Do the editors know or care: Here’s the good news:
On Sunday morning, the Washington Post published a full editorial about the state of the public schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Prince George’s is one of the nation’s largest public school districts. It serves a majority black student population in a large suburban county outside DC.
In theory, it’s good that the editors would pay attention to the Prince George’s schools. But do the editors actually know what’s happening in that school system?
We're puzzled by the editors' logic. This is the way they started:
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (1/20/13): The public schools in Prince George’s County are in trouble. Despite gains in test scores, student performance continues to lag that of other local, suburban school systems. About 1,000 students per year, on average, have been leaving, some because of shifting demographics, others because of the schools’ poor reputation. That has shrunk the system by more than 5 percent since 2006 (to about 125,000 students), even as the county’s population has grown. Meanwhile, the numbers of students from low-income and immigrant households are climbing.We’re not sure we understand that. In the first paragraph, the editors say the district’s test scores are rising, even as enrollment grows among low-income and immigrant students.
Since he took office two years ago, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has made the schools a top priority, in line with the wishes of many county residents. He’s increased the school budget even as student enrollment has declined and formed an education commission to generate ideas for innovation. Those are sensible steps.
Yet Mr. Baker has no direct authority and little leverage over the schools. Two highly regarded school superintendents have left in the past four years and now hold the top jobs in the Los Angeles and Philadelphia school systems. Clearly something is wrong.
But so what? By the third paragraph, the editors are saying this: “Clearly something is wrong.”
We’ll assume that many things are “wrong,” or imperfect, in this county’s schools. It may be that the Prince George's schools are being run quite poorly.
But in reading this editorial, we find no sign—none at all—that the editors have ever set foot inside these schools. We find no sign that they actually know how well these schools are performing.
Given the way the real world works, are we really supposed to be shocked when superintendents leave Prince George’s to head the Los Angeles and Philadelphia systems? In the real world, such moves count as promotions. Don’t these moves reinforce the point the editors make—Prince George’s has had a pair of highly regarded superintendents?
But on that basis, the editors say that “clearly,” something is wrong. The editors also base their assessment on the fact that enrollment has declined, by an unstated amount.
As the Post continues, it bases its judgment on one more fact—only four of the school board’s nine members hold college degrees. That may seem strange for a large school system, but it tells us nothing about the central question with which the Post started: How much are students in Prince George’s learning? Given reasonable expectations, how well are these schools performing?
So you’ll know, those “other local suburban school systems” are serving more affluent populations. How well is Prince George’s doing with its less affluent population? We see no sign in this editorial that the editors know—or that they’ve even tried to figure that out.
Reading this piece, we thought of the way these same editors have persistently peddled the wonders of Michelle Rhee, former head of the DC schools. For ourselves, we never saw any sign that Rhee had any ideas about how to improve instruction for low-income students. But the editors never seemed to notice. They were willing to base their views on conventional wisdom and external indicators, just as they’re doing here.
This editorial strikes us as lazy work. But when our big newspapers limn low-income schools, the work tends to be like that.