Front page, New York Times: How do our major newspapers report about low-income schools?
Consider this 1500-word, front-page report in today's New York Times. The report was written by David Chen. On line, the headline says this:
"After More Than 20 Years, Newark to Regain Control of Its Schools"
Some twenty-two years after a takeover by the state, the city of Newark will soon return to running its own public schools. At several points, Chen asserts that Newark's schools have improved over that time, and especially so in recent years. This is his initial statement of this basic theme:
CHEN (9/13/17): Newark's schools have improved—the high school graduation rate is now 77 percent versus 54 percent in 1995; on state tests, the district now ranks in the top quarter of comparable urban districts; low-performing schools were closed while charter schools expanded. The district is retaining more of its best teachers, and fewer of its least effective ones."On state tests, the district now ranks in the top quarter of comparable urban districts?" If you're like us, ytou have two questions:
How many "comparable urban districts" could there be in the state of New Jersey? Also this:
How do we know that those current test scores are real?
We ask that second question for a blindingly obvious reason. As everyone knows, including Chen, several of the nation's urban districts have been embroiled in massive cheating scandals in recent years. We know Chen knows this because he refers to it at one point in his report:
CHEN: When New Jersey took over the schools, it was thought of as an emergency intervention...[T]est scores and other metrics barely budged for years. Newark's first state-appointed superintendent, Beverly Hall, a former New York City education official, clashed with parents and educators, and left the district in 1999 with a staggering deficit amid questions of fiscal mismanagement. Later, as superintendent of the Atlanta schools, she was indicted in a widespread cheating scandal, but died in 2015 awaiting trial.According to Chen, "test scores barely budged for years" after the state takeover. In passing, he notes the fact that a former Newark superintendent, Beverly Hall, was in the middle of the massice cheating scandal which took place in Atlanta in recent years.
It isn't that Chen hasn't heard about the recent, massive cheating scandals which have afflicted urban systems trying to drive up their test scores. It's just that he doesn't apply this knowledge to the matter at hand.
How do we know that Newark's improved scores haven't resulted from cheating? And by the way, how large are the score gains in Newark?
Neither question ever gets answered in this lengthy report. Concerning the current state of Newark's test scores, the best we get is this:
CHEN: [In 2016], a panel appointed by Mr. Christie and Mr. Baraka reported that while on the annual statewide tests just 22 percent of Newark students were proficient in English, and 17 percent passed in math, they were well ahead of students in comparable urban districts, and showed improvement (on the latest tests, 31 percent of students passed the English portion of the test, while 23 percent were proficient in math).Once again, we see that reference to "comparable urban districts." A question:
How far ahead of comparable districts could Newark possibly have been last year if only 17 percent of its students were passing the statewide math test? And again, we return to our other question:
If those scores are getting better, how do we know that cheating isn't involved? How do we know that those passing rates, low as they seem to be, are actually on the level?
Answer: Absent an inquiry into Newark's test security measures, we can't know any such thing! But Chen, like other major journalists, prefers to pretend that those cheating scandals happened back then and other there, but they couldn't be happening here, right now.
Chen is hardly alone in this imagine-no-evil posture. In its own back-to-school pseudo-reporting this year, the Washington Post has maintained its standard "we never heard about cheating" posture, even though one of the major cheating scandals occurred right there in DC.
First, the editorial board imagined-no-evil in an upbeat editorial about DC's improved test scores. Then, Moriah Balingit wrote this puzzling news report in which she detailed the new chancellor's ambitious goals for even better test scores in DC.
Unfortunately, ambitious goals have been the fuel which drove the nation's cheating scandals. But at the Washington Post, scribes are permitted to remember nothing about what happened in DC only a few years ago.
The Post and the Times just roll along, imagining no evil. One possible explanation for this know-nothing conduct is obvious:
Imaginably, these newspapers are mainly interested in test scores as a point of civic pride. Imaginably, these newspapers care more about the PR than about the actual students attending those actual schools.
Could a newspaper like the Times really be so less-than-caring? Well yes, it actually could! One last note on today's report:
David Chen is an experienced reporter. He graduated from Yale in 1988. He came to the Times in 1995; he's been there ever since.
That said, he doesn't seem to be an experienced public schools reporter. According to Nexis, this is his first report on K-12 public school issues in the past year. We've long been amazed at the way major newspapers treat public schools as a catch-as-catch-can beat. An experienced reporter might wonder about the topics we've raised, where a fully capable generalist might not.
How do Newark's scores compare to those of the state as a whole? We tried to scope that out this morning, but we had no success.
The information is probably out there somewhere. But Chen provides no usable links, and it's been our impression, in recent years, that the states are deliberately making it harder and harder to access such information.
Also this: Newark doesn't participate in the Trial Urban District Assessment program within the NAEP. For that reason, Newark doesn't produce test scores from that generally circumspect testing program.
This makes it impossible to compare Newark's progress to that of major American cities (Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago et al.). Why doesn't Newark participate? The Times will get around to asking that question in the year 3015.
We wonder how Newark's good, decent, deserving kids are actually doing. At the New York Times, in the wider liberal world, does anyone actually care?