatically enough.” Unfortunately, this principal’s school is churning out extremely low test scores, even as he makes this pleasing statement (even as the superintendent talks pleasing talk about “educating children to a comparable level”). But Smith doesn’t ask the principal what he means, or burden his readers with the facts about Spaugh’s test scores. Instead, he lets us bask in this feel-good declaration—and tells us that, “over the past three years, Spaugh has been steadily improving student performance.” As we’ve seen, this claim is extremely hard to reconcile with the school’s very low (and declining) test scores. But it does make us feel very good. To our ear, it makes us feel like we can stop worrying about the interests of low-income children.

And Smith’s willingness to marvel at all declarations carries over to his stay in New York. Early on, he sits through an absurdly high-fallutin’ presentation from Alvarado and his deputy, Elaine Fink, about the need for better teaching—described, for some unknown reason, as the need for “adult learning.” (“So adult learning is the key to kids learning?” the obliging Smith credulously asks.) He’s amazed again when Alvarado tells him that District 2 decided to focus on reading. (Sorry: on “literacy.”) And he fails to wonder about the apparent oddness of Alvarado’s decision to bring in gangs of Australian savants “to coach teachers across the district.” Why did Alvarado turn to the Aussies (at a very high price)? “We asked the question of where were there the best rates of literacy,” Alvarado says. “At that time it was in Australia and New Zealand.” Of course, if Alvarado did produce real success, his methods deserve presumptive respect—and extended analysis. But Smith never shows the slightest sign of being the guy who might achieve this analysis. Nor does he seem to be the guy who could determine if success did occur.

What Smith does seem to be is a booster—a cheerleader, a teller of pleasing stories. Like so many scribes before him, he seems to have gone into low-income schools looking for pleasing stories that work. Normal journalistic standards seem to give way to other demands. Indeed, in a recent column about this program, the New York Sun’s Andrew Wolf rolls his eyes at the way Smith stacked his deck in his District 2 segment:

WOLF (10/7/05): Mr. Alvarado's critics here were omitted from the program. Nor did Mr. Smith properly disclose that Elaine Fink, Mr. Alvarado's deputy and frequent defender during the program, is also Mrs. Alvarado. Nor did he point out that Lauren Resnick, another Alvarado booster, has received millions in staff development contracts resulting from her association with Mr. Alvarado.
Is Elaine Fink really Alvarado’s wife? So it would seem, which is perfectly fine, of course—and in this case, the viewer does know that Fink was a close professional associate of Alvarado during his years in New York. But Resnick is presented early and often to ooh-and-aah about Alvarado’s reforms—and the viewer is never told that she is a close associate of both Alvarado and Fink, someone who is deeply involved in the reforms she is praising. Just as we’re fooled by the Rigney chronology, we’re fooled by Resnick’s disguised self-promotion. And as Wolf notes, Alvarado’s critics don’t exist in this program. Indeed, a viewer wouldn’t know they even exist after sitting through this boosterist fare.

Why would an expert on the Soviet Union present a show about low-income schools? We don’t know, but Smith—like so many scribes before him—doesn’t seem to know much about low-income schools, and he seems to abandon journalistic practice for the tools of the cheerleader here. He seems to find ways to make schools (seem to) work—and he oohs and aahs at what advocates tell him. Indeed, as we watched Resnick praise her own work—with no warning given to viewers—we once again found ourselves asking this question: Readers! Where are standards?

TOMORROW: Did Alvarado’s reforms really work?

SMITH’S REPLY TO WOLF: Last Friday, we linked to Wolf’s first column about Making Schools Work—a column written back in March. As it turns out. Smith replied to that column. We can’t find a link for the letter. But we reprint it in full:

LETTER FROM SMITH, NEW YORK SUN (3/18/05): Andrew Wolf worries at length that our program will mistakenly tout the progress made by the Houston school system. Wrong. Our report does not include a report on the Houston school system. Our onsite reporting in Houston left questions in our minds about the extent of Houston's gains; so it's not in the program. In Houston, our focus is on something entirely different, something that might interest Mr. Wolf—a charter school model known as KIPP—the Knowledge is Power Program.

Mr. Wolf suggests that our program will ignore the back-to-basics reading program that Rudy Crew made a core element in the Chancellor's District in New York City, because Mr. Wolf contends that program "runs counter" to the agenda of the Eli Broad Foundation. Wrong again. Our report has a significant segment on precisely that back-to-basics reading program (called "Success for All"), used in another city. Such inaccuracies discredit Mr. Wolf's claim that our program is an "infomercial" for the Broad Foundation because, he says, the program is "financed by the Broad Foundation."

Wrong again. The initial funder and by far the largest funder, is the Ford Foundation, which underwrote our research and development work. The program was reported and formulated in a 65-page treatment, without any contact between us and the Broad Foundation. Some months later, we submitted that project write-up to many potential funders across the country. None was given any right to alter or influence the content in any way. It was presented on a fund-it or forget-it basis. Our team never discussed the substance of our reporting with Eli Broad or his foundation staff. In the end, the Broad Foundation decided to join a consortium of funders, contributing about 15 percent of the overall underwriting.

As experienced journalists, we maintain an arms-length relationships with all our funders. We value our responsibility to make independent judgments based solely on our own reporting. As we create our program, we do not discuss its content or evaluations with anyone—funders, media, you name it. Content and judgments evolve during production. This is journalism at work. But no funder or participant is apprised of these changes. Funders and participants may not even see the program - let alone comment on it—before broadcast. They all see it first at PBS broadcast time, next September. This has always been our practice.

HEDRICK L. SMITH
CEO and executive producer for "Schools That Work"

Clearly, Smith was right about the Houston matter; Making Schools Work does not include a segment on the Houston system in general. In his more recent column, Wolf cited Smith’s letter, and said this about the issue of funding: “Mr. Smith will insist that the heroic portrayal of Mr. Alvarado, a favorite of the Broad Foundation, has nothing to do with the money that the foundation put up to produce the program. I have no reason to doubt his word, but somehow I'd feel better if [someone else] sponsored [Making Schools Work].” For ourselves, we aren’t interested in the program’s funding. We’ll only discuss the show’s claims.