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State of the Beat: How Are the Kids

Publication Date: 2005-03-15

The author, former education editor at Newsweek, is an assistant professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She observes that the scandal in Houston shines a Texas-sized spotlight on the new world facing education reporters around the nation, reporters too tied to top-down reporting habits.

Another View:
Although the Columbia Journalism Review article on the news coverage of "No Child Left Behind" is generally good (pointing out that covering "education" by covering the annual test score spreadsheets is bad policy and bad journalism), the CJR uncritically praises the Chicago Tribune's coverage, which is the main reason why the "Chicago Miracle" hasn't gotten the same critical coverage as the "Houston Miracle."

Anyone who reads the CJR article should please write and otherwise contact CJR (and the Columbia University School of Journalism) about the immense damage that has been done to public schools over the past 20 years by the Chicago Tribune and the privatization ideologues who shape the Trib's political and educational coverage.

Chicago's 10-year attack on teachers and kids since the imposition of the "CEO model" of school governance in 1995 would not have been possible had the Tribune not slanted its coverage, often in an overtly racist way, in favor of private over public and privatization over public service. That coverage continue with those biases to this day. In fact, were it not for the immense influence of the Tribune (and Catalyst) over educational decision makers nationwide, the "CEO Model" which is now attacking democracy and public schools in Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York (to name just a couple) could not have been sold so easily by the Business Roundtable and its allies across the nation.

The attack on urban public schools may be orchestrated by the highest levels of corporate boards and executives, but in order for it to have credibility it must receive the consent of at least some decent people. The Tribune's clip files are one of the most dangerous sources of these kinds of footnotes, and the CJR praise of the Tribune will help spread this problem further and further.

Please tell CJR to take a second and much more critical look at the Chicago Tribune, one of the most important neoliberal centers of the attack on public education and worker unions in the United States.

George Schmidt
Editor, Substance
5132 W. Berteau
Chicago, IL 60641

Columbia Journalism Review
March-April 2005

"We have no dropouts!? Robert Kimball declared in a sarcastic e-mail to his boss, the principal of Houston?s Sharpstown High School, in November 2002. Sharpstown had just reported that none of its 1,650 students had left without graduating or transferring elsewhere, and the assistant principal could not believe the math. ?Amazing! We go from 1,000 freshmen to less than 300 seniors with no dropouts.?

Kimball soon learned that Sharpstown?s strange statistics were no anomaly. Two other inner-city Houston high schools that ordinarily lost about half their students by graduation also reported zero dropouts. A dozen more schools reported losses of less than 1 percent. His suspicion grew when he calculated that Sharpstown?s teachers and administrators had received $75,000 in bonuses as accountability rewards for keeping children in school.

In February 2003 a local television station checked out Kimball?s worst fears. Investigative reporters at the CBS affiliate KHOU-TV tracked down several actual dropouts, including a seventeen-year-old student who Sharpstown officials claimed was enrolled in a private school. In fact, she was working behind the counter at a Wendy?s. Following up on the story, Texas state auditors discovered that the district including Sharpstown falsely recorded nearly 3,000 high schoolers as ?moved away? or ?transferred? instead of as ?dropouts.?

Months later, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and 60 Minutes weighed in with their own analyses of Houston?s dropout data, finding more inconsistencies along the way. The big media were attracted to the story because Houston was at the epicenter of the ?Texas Miracle,? the standards and accountability reform movement championed by former Governor George W. Bush. Their stories revealed that scores of mostly black and Latino students in Houston were held back in the ninth grade for several years, enabling them to avoid taking the tenth-grade graduation exam, a test that had been diluted over time to include many questions better suited to sixth- through eighth-graders. Children who repeated ninth grade ended up dropping out in large numbers, and only half the students who did graduate went on to higher education. Not exactly the stuff of miracles.

The tricks and truths were buried by the numbers, and all but ignored for years by The Houston Chronicle. The city?s only remaining daily paper should have owned the story, and years earlier, but its coverage habits were cemented in a model that kept reporters out of classrooms. Education reporters were conditioned to cover ?schools? instead of ?education,? to come at the beat from the top down by reporting on district policies without comparing them to real-life results or assessing their classroom relevance. So the Chronicle?s initial dropout stories simply repeated the district?s 1.5 percent rate, and gave critics the token, brush-off-for-balance treatment at a story?s end.

