GATEKEEPERS DOWN: Specialists try to discuss public schools!


Part 3—Brown grad flunks the NAEP: Eventually, we will return to Childress and Childress, whose vast incompetence was invisible to gatekeepers at the Washington Post.

The vast incompetence displayed by the Post helps us ponder our lack of competent gatekeepers. That said, this has been a week that was when it comes to the matter of public schools.

In this morning’s New York Times, a trio of journalistic gatekeepers attempt to discuss an array of education issues. For today, let’s skip Thomas Friedman, who isn’t an education specialist. For today, we’ll also skip Gene Robinson, who offered this column in yesterday’s Washington Post.

For today, let’s start with a front-page news report by Motoko Rich, a Times education reporter.

When it comes to the public discourse about public schools, Rich is a journalistic gatekeeper. As a New York Times education reporter, she helps decide what the public will hear about this sprawling topic.

That said, how competent is Rich? Her front-page report concerns an ongoing project in which the state of Tennessee is taking control of a set of “failing schools.” These are “some of the worst schools in the state,” Rich says.

Eighty percent of these schools are in Memphis, which Rich somewhat weirdly describes as “this Mississippi River town.”

This is an important topic. How well has the state’s “turnaround” effort been going? Because the project started last fall, few data are available.

But at one point, Rich says what follows. For ourselves, we have no idea what the highlighted passage means:
RICH (4/3/13): The leadership turnover has been bumpiest at Cornerstone Prep, a nonprofit charter group that took over the prekindergarten through third grade at a public school in one of the poorest Memphis neighborhoods last fall.

No teachers remain from the previous year, and more than a quarter of the new staff was hired through the Memphis Teacher Residency, a program for young college graduates, and Teach for America.

Outside the school, signs celebrate rising scores on interim tests the students took in August and January. ''Second and 3rd grade Prepsters scored higher than 98% of the norm!'' one banner read.

Many parents say these scores have come at a cost...
Did the school post a banner bearing the quoted message? We will assume that it did. That said, we have no idea what that message means.

Rich didn’t seem to realize that this message doesn’t seem to make sense.

What does it mean to say that a group of students “scored higher than 98 percent of the norm?” We have no idea. Presumably, it means that their scores on some test were being compared to the scores achieved by some larger “norm group.”

But what does it mean if you say that your students “scored higher than 98 percent of the norm?” Does it mean that some of your students scored in the 98th percentile as compared to some norm group? Does it mean that all your students scored that high? (If so, something is surely wrong with your testing procedures.)

“Second and third grade students scored higher than 98 percent of the norm?” With its fuzzy reference to “the norm,” could that banner possibly refer to the average score achieved by the norm group? If so, that might mean that some or all of the Memphis school’s students, or perhaps its average student, scored near the middle of the pack when compared to the norm group.

Rich seems to think that the banner’s claim makes some sort of obvious sense. She seems to assume that the banner describes impressive scores, scores which have come at a cost. That said, the message Rich quotes seems to us to be incoherent. As far as we know, the words Rich quotes have no current meaning.

This may seem like a trivial point, although it actually isn’t. For a set of larger, more obvious errors, let’s examine the work of a second major gatekeeper—Dana Goldstein of Slate.

Who in the world is Dana Goldstein? We often find ourselves asking that question. For unknown reasons, Goldstein has been presented, for years, as an education specialist. This is the way she is described by the leading authority on her life and career:
Dana Goldstein

Dana Goldstein is a journalist, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and a Puffin Fellow at The Nation Institute. She is a former associate editor at The Daily Beast and in 2010 won the Spencer Fellowship in education journalism at Columbia University. Her work on politics, education, and women's issues has appeared in national publications including The American Prospect, Slate, TIME, BusinessWeek, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, The Guardian, The Nation, The Washington Post, and In These Times.

Goldstein grew up in Ossining, New York. She graduated from Brown University, where she studied European intellectual and cultural history with a focus on gender. She lived and worked in Paris during 2004.
“She lived and worked in Paris during 2004?” Why in the world would this leading authority include that fact about Goldstein’s life? Presumably, because that’s the way Goldstein has described herself. To peruse one self-portrait, click here.

Whatever! Yesterday, Goldstein tried to discuss the cheating scandal in Atlanta. Her piece at Slate was short, but it was riddled with oddness from its headline on down—and it featured a varied display of groaning professional blunders.

What follows is the second of three Q-and-As which comprise the bulk of Goldstein’s report. In this passage, Goldstein tries to discuss Atlanta’s progress on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in the past decade, when Beverly Hall was superintendent of schools.

No one claims that cheating has occurred on the NAEP, although all things are possible. That said, did Atlanta students show progress on the NAEP, even as cheating was occurring on its high-stakes statewide testing program?

Goldstein tries to discuss that question. In this passage, she epically fails, in several different ways:
GOLDSTEIN (4/2/13): Do scores on national tests show Atlanta schools improved under Hall, despite cheating on state tests?

