How well does the Washington Post explain schools?

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 14, 2013

Emma Brown explores passing rates: Monday morning, the New York Times displayed its vast incompetence concerning the public schools.

In “an analysis by the New York Times,” the great newspaper floundered and failed in extremely basic ways. Click here, then avert your gaze.

This called to mind a similar type of report in Sunday’s Washington Post. Education reporter Emma Brown focused on one DC school which has shown large gains in passing rates, and on a second DC school whose passing rates have collapsed.

As she started, Brown profiled the good news from Tubman Elementary. The Post's headline is included:
BROWN (8/11/13): Strong, sustained leadership key to success at D.C.’s Tubman Elementary

The District’s Tubman Elementary was a typical inner-city school. For years it struggled with uneven teaching, unruly behavior, and more than two-thirds of its students lacked proficiency in math and reading.

Then Tubman got a new principal, Harry Hughes, who in 2008 introduced a passel of changes just as then-Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was making national headlines for her efforts to overhaul D.C. public schools. He split older students into single-sex classes, expected teachers to arrive on time and work together and opened the building on weekends to volunteers who helped struggling readers.

The Columbia Heights school—where the vast majority of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch—has made consistent gains in the past five years, more than doubling its scores on math and reading tests. Four out of five students are now proficient in math and 63 percent are proficient in reading, far exceeding the citywide average.

It’s a success story that exemplifies the school system’s strides, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said last month, announcing a four-percentage-point gain on the city’s standardized tests—the largest average increase since 2008.
Brown describes a major gain in passing rates at Tubman. We have no reason to doubt the claim that Tubman’s new principal, Harry Hughes, improved the way the school was functioning, starting in 2008.

We assume Hughes did an astounding job. At this site, people like Hughes get big major respect.

That said, Brown’s piece assumes that those gains are real right from its headline on down. We’ll note two major roads not taken:

Despite DC’s recent cheating scandals, Brown never wonders if any part of those gains might reflect any mishandling of testing procedures. Nor does she ask if passing rates might have risen in the District this year because the tests may have gotten easier, by accident or by design.

These are very basic questions. Each question gets ignored as we’re told about “a success story that exemplifies the school system’s strides.”

In the middle of her report, Brown cites the collapsing passing rates at a second school. She plainly suggests that the school’s previous high passing rates may have resulted from cheating. That said, this unpleasant topic is briefly mentioned, just once, in an 1800-word, 31-paragraph report.

Whatever! We were struck by Brown’s eventual, detailed explanation of the gains at Tubman. According to Brown, Principal Hughes instituted these changes:
BROWN: Hughes, a one-time D.C. teacher, arrived at the school in 2006 as assistant principal and was named to the top job two years later. During his tenure, teachers and parents say, he has been an architect of school culture and instruction.

Hughes recalls that in his first speech to his staff, he told them that the school—with about one-third of students proficient in reading and math—was failing. "There was no way that you would want to send your child here," he said. He promised that things would change.

First, he mandated that teachers come to work on time, which meant 45 minutes before the morning bell. Too many teachers were tardy, he said, and they needed that time to plan and solve problems.

Hughes redesigned the daily schedule to give teachers time to work together. He hired instructional coaches to help teachers parse test data to identify individual students' strengths and weaknesses and then use that data to design lessons that could meet those varying needs. And he made himself visible, popping into classrooms frequently and greeting children by name in the hallway.

Not all of the staff loved the changes, and some left. Hughes also took advantage of Rhee's controversial 2009 layoffs to shed four staff members he deemed "poisonous," including a custodian and a teacher whose students, Hughes said, spent an inordinate amount of time coloring and doing worksheets.

"The RIF [Reduction in Force] in 2009 is what I call addition by subtraction," Hughes said. Since then, two Tubman teachers lost their jobs for poor ratings on annual job evaluations, he said.
We applaud Hughes for telling the teachers that their school was no darn good. The one thing we always liked and admired about Michelle Rhee was her persistent statement that current rates of achievement simply aren’t good enough for our deserving low-income kids.