The scandal in Houston shines a Texas-sized spotlight on the new world facing education reporters around the nation. It?s a complex beat, in flux, under new scrutiny. Old top-down reporting habits ? never adequate to begin with ? become even more dangerous when used to analyze the impact of such far-reaching, top-down reforms as the elimination of social promotion and No Child Left Behind, the landmark federal act that brings President Bush?s twin philosophies of accountability and market competition to bear on the messy business of education. Not surprisingly, these reforms, which have more to do with managing school systems than teaching kids, work best when they operate in a centralized, businesslike manner. Since management systems depend heavily on measuring tools, the standardized test ? education?s most popular assessment measure ? takes on added importance. All this exacerbates the press?s tendency to rely on official sources, and on the seductive power of the test score as the sole measure of success. To avoid the trap of oversimplification, reporters need a working knowledge of everything from psychometrics to education theory in order to untangle where the numbers end and the truth begins.

At the same time, education reporters are continually trying to figure out who?s really in charge as they negotiate a changing bureaucratic terrain. At least seven big-city mayors have assumed control over their school systems from school boards in recent years. And as their appointees, often tight-lipped lawyers and corporate executives, replace educators as school superintendents, accessible sources such as principals or school board members have become scarce. Parents, often the most credible school sources, have been effectively pushed further down in the pecking order.

Ironically, just when some reporters are losing touch with their true subjects ? children ? many parents are becoming more curious about what exactly is happening in the classroom. In wealthier districts, so-called ?helicopter parents? hover over every aspect of their children?s lives, scouring relevant reports as they groom their offspring for success in the world of high-stakes testing and college admissions. In low-income neighborhoods, parents rely on the media to help them negotiate the new rules and new tests, along with the new possibilities for tutoring or transferring as they angle to keep their children from being left behind. Both groups of parents want to know the difference between standards and standardized tests, between reading scores and real knowledge. But such stories don?t lend themselves to simple answers, and so are too often missed by reporters who come at the beat from the wrong end.

Education reporters at The Houston Chronicle could have provided their readers with trustworthy coverage of the high school dropout paradox had they looked for stories in closer proximity to the blackboard. A simple head count of freshmen and seniors in homerooms on any given day would have confirmed suspicions. How could there be so many more ninth-graders than twelfth-graders? Where had all those kids gone? Any high school student or teacher would have been able to tell a reporter about one or two people who had left school before graduating, thereby disproving the zero-dropout assertions.

But no one was there to tell.

It?s always tempting to say that today?s pressures on journalists are more overwhelming than those of the recent past. But in the world of public education, the evidence is stark. The story has branched off into broader and more complex directions in a relatively short span of time. Large-scale school reforms in the works for more than two decades are becoming more prevalent, the tools that measure them more potent, and the punishment for failure more dire. Voters and parents demand more and better information in order to know where their kids and their schools stand. At the same time, the high-level politicians in charge have a pressing interest in keeping a lid on unfavorable school data, and in keeping journalists away from the schoolhouse door. Their political lives are at stake.

President Bush?s signature No Child Left Behind Act is one such politically charged management plan that has altered the reporting landscape. The federal government has never played such a powerful monitoring role in the life of individual public school students, even though it still contributes less than 10 percent of total school funding. The measure glided through Congress with unprecedented bipartisan back-slapping during the tumultuous months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Both sides of the aisle were eager to find something positive to unite them, and in No Child Left Behind ? the fruit of decades of growing centralization ? they found goals that few could reasonably debate. No Child is based on the premise that all children in public schools should receive a high-quality education from a well-prepared teacher, and that schools should be accountable for serving every child, regardless of race or disability. Children in failing schools are technically eligible to transfer to better ones or receive free tutoring. The law seeks to close the achievement gap between whites and minorities by requiring schools to openly report their data by race and ethnicity, and by imposing a variety of sanctions on any school that fails to improve learning for all students.

But the devil is in the solutions, which have little to say about proven but expensive goals like reducing class size or offering incentives for highly qualified teachers. The act recognizes standardized test scores alone as measurements of achievement; it ignores performance assessments that can include students? writing skills and teachers? views. (Close to $400 million was added to No Child Left Behind for testing companies to design new high-stakes exams, and a burgeoning $2 billion test-preparation industry has moved into a place of national prominence.)

