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Daily Howler: When PBS reviews Charlotte-Meck, one thought comes to mind--it's all good
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GUSH, GUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (PART 4)! When PBS reviews Charlotte-Meck, one thought comes to mind—it’s all good: // link // print // previous // next //

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE (CURVEBALL EDITION): It has become a standard critique: In the months before the war in Iraq, the Washington Post put scary stories about alleged WMD on page one, and tended to bury more skeptical reports. This morning, the trend continues as the Post buries this remarkable Los Angeles Times report about the influential informant known as “Curveball.”

We won’t try to summarize what this report says, although you ought to read it in full. But the Post places this remarkable report inside the paper, on page 10. By contrast, what do we see on page one? A story about how much D.C.’s new baseball park might cost. A picture of Bush riding bikes in Japan. And an utterly crucial report about the deeply troubling etiquette problems of fans at Redskin games.

Sports on the front page—crucial news to page 10! The more things change, the more the foppishness stays. After the war, the Post wrung its hands over its pre-war coverage. Today, the bad judgment continues.

Final note: Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack is much tougher on Colin Powell than this L.A. Times story. But we liberals let his reporting slide—and, today, we blubber, boo-hoo and cry about what a big Bush shill Woodward is.

Special Report: Gush, Gush, Sweet Charlotte!

PART 4—IT’S ALL GOOD: Is there a reason to gush over Charlotte? Has Charlotte-Mecklenburg worked a “small revolution...with enormous implications for public schools nationwide?” We’d have to say that it has not. On that NAEP survey which the Making Schools Work web site features, Charlotte-Mecklenburg only finished fourth (out of ten school districts) in test scores achieved by low-income students (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/18/05). And has Charlotte-Mecklenburg worked a revolution among its black kids? We’re glad you asked, because the answer is intriguing. Here are the 2005 passing rates for black kids on North Carolina’s end-of-grade reading/math tests. Can you spot the Charlotte-Meck miracle?

Passing rates, North Carolina end-of-grade tests, black students, grades 3-8, 2005
Reading: Charlotte, 75.6 percent. Statewide, 75.8 percent.
Math: Charlotte, 78.9 percent. Statewide, 78.5 percent.
The similarity is quite amazing; at present, Charlotte-Meck’s black students do exactly as well as black kids statewide. Of course, it’s possible that this is a relatively good showing by Charlotte-Mecklenburg; it may be that the system’s blacks kids are poorer than those of the state as a whole. This can’t be determined from the state’s basic web site, which only lists low-income indicators for student populations as a whole. It may be that Charlotte’s black kids experience more poverty than their statewide peers. (This is far from clear. Details below.) But such an analysis would take us far beyond the world of programs like Making Schools Work—programs which exist to cheerlead, not to analyze.

We can say one thing for Charlotte’s schools; its black kids seem to have gained ground on the state over the past eleven years. Among black students, here are the passing rates in reading from 1994 and 2005. If we take these numbers at face value, Charlotte’s black kids have gained on the state:

Passing rates, North Carolina end-of-grade reading tests, black students, grades 3-8
1994: Charlotte, 36.0 percent. Statewide, 43.2 percent.
2005: Charlotte, 75.6 percent. Statewide, 75.8 percent.
No, that isn’t a revolution. But where Charlotte’s black kids once trailed the state, today they pass their reading tests at the same rate. This could be explained many ways, of course (perhaps Charlotte’s black kids have gotten less poor). But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Charlotte’s relative advance on this measure resulted from some improvement in instruction. This invites us to note another factor we should always keep in mind—the inherent problem with judging school districts by rate of improvement rather than by current performance.

Why do school districts improve? Sometimes they improve, not because they’ve discovered important new techniques, but because their past practices were just so god-awful. This point came to mind when we read the Making School Work background interviews with former Charlotte superintendent Eric Smith. What was Charlotte-Mecklenburg like when Eric Smith took control in 1996? Speaking with representatives of Making Schools Work, Smith describes astonishing practices in the schools he inherited. In this report, the PBS web site describes what Smith found when he arrived in Charlotte:

“MAKING SCHOOLS WORK” WEB SITE: Eric Smith, a business-like educator who sought objective truth through data analysis, had his team run the numbers. The data revealed the problem: despite having similar or better scores on fifth grade and PSAT ability assessments, many black students were consistently being put in basic-level classes while their white peers were consistently selected for high-level ones. Placement decisions were made on subjective recommendations.

“It was totally based on assumptions…We'd made assumptions about expectations of kids' levels, and those expectations were too low,” says Smith. “Call it racism, bias, low expectations, whatever. The impact is huge.”

Smith describes a remarkable practice—and he says “the impact [was] huge.” When he arrived, black kids were routinely placed in “basic” courses even if objective measures qualified them for higher levels of work! In part, does this explain why Charlotte’s black kids trailed the state when Smith arrived? We don’t know—but eliminating this remarkable practice surely wouldn’t define an educational “revolution.” Simple learning: Sometimes a new superintendent can improve test scores because prior practices were so god-awful. But this is mainly a condemnation of what existed previously. It doesn’t give us cause to believe that some brilliant new insight—some wide-ranging “reform”—is driving the improvement in scores. This is especially true when the improvement in test scores is rather modest, as is the case in sweet Charlotte

Have Charlotte’s black kids gained ground on the state because past practices were so god-awful? We don’t know, and neither does Hedrick Smith, the journalist in charge of Making Schools Work. But infomercial-style programs like Making Schools Work never consider such obvious possibilities. Their job is to cheerlead and make us feel good, not to provide real analysis.