When the scandal first made national news in 2011, Hall claimed that because Atlanta demonstrated improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal exam used only for research purposes, it proved kids made real academic gains during her tenure. That defense was echoed last night on All In With Chris Hayes by guest Pedro Noguera, a NYU educational sociologist whose work I deeply respect. But although NAEP security procedures are generally considered more stringent than those used in state and district-level testing, there are reasons to be skeptical of Atlanta’s gains on the national exam as well. Between 2002 and 2009, the demographics of Atlanta NAEP test-takers changed considerably; the number of white students taking the test doubled, and the number of Hispanic students also went up. In Atlanta, white and Hispanic children tend to score higher than black children, which led Professor Mark Musick, a former NAEP chairman, to estimate that as much as 40 percent of Atlanta’s gains could be due to changes in which students sat for the exam; former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has also said he is skeptical of the way students were selected to take the test. But even if we take Atlanta’s NAEP scores at face value, they provide limited cause for celebration. The city still shows the second-largest black-white achievement gap in the nation—only Washington, D.C., ranks lower.
Goldstein knows she must say that she deeply respects Noguera; that’s how the game is played within the club. Later, she paraphrases something Governor Perdue said two years ago. Two years later, she makes no attempt to investigate the plausibility of his suggestion.

That said, it’s hard to display more incompetence in 229 words than Goldstein does in that answer. Here's where things get very bad:

Did Atlanta show score gains on the NAEP during Dr. Hall's tenure? Incredibly, Goldstein links to a 2011 report in Politifact (a non-specialist) for what seems to be most of her information. Even worse, she let herself be confused by some of the dated information she found in that report.

Did Atlanta show progress on the NAEP? Goldstein says we can’t be sure because the percentage of white students taking the NAEP increased in Atlanta during the years in question.

Coming from an education reporter, that statement is astounding. Here’s why:

Using the NAEP Data Explorer, an analyst can determine, in a matter of minutes, the amount of progress displayed by Atlanta’s black students during the years in question. She can even determine the progress achieved by Atlanta’s low-income black kids.

Beyond that, data from the 2011 NAEP are now available. Goldstein contented herself with the data through 2009, the data she found at Politifact's two-year-old fact-check.

After reading Goldstein’s piece, we skillfully accessed the Data Explorer, then clicked a few dozen more times. Within a matter of maybe five minutes, we knew how much progress black kids, and low-income black kids, displayed in Atlanta during the years in question, in both reading and math.

Black students are the vast majority of students in Atlanta. As everyone knows except our leading education reporters, the NAEP Data Explorer lets you see how well black kids scored in Atlanta.

There is no need to worry about the changing population of white kids. You can track Atlanta's black kids all by themselves, even low-income black kids.

It's called disaggregation; Goldstein doesn’t seem to know that the NAEP lets you do it. (Why do they publish that Data Explorer?) In short, she strikes us as hugely incompetent—almost astoundingly so.

In fact, Atlanta’s black students showed strong progress on the NAEP during Dr. Hall’s tenure. This extended through the 2011 testing. The gains were strong at the fourth-grade level, very strong at the eighth.

Goldstein, an education specialist, didn’t seem to know how to access that information. Instead, she linked to a two-year-old report by Politifact, which isn’t an education specialist. While there, she got herself all tangled up in Politifact’s paraphrased account of something Musick apparently said.

Goldstein could have accessed the relevant data herself. She didn’t know how to do that. But increasingly, this seems to be the way our gatekeeper system works.

Goldstein, a Puffin Fellow, went to Brown and lived in Paris. On this basis, she is peddled to the public as an education specialist.

Her piece yesterday was an unholy mess. Slate should be embarrassed, apologetic.

Your world doesn’t work like that. Your discourse is an unholy sham, an imitation of life.

Tomorrow: Friedman and Robinson and Noguera oh my! All around, we see gatekeepers down

Concerning that black-white achievement gap: Why do Atlanta and DC have larger black-white achievement gaps than some other cities?

Goldstein seems to think that those gaps reflect a failure by their schools. We'll offer a different, more obvious guess:

As big-city school systems go, DC's white student population is unusually affluent. We suspect the same is true in the Atlanta schools.

Everyone on earth understands such facts, except our education reporters and other big gatekeeper types.


  1. ". . . it’s hard to display more incompetence in 229 words than Goldstein does in that answer."

    This kind of thing is completely unnecessary and does little to advance an important discussion.

    The All Student 2002-2011 score gain in 4th grade reading is considerably larger than the minimal gain among whites, and significantly higher than the gain among black 4th graders. The 8th grade results are similar but much less pronounced. This suggests that an increase of higher-scoring (on average) white students as a percentage of test-takers is, indeed, significantly responsible for the overall gains.

    (1) Even with disaggregation, you really cannot assess with an confidence performance gains without comparing results to the national, state and other urban district scores.

    (2) Disaggreagtion doesn't answer the possibility raised -- but, yes, not answered -- that the system is being gamed. If the increase in white students taking the test exceeds the increase in white students as a percentage of students, that shows a high likelihood of that being the case. That also means the predominantly black schools being sampled could have been gamed as well. NAEP sampling techniques are not easy to fathom.

    This is not easy stuff. I don't expect Goldstein to be an academic expert. She's a reporter who mostly talks to people who are supposed to be experts. What else is new?

    1. So, you are completely agreeing with Bob. Namely, "Was that so hard?"

  2. Aren't reporters supposed to develop an expertise on whatever beat they write about? At the very least she should know how to read the NAEP data, no? She should know better than to use Politifact as a primary source?

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