That said, it’s embarrassing to read that a school showed massive improvement because its teachers were told to arrive on time. Most of all, we were struck by that passage about parsing test data.

According to Brown, Hughes hired people “to help teachers parse test data to identify individual students' strengths and weaknesses and then use that data to design lessons that could meet those varying needs.”

We often read accounts like that. We never quite know what they mean.

Were Tubman’s teachers “parsing data” from DC’s annual system-wide tests? It’s hard to imagine that any such tests can be used for such a detailed purpose, given the limited number of items which will appear on any such tests.

One more act by Hughes is described in that passage. According to Brown’s somewhat murky prose, Hughes fired anywhere from two to five teachers during his tenure, which has now ended. (Hughes got a promotion within the DC system.)

How many teachers were in the school overall? How much of the improvement in the school’s overall passing rates might be concentrated in the two to five classrooms which were freed from the teachers Hughes fired? One would assume that such data exist. But they don’t exist here.

The New York Times failed horrendously in Monday’s report. In its analysis of Cincinnati’s schools, the great newspaper showed once again that it has zero technical skills, no darn skills at all.

The Post continues to cheerlead “reform” in the DC schools. We’d love to see the paper try a bit harder to explain improved passing rates in schools like Tubman.

Beautiful kids attend such schools. To borrow from what Rhee used to say, this level of reporting isn’t good enough, given the needs of the beautiful kids Hughes used to greet in the halls.

Note to puzzled readers: You will never hear such topics discussed on The One True Liberal Channel. Despite their endless race-based faking, Rachel, Lawrence, Chris and Chris don’t care about urban kids.

No fact could be more plain or could be disguised with more zeal.

17 comments:

  1. Just asking. Is the NYT website down?
    Or is it subscription only?

    http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/york-times-website-19958862

    Never mind!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Another road she doesn't go down is the crazy amount of gentrification going on in Columbia Heights. I'm sure that accounts for at least some of the gains.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm not a fan of MSNBC at all, but I thought Chris Hayes did a very nice job with a John Merrow interview a few months ago. I never watch MSNBC; it was linked in on Twitter.

    In addition to your observations, I wanted to add this priceless gem, here:

    "There’s no singular clear reason for the backslide [in test scores], Henderson said, adding that officials will need to dig into the numbers more deeply to understand what they mean."

    Really? Not one possible singular clear reason why scores suddenly drop?

    Also amusing, assuming the score increases are real, is that they are caused, Henderson says, by sustained leadership. So what does she do? Promote the guy, thus ending the sustained leadership.

    While it may be possible that the teachers weren't working the normal hours a day, it's a bit off to say that the teachers weren't "on time". More accurate to say they weren't "on contract". So my contract says, I think, that I have to be in by 7:30. But I stay many days until 6 or later, so I often get to work by 7:45. She writes it up in such a way to make it sound as if the teachers were habitually showing up late to school, after the bell rang. There's nothing he couldn't tell them to do in the 45 minutes before school that he couldn't tell them to do after just as easily.

    I suspect the "instructional coaches" are either teaching the teachers how to teach to the test--or teaching them how to cheat in some way.

    But if the school is, as reported, 95% African American and Hispanic, and 80% of them are proficient in math and 63% in reading, then one of two things is almost certainly true: the proficiency cut scores have been dropped or the school's cheating.

    "The one thing we always liked and admired about Michelle Rhee was her persistent statement that current rates of achievement simply aren’t good enough for our deserving low-income kids."

    What about the undeserving kids?

    More seriously, it's simply impossible to say that a school could be doing better or worse unless you know the cognitive abilities of the kids at the school. So unless there's evidence that the kids are of average intelligence (highly unlikely), there's really no reason to believe that the schools are failing to educate.

    By the way, how can a custodian create a "poisonous" atmosphere in such a way that doesn't involve criminal behavior?

    ReplyDelete
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