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Daily Howler: Teach for America's feel-good ideals lead us to ask some tough questions
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SAMPLE QUESTIONS FROM THE REAL WORLD! Teach for America’s feel-good ideals lead us to ask some tough questions: // link // print // previous // next //

AWFUL: Jay Rockefeller was simply awful on yesterday’s Fox News Sunday. His answers were so plainly evasive and so poorly formed that he made Pat Roberts, with whom he was paired, look like a cross between George Washington and Albert Einstein by the time he was done.

This helps show why liberal web sites must take the lead in Dem/liberal message development. What were the Bush Admin’s pre-war misstatements? Roberts still doesn’t know how to answer that question. Josh Marshall has a much clearer idea. You know what to do—just click here.

WHERE ARE STANDARDS (WASH PO EDITION): A question about the American discourse: Is there any subject where lower standards prevail than in our discussion of public ed? Most recently, Sunday’s Post editorial, “Testing Gap,” brought this question to mind.

The Post begins with an accurate observation: Most statewide testing programs seem to be “easier” (i.e., easier to pass) than the tests which comprise the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP, known as “The Nation’s Report Card”). That observation is clearly correct. But then, the eds rush to a judgment:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (11/13/05): The gap [between state tests and the NAEP] is indeed evidence that many states are still using tests that are too easy, and they have not faced up to the genuinely difficult challenge of improving their schools.
But if a test is “easier” than the NAEP, does that necessarily mean it’s too easy? As it continues, the Post displays the facile reasoning so common in discussions of public ed:
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL: [M]any of the states that have shown the most improvement are precisely the ones that have been using statewide standards for the longest period. One is Massachusetts, which has long used testing to measure achievement and is now at the top of the country in both reading and math. Another is Virginia, which, thanks to its Standards of Learning tests, has also made gains on national tests over the past five years. States that have not been using standards for quite so long have not done so well: In Maryland, for example, some scores have dropped since last year.
Yes, Massachusetts tops the NAEP in reading and math. But is that because of its use of statewide standards? The Post makes no attempt to support this assertion—and Massachusetts has always been at or near the top of the nation in measures of this kind. Meanwhile, the claims about Maryland and Virginia are absurd. Has Virginia made gains in the past five years because of its Standards of Learning tests? The Post makes no attempt to justify this claim. And uh-oh! Maryland and Virginia made similar gains on the NAEP during this five-year period. (Only math scores are available for the years 2000 and 2005. Maryland gained more than Virginia in fourth grade; Virginia gained more in eighth.) And then there’s that plainly ridiculous claim about “some scores” dropping in Maryland since last year. Maryland has been “using standards” for years now. Why would anyone think that a drop of “some scores” in just the past year reflects an earlier failure to use them? When the eds complain about low standards, we think they should review the “logic” that animates their own work.

The Post’s assertions about those three states run from unsupported to silly. But our analysts emitted their final groans when the eds typed this decades-old script:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL: The scores should also cause educators to think about the deeper causes of low student achievement. Teach for America, the charity that sends high-achieving college graduates to teach in low-income schools, recently published a survey of its alumni, who overwhelmingly believe that schools underrate children, fail to challenge them and resist imposing higher standards because they simply don't believe the students will meet them. Higher expectations, Teach for America argues, can actually lead to higher test scores.
The pointlessness of that paragraph would be hard to overstate. In its survey, Teach for America polled about 2000 of its alumni, roughly half of whom had spent only one year inside a low-income school. (TFA also polled “almost 200 incoming corps members who were just beginning their training.” These folk hadn’t spent any time inside a school as a teacher!) Why should the Post care about what these young people say—instead, for example, of consulting academic studies on the issues in question? Oh yes, we forgot! The Post cares about these young people because they’re “high-achieving college graduates” (translation: they went to Harvard and Yale) and because their survey can be massaged a bit to produce that familiar script: “Higher expectations...can actually lead to higher test scores.” Journalists have been churning that sound-bite for decades—rushing past real debates about low-income schools, and harming the interests of low-income kids in the process. Alas! This Washington Post editorial displays the lowest possible intellectual standards—even as it beats the drum for higher “standards” in our struggling urban schools.

SAMPLE QUESTIONS FROM THE REAL WORLD: Here’s one absurd but pleasing passage from TFA’s account of its survey (click here, see page 6):

Corps Members [sic] Expectations Are High
Corps members express high expectations for students, regardless of students’ background or prior achievement:
*91 percent believed that schools should hold inner-city students to the same academic standards as students from wealthy backgrounds; only 7 percent said schools should make some allowances.
Prior achievement be damned! Those surveyed “believed that schools should hold inner-city students to the same academic standards as students from wealthy backgrounds.” This passage make us feel very good, and it persuades us of the corps members’ high ideals. After all, the TFA members “express high expectations for students, regardless of students’ backgrounds!”

But let’s consider a few more specific questions. In the “Introduction” to this report (page 2), TFA semi-correctly says this: “By the time they are nine years old, students in low-income areas are already three grade levels behind their peers in more affluent communities.” This isn’t true of all such students, of course, but it’s surely true of many. So here’s our question: If a fifth-grader is reading on second-grade level, should his teacher really “hold [him] to the same academic standards” as a fifth-grader who’s reading on grade level? Should this child be asked to read the same textbooks? Should he be asked to negotiate the same written tests? And if a similar gap exists in math, should he be asked to handle the same math material? To do so is to consign him to confusion, frustration and guaranteed failure. But so what? The TFA report is about feeling good. It has little to do with the real decisions that really occur in real schools.

