WHERE ARE STANDARDS (PART 2)! When Smith goes into our low-income schools, he seems to say this: Its all good! // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 8, 2005
APPLYING WHAT WEVE LEARNED: This mornings Post gives us a chance to apply what weve 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 Blairs 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.Here again, a major player—and a critic of the war—says that he did believe Iraq had WMD.
But lets apply what weve 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 Saddams 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 didnt make all those scary claims about nukes. Three years later, many libs and Dems still cant argue this point. We ask again: Why cant we libs argue?
PART 2—ITS ALL GOOD: Its 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 Rigneys 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 Alvarados eleven-year tenure as head of District 2 ended (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/7/05). Early in Smiths 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 Alvarados ballyhooed tenure, the tenure Smith promotes all through this program. But alas! Throughout Smiths segment on Alvarados 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 Smiths segment—and, as late as the twelve-minute mark, Smith is still actively giving the impression that Rigneys 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.The chronological implication is obvious. But if 126 saw dramatic improvement, it only started in 1999-2000—Rigneys second year at the school. (More on Rigneys tenure in Part 4 of this weeks series.) During Making Schools Work, Rigney describes the dysfunctional school she found when she arrived on the scene—and that was in 1998, after Alvarados 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 nations low-income schools. Were told that schools with vastly mediocre records are actually school that work. Indeed, were told that theyve 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] Mells second-grade re4ading group are first graders on a fast track. Thats 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 thats 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 theyre third graders or second graders or fourth graders.Thats great—but so does using pencils. But then, Smith is amazed by virtually everything he sees, in every school or district. At several stops, hes willing to be amazed when hes 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, well 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 doesnt 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?As stated, Rigney seems to stifle a laugh as she observes the high arc of Smiths softball. And just one minute after praising active learners, Smith lobs another one skyward. Hes speaking with Emily Jarrell, once one of Rigneys 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 cant pretend that we know the answer.District 2 doesnt 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?There is no link between poverty and the ability to learn, Smith is told. The principal cant say that emphatically enough. Unfortunately, this principals 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 doesnt ask the principal what he means, or burden his readers with the facts about Spaughs 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 weve seen, this claim is extremely hard to reconcile with the schools 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 Smiths 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.) Hes 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 Alvarados 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 Suns 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 Alvarados 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 Alvarados 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 were fooled by the Rigney chronology, were fooled by Resnicks disguised self-promotion. And as Wolf notes, Alvarados critics dont exist in this program. Indeed, a viewer wouldnt 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 dont know, but Smith—like so many scribes before him—doesnt 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 Alvarados reforms really work?
SMITHS REPLY TO WOLF: Last Friday, we linked to Wolfs first column about Making Schools Work—a column written back in March. As it turns out. Smith replied to that column. We cant 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.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 Smiths 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 arent interested in the programs funding. Well only discuss the shows claims.