The second part of No Child Left Behind reflects Bush?s belief that the private sector is best equipped to carry out public reforms. Schools that don?t report adequate test scores over time could face being taken over by for-profit companies or charter schools. Students in failing schools can technically transfer to better ones or receive tutoring, preferably from private test-prep companies. Other hidden line items betray the law?s politically conservative agenda. Federal money to train history teachers can be used only for ?traditional? American history, meaning a fact-based curriculum about national leaders, and not a multicultural approach about social movements. Sex education must emphasize abstinence even though no scientific data show that this curriculum approach helps reduce AIDS or teen pregnancy. The public was largely unaware of these consequences when the bill passed.

If No Child Left Behind raised the stakes for school districts, it also raised the stakes for those who cover them. The education story became a national political story (read: more important) the day the bill passed, and its initial handler was the Washington press corps. The coverage underscored the benefits of the unusual Democratic-Republican alliance that helped push the bill into being. It heralded the importance of imposing high standards and requiring full disclosure for schools that can no longer hide the failure of their most vulnerable students. And it forecast four years of welcome attention to the public schools. In other words, the news was good. But Washington reporters did little to shed light on the 1,000-page measure?s finer points, at least initially, preferring instead to parse its political implications.

Now that the law?s full effects are settling into elementary and middle school classroom reality, more critics are speaking out against it, and talking to reporters. The Department of Education was so concerned about the growing bipartisan wave of criticism that it paid $700,000 to a public relations firm to promote No Child and rank individual reporters? coverage of it. Then, in January, USA Today broke the story that the department had paid Armstrong Williams, a conservative black pundit and radio host, $240,000 to shill for the Bush administration?s main education initiative.

Everyone agrees that quality standardized tests can be useful as one of many measures of success, or of failure, but they?ve been given an elevated role that they cannot sustain. Under No Child Left Behind, mandatory testing for third- through eighth-graders will be used to make decisions that the test makers agree their products were never meant for ? whether a child passes, a teacher fails, a principal is rewarded, or an entire school is shut down. During the next four years, the Bush administration plans to spend another $1.5 billion to expand this testing strategy into the nation?s high schools.

Assessing the meaning and validity of such tests requires a pool of sophisticated reporters who can navigate the world of statistics, business, human development, teaching and learning methods, neuroscience, politics, race, and culture. A few news organizations, like the Baltimore Sun, are responding to the changes wrought by the federal act by redesigning the education beat as an investigative challenge. And the Chicago Tribune now employs five reporters to cover a beat with more than 400,000 students. Less impressively, The New York Times deploys just three writers to cover a local school system more than twice the size of Chicago?s. Most papers, though, like The Houston Chronicle, have undergone cutbacks, leaving their education reporter, if they even have one, with little time for much more than chasing the latest press release. Lisa Walker, executive director of the Education Writers? Association, estimates that newspapers lost as many as 15 percent of their reporter positions nationwide over the last five years, up to 30 percent at some larger papers. ?We?re concerned,? she says. ?With fewer people, are they going to be able to go beyond the surface??

National education reporters such as Sam Dillon and Diana Jean Schemo of The New York Times have made the new federal law a natural focus within their beat, contributing insight into the general knowledge of its impact on education. Each has probed the law?s positive impact as well as chronicling the games states play by lowering their passing grade or finding ways to keep disabled and new immigrant children from taking the tests at all. Dillon wrote movingly about the absurdity of holding troubled children to the same standards as those whose parents do not routinely lose their jobs and move their families from school to school. For some of those children, it?s a triumph to get them inside the school building, without further traumatizing them as test failures.

Still, by far the best No Child Left Behind stories have percolated straight up from local schools, where the voices of teachers and children bring the national policy home to readers. The Chicago Tribune has devoted rare energy to such a project. Its city and metro staff have produced more than 400 stories on the subject since the act was passed, many of them memorable. Instead of battling a torrent of numbers or playing poker with test rankings, Tribune reporters dug behind the data, analyzing their origins and putting a human face on their percentages.