But then, low-income/minority kids have been treated this shabby way for decades. That high-minded statement from the TFA site is weirdly disconnected from real-world concerns. But so what? It makes the reader feel high-minded—and that’s why the Post decided to cite it. For decades, mainstream organs have treated low-income kids this way—as handy props for their own psychodramas. God spare our low-income kids the good intentions of recent Ivy League grads—and the sub-standard editorializing of those high-minded eds at the Post.

EXTRA CREDIT: Do public school teachers have low expectations for low-income/minority kids? Do high expectations produce higher test scores? Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom present a review of these questions in their 2003 book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. See pages 194-198. Their judgments on these matters are mixed.

KEVIN’S QUESTIONS: This leads us to the questions Kevin Drum raised last week about our recent education posts. Showing our usual excess of fairness, we said that Kevin had asked good questions—even as we issued mordant chuckles at his sudden plea for a good “education blog.” For the record, here’s what Kevin said:

DRUM (11/10/05): You know what the world needs? A good education blog. I read both Eduwonk and Joanne Jacobs, and although they're both decent reads, neither one of them really offers much in the way of analysis. They're mostly just links with a little bit of connective tissue. At the other end of the spectrum, Bob Somerby is morphing the Daily Howler into an education blog, and I'm following along to see how that goes. However, in his first few posts he's gone pretty far in the other direction, offering commentary so detailed that it's all too easy to get lost in the weeds.

I'll keep reading all three, but I'd still like to find something in the middle: authoritative enough to give me a real sense of what the issues are and how to think about them, but not as exhaustive as a Brookings white paper. Any suggestions?

Why have we been so detailed, so deep in the weeds, so much like a Brookings white paper? We think that’s a fairly good question. We’ll offer two replies.

First: We’re working out the transition to a new subject. We’re trying to learn, in the first few weeks, the best balance of info and brevity on these topics. Kevin seems to want breezy, not Brookings. We understand such eternal desires.

But second, and much more important: Unfortunately, it’s hard to give Kevin what he seems to want, due to the current low standards which inform education writing. Making Schools Work with Hedrick Smith is a prime example. It’s a two-hour, PBS program produced by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. For these reasons, we might expect it to offer solid work. But surprise! Its journalistic standards are amazingly low, in almost every respect.

This program’s bungling might seem surprising. But in our view, Smith’s program represents a decades-long norm in mainstream education reporting. The program goes looking for low-income “schools that work”—and it seems willing to accept almost any claim of success. Schools which have produced very weak test scores are said to have engineered “small revolutions”—small revolutions with “enormous implications for public schools nationwide.” Beyond that, Smith is willing to accept almost anything these systems tell him about their own brilliant reforms. He plays the ultimate gullible traveler, accepting everything he’ s told about the educational “revolutions” he’s uncovered. (More on this second theme to come. Tomorrow, we’ll resume our report on Making Schools Work.)

Smith produces absurdly facile “analyses” of test scores. But then, uninquisitive acceptance of pleasing test scores has been the norm in our discourse for decades. What’s wrong with the way Smith handles these data? There’s no way to answer that except by offering the kinds of analyses we have offered. There are very few precedents for this type of work. I can’t refer Drum to previous such work, because such work doesn’t really exist. Unfortunately, we have to build a vocabulary from scratch. Sadly, that requires some trips near the weeds.

Kevin wants someone to give him “a real sense of what the issues are and how to think about them.” But most of the “issues” we’ve been discussing don’t currently exist—they will have to be created. We’re unaware of a pre-existing vocabulary about the act at the heart of Making Schools Work—the credulous acceptance of shaky claims about those pleasing “revolutions.”

The analyses we’ve been offering are really bone-simple. No, a rise in test scores doesn’t necessarily mean that a school is achieving more; the test might just be getting easier. And no, a rise in test scores doesn’t necessarily indicate higher achievement; the school’s population may just be changing. And should we accept big jumps in test scores when so many schools (and school districts) have overtly cheated on such tests in past decades? (And yes, that’s “cheated,” not “taught to the test.”) There’s nothing complex about these considerations—but newspapers flee them as if they’re the plague. Readers have seen few prior examples of these amazingly simple thought processes. So we’ve been laying them out from scratch. In the future, we’ll be able to refer back to the material we’re now amassing.

Kevin wants “a sense of what the issues are.” But most of “the issues” don’t yet exist. Low-income schools have long been treated just as Smith’s program treats them—as an excuse for upper-class scribes to offer pleasing, feel-good narratives. At present, we’re laying the groundwork for a critique of this practice. We understand why Kevin would like it simpler. But for right now, we’re offering it right.

P.S. Readers sometimes ask us why we’re annoyed with Drum, whose overall work we very much admire. With major regrets, one reason, and one reason only: His failure/refusal to discuss the press corps’ conduct during Campaign 2000. (Kevin is hardly alone in that regard.) Other than that, we very much admire (and gain from) Kevin’s work, as we have often enthusiastically said. Who knows? Maybe we made the mistake of providing too much information on that topic too! We have to keep reminding ourselves not to hand out too much information.