The New York Times covers the schools: How poorly does the New York Times report on public schools?
Put another way, can you believe a thing you read in the hapless, Hamptons-based newspaper?
We're going to say the answers are these—very poorly, and no. Consider the lengthy report in today's editions about the decline of music programs in the city's high schools as large, comprehensive high schools have been replaced by large numbers of much smaller specialty high schools.
Fewer marching bands and orchestras! This is the focus of today's report on Gotham's schools.
The report is more than 1800 words long. We await the day when the paper spends any time examining the way reading and math are taught to first- and second-graders.
That said, can you believe anything you read in the Times, no matter how straightforward and basic? We'd have to say the answer is no. The simplest intellectual standards are notable by their absence. Consider this absurd presentation, which appears fairly early in today's report:
BLOCH AND TAYLOR (5/14/18): The new schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, himself a mariachi musician, has said that he plans to focus on the arts, which can especially benefit low-income or socioeconomically disadvantaged students, according to the National Endowment of the Arts. A 2012 analysis of longitudinal studies found that eighth graders who had been involved in the arts had higher test scores in science and writing than their counterparts, while high school students who earned arts credits had higher overall G.P.A.s and were far more likely to graduate and attend college.Do high school music programs "especially benefit low-income or socioeconomically disadvantaged students?" We have no idea, but it's a popular thing to say. We do know that the authors' citation of that 2012 study constitutes a near-perfect example of correlation apparently being offered as causation.
Who offers journalism that bad except the New York Times?
Right at the start of the report, another possible groaner appeared. In the passage shown below, the reporters refer to the now defunct Columbus High School in the Bronx, a large high school which was closed in 2014.
The authors make an upbeat claim which they call "inarguable." Warning lights were flashing brightly. We decided to check the claim out:
BLOCH AND TAYLOR: Between 2002 and 2013, New York City closed 69 high schools, most of them large schools with thousands of students, and in their place opened new, smaller schools. Academically, these new schools inarguably serve students better. In 2009, the year before the city began closing Columbus, the school had a graduation rate of 37 percent. In 2017, the five small schools that occupy its former campus had a cumulative graduation rate of 81 percent.As experienced readers of the Times (and of the Washington Post), we knew a potential howler when we saw it.
Wow! Columbus High only graduated 37 percent of its seniors in 2009! The smaller schools which now occupy its building are graduating 81 percent!
We wondered: is it possible that Columbus was an "open admission" school full of struggling students? By way of contrast, is it possible that the five smaller schools are special interest, "admission" schools designed for a different class of students?
We googled a bit, and there it was, over and over and over again. Among reports in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, Education Week and WNYC online, this passage from Crain's New York Business may have boiled the basic history down best:
TRAGER (10/13/13): In Columbus' case, the beginning of the end came in 2003. It began with the spinoff of a college-prep program, one of the school's two rigorous academic initiatives, into a small public high school called Pelham Preparatory Academy, which remained in Columbus' building. A second new high school, called the Bronx High School for the Visual Arts, also opened in the building that year, providing another specialized option for students zoned for Columbus.In short, honors programs within Columbus High were turned into new, smaller specialty high schools operating within the Columbus building. This meant that, as a book-keeping matter, Columbus was losing its honors students. They were being transferred to the new admissions-based schools which now boast the better graduation rates.
The following year, a third institution opened within Columbus, when another highly regarded program spun off as the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science. In just their first year, Pelham Preparatory and Collegiate Institute each siphoned off about 100 honor students from Columbus.
Here's the way Sharon Otterman described the same general process in the newsppaer known as the New York Times. Otterman's report appeared in 2010:
OTTERMAN (1/25/10): From the classrooms of Columbus, the last seven years have felt like forging ahead though a snowstorm, said Karen Sherwood, an English teacher since 1993. In 2003, for example, its honors programs were peeled off and became separate small schools in its large brick building on Astor Avenue in the Pelham Parkway neighborhood. Three other small schools moved in. (One is now on the city’s closing list for poor performance.) The result was severe overcrowding for Columbus’s 3,400 students, who had classes on the auditorium stage and attended in split shifts between 7 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.For better or worse, the honors students were siphoned off into the new, smaller high schools. Columbus itself was left with kids expelled from charter schools, mixed with other kids live and direct from juvie.
As the Department of Education sent fewer students to Columbus, enrollment began to decline, but so did the academic level of its entering student body. By 2005, only 6 percent of the entering eighth graders were reading at grade level, and the proportion of special education students rose to nearly a quarter. Another reorganization led the school to create small clusters with names like “Equality” and “Justice,” and to form work-study and other structured programs that give students on the verge of dropping out a second chance.
The Columbus student body is in constant flux. Because the school has unscreened admissions, it takes children expelled from charter schools, released from juvenile detention, and others on a near-daily basis: last year, 359 of its 1,400 students arrived between October and June. Even after the city proposed the school’s closing in December, it received 27 more students. Lisa Fuentes, the Columbus principal since 2002, said she believed that her school was succeeding, considering its challenges. Her feeling is that city wants the space her school occupies, for small schools and charters.
This general process has been described in a wide array on publications. Today, two reporters for the Times offer you a silly account in which you're asked to marvel at the "inarguable" way the smaller schools are doing better than the bigger school did, back when the bigger school had been left with only these challenging students.
Also, high school students who earn arts credits have higher overall G.P.A.s! We know that because of a study! Bring back the marching bands!
It's very hard for people to grasp how bad the work is at the Times. That said, the work at the Times is very poor. Anthropologically speaking, it's almost impossibly bad—a mixture of sheer incompetence and apparent contempt for its readers.
On the bright side, it will soon be Thursday morning. Let's head out for the Hamptons for a weekend with Muffie and Biff!
A former teacher's account: Here's the way a former Columbus High teacher described the slow decline for Education Week. Her report appeared shortly after Columbus High formally closed:
GARON (7/8/14): Columbus...eventually became the de-facto "dumping ground" for all types of late enrolling students—kids missing credits, transferring due to disciplinary issues at other schools, or newly arriving in the United States. Understandably, these students came with a lot of difficulties that hindered their credit accumulation and passing of state tests, thus making the graduation rates further sink. The trend of placing students like these in "failing" schools isn't unique to Columbus; a study by the Annenberg Group showed that in fact, overwhelmingly, these late-enrollers are placed almost exclusively in failing schools, perpetuating the intractably low graduation rates, and thus giving Department of Education higher-ups seemingly air-tight reasons to close down these schools for low performance.The honors students got siphoned out. These challenging students were left behind. The Times served us cotton candy today, telling us how much better the smaller specialty schools are now doing, graduation-wise.
And in fact, this is what happened at Christopher Columbus High School, which closed its doors at the end of June. Several small schools exist on what is now the Columbus Campus, jockeying for resources and bickering over classroom space. But "Big Columbus" is no more.
This is the way of the New York Times, a foppish, upper-class pseudo-paper which manifestly doesn't know and rarely seems to care.