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News and Analysis on a Manhattan Institute Report

Publication Date: 2004-09-04

Gerald Bracey has a wonderful ability to tie small incidents to big significances, marshalling useful information to do so.

You can read his incisive and witty analysis every month if you subscribe to Phi Delta Kappan.

The Manhattan Institute paper, "The Teachability Index: Can Disadvantaged Students Learn?" by Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster says that it is embargoed until 12:01 a.m. September 8. The irony is that any reporter who writes about the paper at 12:02 or later is just as unethical in Greene's mind as a reporter who breaks the embargo.

This is because Greene is a signatory to a full-page ad in the August 25 edition of the New York Times decrying a Times' article. That article, on August 17 by Diana Jean Schemo, reported an analysis of NAEP data by the American Federation of Teachers indicating that achievement in charter schools trails achievement in regular public schools. Matched for location and poverty charter schools scored lower. Black students in charters did not significantly differe from black students in regular schools, but the black-white gap was as large in charters as in regular schools (recall that the promise of charters was to improve achievement in return for autonomy).

The canon put forth in the ad, which cost about $125,000, stated, in part, "The news media has [sic] an obligation to assess carefully any research sponsored by interest groups engaged in policy debates. Such studies need to be vetted by independent scholars, as is commonly done in coverage of research on the biological and physical sciences." (Emphasis added).

Only the truly naive would think that the Manhattan Institute is not an "interest group," but no such vetting has taken place for the Greene-Forster paper. The cover announces this paper as a "Working Paper" and the text states, "A working paper is a common way for academic researchers to make the results of their studies available to others as early as possible. This allows other academics and the public to benefit from having the research available without unnecessary delay. Working papers are often submitted to peer-reviewed academic journals for later publication (emphases added). At least the AFT used available NAEP data; Greene and Forster construct their own.

What the Working Paper philosophy really means is "We'll get our slanted statement into the press first. Once the damage is done, people will have a hard time getting the truth known. Rebutting a lie is always much harder than telling one." (None of the Manhattan Institute Working Papers that I've seen would have a prayer of being accepted at a peer-reviewed journal and to the best of my knowledge, none of them have ever been submitted to such).

The hypocrisy of Greene's signing the anti-AFT, anti-Times ad is stunning. He first received media attention in 1996 for an analysis of the Milwaukee voucher data he did with mentor Paul Peterson. This analysis appeared first not at a professional conference, not in a peer-reviewed journal, nor even as a "working paper," but in what one Slate writer called "a viper's nest of right-wing vitriol," the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. It carried the objective headline, "Choice Data Rescued From Bad Science." It appeared just when then-presidential candidate, Bob Dole, addressed the Republican National Convention and called for vouchers. How conveeeeenient. Lamar Alexander and Bill Bennett quickly got themselves on TV talk shows to champion the article and noted pedagogue, Rush Limbaugh, spread the good news over the airwaves. Some vetting. ("How can we deny these children choice now that we know it works," said Alexander.)

This new paper, which claims that students are more teachable now than in the past and that, therefore, low teachability cannot account for the low performance of disadvantaged students, is easily dismissed: It does not deal with the plague of asthma among the urban poor (and the resulting school attendance problems), nor the legion of stories indicating that violence, behavioral and emotional disorders, and disrespect for teachers are much more prevalent than in the past, even among the youngest students. A recent survey in Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Texas found that 86% of elementary school counselors said that the time of assistant principals was being diverted to behavior management problems. Eighty-five percent said today's kindergartners have more emotional or behavioral problems than they did a mere five years ago.

Anyone who has spent any time in classrooms knows that the classroom learning atmosphere does not necessarily reflect the behavior of the average child. One or two disruptive kids can create an unteachable environment. The paper deals not at all with classroom environment (nor, oddly enough, teacher qualifications that also vary with the poverty level of the school and no doubt interact with any "teachability" of the kids).

The paper presents what are, at best, hypotheses as if they were facts and uses insinuations and out of context quotes to direct the reader to its desired conclusions. Indeed, its principal purpose appears to be to slander Richard Rothstein, with a secondary purpose of also indicting David Berliner and Bruce Biddle (although I am supposedly the inspiration for the paper, I somehow escaped stigmatizing). The most common adjective used in discussing these researchers' work is "misleading." Greene and Forster, however, make no attempt to establish and use variables that Rothstein, Berliner and Biddle have used such as hunger and number of books in the home as factors in "teachability" (see my June, 2004 Research column in Phi Delta Kappan for a discussion of such variables).

Greene and Forster eliminate many special education students from their analysis because "the dominant cause of rising special-education enrollment appears to be perverse financial incentives." In a real research study, a word such as "perverse" would not occur.

The most despicable--there really is no other word--aspect of the paper lumps the above-named researchers along with Alfie Kohn and Washington Post columnist, Richard Cohen, into a category, "opponents of reform." "Opponents of reform claim that schools cannot be expected to produce much improvement in the academic performance of students with low levels of teachability." Let us be kind and say that this is a rather selective reading of the authors in question. Greene and Forster do not appear to have noticed the subtitle of Rothstein's recent book, Class and Schools. It is Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap. Berliner and Biddle spend the last 70 pages of their book discussing how to improve education, mostly by within-school reforms.

It has been fun to watch the defenders of charters trot out the arguments they reject from public school people and display a defensiveness not seen in educators.

More important, though, it is most useful for us to know that the professional standards they say should have applied to the AFT and to the New York Times do not apply to at least some of them.

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