24 September 1999
Our current howler: Critique the children well
Synopsis: When 60 Minutes reported on a middle school program, it recycled a tired old tale. (More to come.)
Commentary by Mike Wallace
60 Minutes, CBS, 9/19/99
Back to Basics in the Bronx
David Grann, The New Republic, 10/4/99
Prosecutor Says Indictment of Austin Schools Will Help Deter Test Tampering
Barbara Whitaker, The New York Times, 4/8/99
All praise to David Levin and Michael Feinberg, founders of
a pair of unusual middle schoolsin Houston and the Bronxknown
as KIPP schools ("Knowledge Is Power Program"). If their
schools even dimly resemble the portrait drawn in last Sunday's
60 Minutes, then Levin and Feinbergboth 30 years oldare
powerfully serving the nation. After spending two years in public
schools as members of the Teach for America program, the gentlemen
started their urban academies to bring a more rigorous education
to inner city neighborhoods. According to both 60 Minutes
and a profile in the current New Republic, things have
gone well for the "KIPPsters" (their term):
DAVID GRANN: Set in one of [New York's] worst neighborhoods,
and in the same building as I.S. 151, the Knowledge Is Power Program
has become an educational oasis, a public school that is defiantly
and mysteriously working.
Children deserve to go to schools that are working.
We hope the KIPP kids are being brilliantly served.
But in its report on the KIPP program, 60 Minutes recited
a tired old story, told and retold by American journalists since
the early 1960s. At that time, mainstream society finally began
to care about the education of minority childrenand there began
a stream of feel-good stories suggesting that all will be right
with urban schools if we can just get urban teachers to care.
Several widely-read books, including Jonathan Kozol's brilliant
Death at an Early Age, suggested that urban kids lag behind
at school principally due to their teachers' disinterest and racism;
and there began an intermittent stream of newspaper stories in
which journalists profiled high-scoring urban schools, showing
readers what could be achieved if urban teachers would just make
a little effort. The stories continue to appear in local papers
to this day.
60 Minutes' feel-good profile was straight from that
template. The segment opened with a remarkable statement by its
host, Mike Wallace:
WALLACE: Today we're going to show you something that apparently
does work...Whether in Houston or the South Bronx, KIPP is
proving that with hard work and the right kind of discipline,
children from poor minority neighborhoods can perform every bit
as well as the most privileged middle school students across America.
Given the drop-out rates and academic performance of urban
school systems in the past thirty years, such "proof"
would be revolutionary. Unfortunately, 60 Minutes
makes no effort whatever to show that its statement is true. There
is no attempt to describe the measured achievement of the KIPP
students, or to compare that achievement with suburban norms.
There is, however, plenty of boilerplate, straight from the script
for these stories:
WALLACE: The students at KIPP are predominantly black and Hispanic,
and almost all of them come from poor familiesthe kind of kids
who somehow have never been expected to succeed at school.
One never sees a report like this without hearing the
standard explanation for urban school failurethe alleged lazy
indifference of urban teachers, who don't expect enough from the
David Grann, reviewing KIPP in the New Republic, points
to a few possible problems with Wallace's thesis. First this:
GRANN: [D]oubters say that the school is somehow "skimming"getting
the best students. There is some truth in this. Because parents
choose to send their kids to KIPP and sign a contract stating
that they agree to the rigorous hours, the students are more likely
to come from families with at least a vague commitment to education.
But the commitment isn't really that vague. KIPPsters attend
school ten hours a day, six days a week, including a month of
summer study. They put in roughly 70% more time in class than
typical public school students. To their credit, students and
parents who commit to such a program are making a massive commitment
to school. Without careful study, it would be hard to say whether
results achieved with this group of kids could be achieved with
other kids who are less committed.
Grann alludes to a second matterone that is almost never discussed
in reports on high-scoring urban schools:
GRANN: [T]he Bronx school, as well as its Houston counterpart,
has produced such high success rates that other educators have
suspected both schoolsdespite having absolutely no evidenceof
somehow manipulating their statistics.
Grann makes only a cursory effort to describe KIPP's achievement
data. And to state the obvious, we at THE HOWLER have no familiarity
with the way the school's testing has been conducted. But it is
worth pointing out what is never mentioned in feel-good reports
on high-testing urban schoolsdocumented cases of cheating on
test scores have been widespread in American education over the
past thirty years, since increasing pressure has been put on test
scores to measure teacher/principal performance. Teachers cheat;
principals cheat; cheating occurs on the school system level.
Teachers have cheated in every imaginable manner; indeed, for
a fee, test companies will electronically scan answer sheets for
unusual erasure patterns. Reason? Because there have been many
documented cases in which teachers systematically erase wrong
answers from answer sheets, replacing them with correct answers!
This past April, an article in the New York Times described indictments
of school personnel in Austin for deliberately removing groups
of low-achieving students from a school's assessment report. The
story reported further:
WHITAKER: In the Houston Independent School District a teacher
was fired after being accused of using an answer key to correct
student forms, and two principals were reprimanded for not making
the tests more secure. In the neighboring Fort Bend School District,
a principal and teacher resigned in the midst of a test-tampering
How widespread have the high-jinks become? In 1987, education
activist John Jacob Cannell published a study demonstrating a
comical factthat all fifty states were reporting test scores
showing their students were above the national norm. This was
quickly dubbed the "Lake Wobegon Effect," in honor of
Garrison Keillor's mythical town where "all the children
were above average," and a subsequent 1989 report was devoted
to the topic of "How Public Educators Cheat on Standardized
Achievement Tests." Cannell enjoyed his fifteen minutes of
fame, appearing all over the networks and in major news magazines,
but the notion that there may be an endemic problem with test
score fraud quickly disappeared from public school reporting.
It is simply too enjoyable for local journalists to offer feel-good
reports about high-scoring schoolsnever bothering to make any
effort to examine the school's testing procedures.
We repeat: we have absolutely no reason to think that the KIPP
schools have mishandled their testing. We thought the 60 Minutes
footage of the KIPP schools at work was absolutely inspiring.
Less inspiring was the lazy, predictable reporting that 60
Minutes did on KIPP. The program blended feel-good imagery
with lazy analysis, to offer a tired, stale old report. What happens
to urban kids is crucially important; reporters owe them rigorous
study. The 60 Minutes report was lazy and shopworn, and
avoided the simplest critical thinking. We were told that the
KIPP kids work hard on their basics. Why can't Mike Wallace do
More to come: Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts never
tire of hearing about our own days in the classroom, teaching
fifth graders in the Baltimore City Schools from 1969 through
1982. And they beg us to read them our old Baltimore Sun pieces
about urban curriculum problemsand testing misconduct. Watching
Wallace's report this week, we finally realized that public school
issues will be widely covered in the next year. Therefore, construction
now is underway on a brand new wing of DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters,
which will be devoted to study of public education reporting.
For future reports from this state-of-the-art complex, please
keep an eye on this space.
All praise to Levin and Feinberg: We thought the 60
Minutes footage of Levin, Feinberg, and other KIPP teachers
was nothing short of inspiring. The pride of the parent interviewed
by Wallace was plain for all to see. (Her son, who was plainly
not a nerd, had learned that "it's not a shame to
be a nerd," she explained. Good for him.) We have no doubt
that the KIPP schools' staffs are working hard to serve their
students. But urban students would also be served by careful,
meticulous, dedicated reporting. It's time to drop the feel-good
tales, told not to instruct, but to please.