And because these programs are secret infomercials, they tend to overlook god-awful practices which may persist in the districts they vouch for. Consider something Eric Smith said in his background interview for Making Schools Work. To provide some background, here’s a fuller statement of what Eric Smith says he found when he came to sweet Charlotte:

ERIC SMITH: I saw huge discrepancies in some of the inner-city, low-income, densely minority-populated areas of inner-city Charlotte versus the high-growth areas of the suburbs. Charlotte is a real mix. It has long-standing communities, sections of town that have been there for hundreds of years, and then you have high-growth areas that are new every day. And with that new growth comes new schools, bright and shiny and everything is in place, and new equipment to stock that new school. And then you have the older schools in the inner city. And so what you will find, I think, in most school districts across America was accentuated in Charlotte because of its rapid growth in the suburbs and it even underscored that difference.

But it was more than just the places that teachers work; that was almost secondary. The real issue was the differences in what was being taught and how it was being taught, and the expectations that teachers carried to the classroom for the performance of kids. That was the most startling and dramatic difference between some of the suburban portions of Charlotte and the inner city of Charlotte.

Eric Smith says he found two types of “huge discrepancy.” Inner-city schools were less well-equipped—and the expectations there were much lower. Under his direction, Charlotte-Mecklenburg began to address those discrepancies, he says, using a program called Equity-Plus—a program which is heavily pimped in Making Schools Work. But note the remarkable statement Eric Smith makes in his background interview with Hedrick Smith—a statement about a startling inequity which persists in Charlotte’s schools to this day:
HEDRICK SMITH: Put simply, does equity mean that you had to put more resources into inner-city high-poverty schools, more teaching, more materials, and so forth?

ERIC SMITH: We had to. We had to in order to achieve equity. We put a significant amount of resources into these schools, into low-income schools, that wouldn't have been there normally. We had to increase the funding level. We had to increase the staffing level. We invested in their performance.

The question is asked often about whether that means you're giving more money to the low-income schools than you would to a suburban school and isn't that inherently unfair with the suburban schools…that you're actually kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Well, we were actually engaged in federal court, so I ran some numbers on that. I found that in fact, even with the supplemental support we were giving low-income schools, we still weren't at the same rate of cost to the taxpayers. And the difference was that the leading cost in running a school is personnel. We found that the inner-city schools would churn first- and second-year teachers. They'd be in there for one or two years at the very lowest, lowest end of the pay scale, versus the suburban that would have teachers with 20, 25 years experience in the same building. And so when we looked at our total operating costs, even with the supplement—the additional teachers, the additional materials, the supplies, perhaps the summer enrichment programs, the Saturday schools, the after-school programs, all these things to bring about equity—we still found that we were not running at a higher rate of cost to the district than the cost factor at the suburban schools.

Good grief! “Even with the supplemental support we were giving low-income schools,” Smith says, “we still weren't at the same rate of cost to the taxpayers.” And why not? Because the inner-city schools had so many inexperienced teachers—so many first- and second-year teachers who were being paid low salaries! This is another remarkable “discrepancy” between inner-city and suburban schools. But during this interview, Eric Smith doesn’t say a word about trying to address this problem, in which the school district’s lowest-achieving kids were being taught by (presumably) the least-skilled teachers. Instead, we’re told that Charlotte compensated by putting in extra resources—extra resources which, in some cases, simply to bring the facilities in these older schools up to the level of modern schools in the suburbs, the ones with all that “bright and shiny” stuff. You have to read the entire interview to get the full flavor of this discussion. But Eric Smith never says a word about trying to address this basic inequity. And Hedrick Smith stares off into space while this remarkable inequity is described.

No, Hedrick Smith doesn’t say boo when Eric Smith describes this familiar inequity. In Charlotte, the lowest-achieving, neediest kids are taught by the least experienced teachers—and Hedrick Smith, the fiery advocate, doesn’t so much as roll his eyes or ask even one feeble question. But then, that’s how mainstream journalism tends to work when it assembles its “schools that work” stories. When they enter these ballyhooed school districts, our journalists display the soul of the hucksters. They pretend that amazing score gains have been achieved, even where the gains seem quite modest. And they don’t say Word One about matters like this. When mainstream scribes enter districts like this, they tend to one thought: It’s all good.

Indeed, this tendency dogs Hedrick Smith all through Making Schools Work. Persistently, he pretend that unremarkable test scores have gone through the roof, signaling a series of “small revolutions.” But not only that: Wherever he goes, he also pretends that remarkably unimpressive “reforms” are, in fact, inspiring and brilliant. Of course, when we pretend that fatuous “reforms” are actually driving “small revolutions,” we stand in the way of real research into good practice in low-income schools. But to too many mainstream journalists, gross inequities are there to be ignored—and fatuous reforms must always be praised. Every “reform” seems to strike them as brilliant. All next week, we’ll see how this works.

NEXT WEEK: Curriculum and instructional method—what works?

HOW POOR ARE CHARLOTTE-MECK’S BLACK KIDS: How poor are Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s black kids? Are they poorer than those of the state as a whole? We can’t find the info on the state’s web sites, which only seem to list poverty data for school districts as a whole.

For the record, how poor is Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s overall student population compared to that of North Carolina as a whole? Charlotte-Mecklenburg is an urban/suburban system; on the basic indicator of low income (free/reduced lunch), its student population closely mirrors the statewide population. In the 2005 end-of-grade reading tests, 46.2 percent of students statewide qualified for free or reduced lunch. For Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the figure was 47.8 percent. Again, the figures are remarkably similar.

It’s possible, of course, that Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s poverty is more concentrated among black students than is the case for the state as a whole. But again, Charlotte-Meck didn’t do especially well among low-income kids on that 2003 NAEP trial study. In reading, Charlotte finished fourth (out of ten districts) at both grade levels tested. This doesn’t make Charlotte-Meck a bad school district. It does suggests that, hype to the side, its achievements may be fairly average.