TEACH THE JOURNALISTS WELL: Real teachers and children inside our real schools!

FRIDAY, MARCH 28, 2014

Part 4—Unknown to our ed reporters: How well do our education reporters understand our American schools?

To us, it often seems that they don’t understand our schools well.

We see this when they fly to Finland to repeat standard stories about Finland’s greatness, failing to see the way that nation’s challenges fail to mirror our own.

We see this when they recite the standard story about our alleged decline—when they refuse to report the way our NAEP scores have been rising.

We see this when the Washington Post doesn’t seem to know how to access the District’s NAEP scores. We see this when the Post profiles and praises a local school whose reading scores turn out to be second worst in the state of Virginia.

We saw this when our education reporters (and our “educational experts”) were caught by surprise all through the last decade’s cheating scandals. We see this when reporters fall back on paradigms from the civil rights era, avoiding inquiry into the needs and the experiences of actual low-income kids.

This Wednesday, we thought the New York Times’ Motoko Rich did one of the finest education reports we’ve ever seen in that newspaper. Sadly, the report stood out because so much work in the New York Times is technically incompetent and deeply uninformed.

We feel sorry for the nation’s black kids when we see the ways their lives get ignored and discarded by education reporters. Today, let’s recall a report we thought was quite uninformed.

As we do, let’s consider a question: How the heck is the Common Core really supposed to work?

We start with a workmanlike news report by the New York Times’ Vivian Yee, a bright young reporter with little background in education reporting.

Yee’s 1600-word report appeared on the Times’ front page. It concerned so-called “ability grouping.”

We were surprised by Yee’s report. It was largely based on a new analysis by Tom Loveless, one of the nation’s legitimate educational experts.

According to Yee, “ability grouping” is making a comeback in our public schools. We were surprised to learn that the practice had ever gone away.

This was Yee’s nugget:
YEE (6/10/13): [A]bility grouping has re-emerged in classrooms all over the country...

A new analysis of data collected by the government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that of the fourth-grade teachers surveyed, 71 percent said they had grouped students by reading ability in 2009, up from 28 percent in 1998. The analysis, by Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that in math, 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996.

“These practices were essentially stigmatized,” said Mr. Loveless, who first noted the returning trend in a March report, and who has studied the grouping debate. “It’s kind of gone underground, it’s become less controversial.”
Why does “ability grouping” occur in public school classrooms? In the following passage, Yee quotes a New Hampshire public school teacher.

The teacher explains why she splits her fourth-grade class into groups:
YEE: Teachers and principals who use grouping say that the practice has become indispensable, helping them cope with widely varying levels of ability and achievement.

When Jill Sears began teaching elementary school in New Hampshire 17 years ago, the second graders in her class showed up on the first day with a bewildering mix of strengths and weaknesses. Some children coasted through math worksheets in a few minutes, she said; others struggled to finish half a page. The swifter students, bored, would make mischief, while the slowest would become frustrated, give up and act out.

“My instruction aimed at the middle of my class, and was leaving out approximately two-thirds of my learners,” said Ms. Sears, a fourth-grade teacher at Woodman Park Elementary in Dover, N.H. “I didn’t like those odds.”

So she completely reorganized her classroom. About a decade ago, instead of teaching all her students as one group, she began ability grouping, teaching all groups the same material but tailoring activities and assignments to each group.

“I just knew that for me to have any sanity at the end of the day, I could just make these changes,” she said.
In our view, these kids were being grouped by achievement, not necessarily by ability. That said, we’ll use the term of art, “ability grouping,” from this moment on.

Sears was describing a fact of life—fourth-graders aren’t all alike! To cite one specific manifestation, fourth-graders aren’t all working on traditional “fourth-grade level.”

That is especially true in this country. Unless you’re determined to be obtuse and cruel, this is the reason why:

As compared to unicultural nations like Finland and Korea, we have an unusually diverse student population.

We have a lot of immigrant kids who may not speak English and may come from low-literacy backgrounds. (Rich described one such child in Wednesday’s superb report.)

We have much more child poverty than a nation like Finland. This involves children in all our demographic groups.

We have a lot of black kids who are caught in the backwash of our nation’s brutal racial history, in which our benighted ancestors spent hundreds of years trying to eliminate literacy from the black world.

In that benighted task, they failed. But literacy rates are still substantially lower among black adults, and therefore among black kids. (As everyone knows, the culture of literacy is largely passed on in the home.)

For all these reasons, we have an unusually diverse student population. As a result, American students display a much wider range of scores on major international tests than students in Finland or Korea.

The bottom quarter of our student population scores far below the top quarter, much more so than in those unicultural countries. This produces challenges for our public school teachers—the kind of challenge Sears described in the passage above.

What is a teacher supposed to do when some of her kids are working on fourth grade level and others are several years “behind?” When some of her fourth-grade students may be ready to work ahead of traditional fourth-grade level?

