Scriptwatch: Now they’ve even got Merrow!


With respect to the public schools, it’s novels all the way down: According to the leading authority on his life, John Merrow “is a broadcast journalist who has reported on education issues for more than three decades. He serves as the education correspondent for the PBS NewsHour program.”

We’ve seen Merrow do sober work on the NewsHour. That’s why we were disappointed by this recent post on his blog.

Deeply disappointed. Gack!

Merrow critiques a recent piece in which John Buntin compared and contrasted Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch. We were amazed and disappointed by this passage:
MERROW (1/21/14): While “Rhee vs. Ravitch” is a compelling headline and a sexy feature, it’s a roadblock to understanding American education. Ravitch is a passionate advocate who argues from facts. In contrast, Rhee’s policies were tried, and they failed. By almost every conceivable measure, the DC schools are no better than before her tenure. In key areas of student attendance, graduation rates, and principal and teacher turnover, they are worse. Central offices in abutting districts have shrunk, but DCPS’ has grown considerably. Even DC’s most recent gains on NAEP, which began 12-15 years BEFORE Rhee’s tenure, seem to have been fueled by an influx of better-educated families (gentrification) and quality pre-school. Here’s a summary:
At that point, Merrow links to this post from last year.

Merrow seems extremely sober and competent. For that reason, we were amazed by the highlighted passage.

Our main point of amazement is the following statement about Rhee: “By almost every conceivable measure, the DC schools are no better than before her tenure.”

It’s odd, and depressing, to read that assessment even after D.C.’s recent gains in NAEP scores. It’s true that D.C. has been gaining on the NAEP since well before Rhee’s arrival. But Merrow’s subsequent comments seem to reflect the kind of tribal true belief which makes the modern public discourse so unintelligent and depressing.

D.C. test scores are hard to assess because of the rapid growth in charter schools, and because of the gentrification to which Merrow refers. That said, here are Grade 8 math scores for low-income black kids in D.C.—for low-income black kids who don’t attend charter schools:
Average NAEP scores, Grade 8 math
Low-income black students, non-charter schools

2013: 249
2007: 235
On its face, that represents a very substantial score gain. It occurred despite the increase in charter enrollment, which may be draining more ambitious kids away from the non-charter schools.

Because that gain was recorded by low-income black kids, it presumably isn’t the result of gentrification. That said, Merrow gives himself one last route of escape in the passage we’ve posted:

Such score gains must be the result of quality pre-school! Michelle Rhee didn’t do that!

We’re fairly sure that we were Rhee’s very first D.C. critics. As soon as she arrived in D.C., we challenged the ridiculous claims she was making about her own brilliant teaching career.

We can’t explain the recent score gains in the D.C. schools. We don’t assert that they were (or weren’t) caused by the things Rhee did. We can’t guarantee that last year’s high scores won’t turn out to be statistical flukes.

But Merrow’s claim about D.C. schools seems absurd on its face. Why would someone want to assert that D.C. schools “are no better by almost every conceivable measure” when they plainly seem to better by the most basic measure we use?

And by the way: When Merrow links to that earlier post, he links to a post where he made this claim:

“Six years after Michelle Rhee rode into town, the public schools seem to be worse off by almost every conceivable measure” (our italics). Since Merrow has now abandoned that claim, why does he link Buntin to it?

Merrow’s statement about Ravitch seems highly fanciful too. Without any question, Ravitch is “a passionate advocate.” She touches on many important topics in her new book, Reign of Error.

That said, Ravitch’s use of facts tends to be very willful. A sober reporter from PBS should have seen that by now.

We live in highly tribal times. Almost everything is recited from script. Merrow’s screed is disappointing and strange.

Truly, within our current discourse, it’s novels all the way down.


  1. It might be a lot more complicated to try to explain how we know that Rhee's reforms have been ineffective. Maybe too difficult and confusing for readers to follow?

  2. The reaction of adoring readers to this post proves Somerby is right about his readers. If only Maddow would follow suit with her viewers and care about test scores for black kids.