If anything, Sears describes a class which lacks a full range of achievement levels. We say that because she says she’s able to “teach all groups the same material,” simply “tailoring activities and assignments to each group.”

In some schools or classrooms, the range of achievement levels will be so wide that this can’t sensibly be done. Everyone understands that such ranges exist on the high school level, where some students may be doing calculus, with others working at sixth-grade level in math. But wide ranges of achievement exist in the elementary grades too.

Very wide ranges of achievement exist all through our American schools. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen an education reporter who understood that basic fact.

Yee wasn’t, and isn’t, an education specialist. Despite that fact, the Times assigned her the task of exploring this topic for the paper’s front page.

Yee did a perfectly workmanlike job despite her lack of experience. That afternoon, Dana Goldstein, who is an education reporter, discussed Yee's report for Slate. Her headline said this:

“Grouping by Ability in Classrooms Is Back in Fashion. Is This Good For Kids?”

Goldstein is a full-fledged education reporter. She’s bright and “well-educated.” (Goldstein went to Brown, Yee to Yale.)

Goldstein is a decent person who is thoroughly well-intentioned. That said, how well does she understand our American schools?

Back in the day, she took the trip to Finland. When she returned, she expressed the more liberal version of the scripts, making some perfectly sensible points about what she’d seen Over There.

That said, Goldstein failed to note the sheer absurdity of comparing Finland’s public schools to those in the United States. Does she understand the challenges found in American schools?

Does Goldstein understand our schools? In her piece about ability grouping, we were struck by the picture she drew of the American classroom:
GOLDSTEIN (6/10/13): Grouping fell out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was stigmatized because of its relationship to high school-level “tracking”...[G]rouping remains controversial, in part because it pits two of the education world’s favorite buzzwords against one another: “differentiation” versus “high expectations.”

“Differentiation” calls for a teacher to adjust the delivery and assessment of lessons for each student in her class. All students might hear the same introductory lecture on fractions, for example, but in small groups later on, some students would be expected to complete four numeric problems, while others would tackle those same four problems, plus an additional two word problems. The teacher would move around the room, providing one-on-one help and instruction geared toward each student’s ability level.

“High expectations,” on the other hand, refers to the idea that many children will rise to meet the standards set for them by teachers and parents. This rhetoric dates back to the civil rights era...
On what planet does that example of “differentiation” begin to capture the challenges faced by American teachers? Goldstein pictures a classroom where the different achievement levels come to this:

Everyone is taught the same math skill. The more advanced kids are then asked to solve six problems. The rest of the class solves four!

Dana Goldstein is a bright, decent person. If anything, she may be too “well educated,” like a lot of the people who get hired by our major news orgs.

Dana Goldstein is bright and decent. That said, we’ve never seen an education reporter who seemed to understand the true state of American children or American schools.

(In fairness, many of our “educational experts” seem to live on the same clouds.)

Who will teach the journalists well? Even on the most basic matters, they have steadfastly resisted learning over the past many years.

Finland rocks! And American test scores are in decline! These are the stories our journos have sold you for the past boatload of years.

This Wednesday, in a wonderful move, Motoko Rich seemed to take a rocket ship to the actual world.

She described a real American child and the challenges faced by her loving parents. If only she had added this passage:

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, minority kids have scored much better, in reading and math, over the past few decades.

Our American children have been on the move. Too Small to Fail is a program designed to continue those decades of progress.

For the Bluebirds only: In our view, the Common Core isn’t being reported especially well.

That said, please riddle us this: Given the wide range of achievement levels found across our American schools, how is any set of grade-level “standards” actually supposed to work?

Based upon our fifth-grade teaching experience, we've been puzzled by that question for decades. We’ve never seen an education reporter address this obvious problem.

Robins, please do your four math problems. Buzzards? Heads on desks!


  1. Excellent, Bob. Also, Diane Ravitch has an excellent report on the New York City Charter School battle again the Mayor.

  2. I especially like the teacher's remark about how teaching to the middle neglects 2/3, the top and bottom of the class. You cannot talk about the kids at the top because that is elitist and you cannot talk about the kids at the bottom because that might hurt people's feelings. So we pretend everyone is the same and that prevents us from better serving the actual needs of kids as they exist.

    I agree that the idea of a standard implies a homogeneity of expectations. It is right to expect all children to do well in school, but if they are served classroom experiences that meet a standard instead of each child's specific needs, that is not good education. I'm not sure why we cannot have a "value-added" standard for each child, described in terms of improvement from achievement at the beginning of each year, as long as we are imposing such an expectation on the teachers.

  3. That said, we’ve never seen an education reporter who seemed to understand the true state of American children or American schools.

  4. Nugget Question for Extra Bluebird Credit:

    Y is "a bright young reporter with little background in education reporting."

    G "is a full-fledged education reporter. She’s bright and “well-educated"

    How much older is G than Y?


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