Tracy Dell?Angela told the story of a public elementary school in the suburb of Aurora that had turned around its failing school, pouring efforts into new reading specialists and extra programs. Morale at Rollins elementary was high, as children began responding and Rollins?s reputation grew. But then low results from a test for new-immigrant children, required by No Child Left Behind, pummeled the school into a failing category. ?We celebrated our scores. We know we did well. But we?re still considered a failure,? Principal Karen Hart told Dell?Angela. ?It?s just hard to put on your game face and keep going when it?s not recognized beyond our four walls.? The Rollins school, Hart explained, now faces the ?painful prospect of setting aside money that once went to reading specialists and after-school programs? for tutoring and transportation costs.

Another Tribune reporter examined the fruit of moving children out of failing schools. Stephanie Banchero followed third-grader Rayola Carwell from her South Side Chicago home in the morning until she arrived, two hours later, tired, hungry, and late at a better school thirteen miles away. Banchero illustrated through the experience of a nine-year-old why only 500 out of 270,000 eligible children transferred out of their failing Chicago schools last year, and why 37 percent who left ended up leaving their new schools as well.

Media coverage in Chicago was not always this probing. During the mid-nineties, when the dynamic ceo Paul Vallas was running the schools, reporting hewed more closely to his aggressive agenda. Vallas, who now heads Philadelphia?s schools, understood that strategic media relations would be vital to his success. Reporters complained they could not get him off the phone, an odd phenomenon for big-city beat reporters. And the coverage in the heady early years of reform in Chicago was held captive by Vallas?s announcements, rarely leavened by the reality, or analytic research, on the ground.

Vallas was pushing a top-down, high-stakes policy that has become popular with the new breed of mayors and businessmen leading public schools: preventing ?social promotion? by holding underperforming students back a grade. The strategy appeals to educational bureaucrats because it advertises their zero tolerance for mediocrity. And it appeals to bored education reporters in search of stories charged with the drama of sink-or-swim scores.

Unfortunately, like No Child Left Behind, the story of social promotion is rarely reported from a student?s or school?s perspective. Even more surprising, stories about the campaign against social promotion barely hint at the raft of research showing that retention in grade does more harm than good. Philadelphia has tried it, as have Baltimore, Houston, Washington, D.C., and New York City (three times), along with about twenty-one other school districts nationwide, all with similar results. Instead of infusing coverage with knowledge of the past, reporters hungry for some excitement on the beat tend to embroider official pronouncements, writing as if the policy is a new idea.

Just last year, New York City residents were subjected to yet another ritual of misleading stories about grade-retention policies. New York?s education reporters should be well schooled on the subject, but they?re not. In the early 1980s, the city school system installed a massive ?Gates? program that held back students in the fourth and seventh grades who failed a standardized test. In other words, the test serves as a ?gate? that opens and closes for fourth- and seventh-graders, depending on the scorer. The program was eventually scrapped as an ineffective waste of money. Then, more than fifteen years later, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani famously and ambitiously revived the practice late in his second term, imposing grade retention in six consecutive grades, third through eighth, at a cost estimated at $564 million a year. At the time, most reporters seemed too absorbed in the squabbles between the mayor and his chancellor to pay much attention to behind-the-scenes program details. The ?Gates? fiasco was almost never mentioned. Education research assessing grade retention was not considered in the coverage. Few in the media revisited Giuliani?s big initiative after the initial burst of confetti was swept away.

The clearest indication that Giuliani?s idea was an academic bust came five years later, at a March 2004 press conference held by his successor, Michael Bloomberg. The current chancellor, Joel Klein, a former antitrust lawyer and Clinton White House deputy counsel, lamented that 37 percent of the city?s ninth graders were failing. ?We can?t continue the way we?re going,? Klein told reporters, ?which is pushing children through the elementary schools.? The chancellor was endorsing the mayor?s idea, announced a few weeks earlier. Bloomberg, the first mayor in more than 130 years to have direct control over the school system, said he would launch a program to hold failing third-graders back. No one in the press noted that the same ninth-graders whose failure Klein deplored had already been subjected to a far more sweeping grade retention plan for six straight years ? which apparently hadn?t done much good. ?It?s as if collective amnesia had overtaken everyone,? lamented Noreen Connell, executive director of Education Priorities Panel, a New York City research group. ?Reporters and politicians.?

The New York Daily News has since clambered onto Bloomberg?s grade retention plan as a civic cause, printing editorials extolling the ?glorious? numbers of third graders passing out of mandatory summer school. News stories about the plan in the tabloid, meanwhile, tend to be free of analysis and barely mention the conflicting research. Both Daily News editorials and news stories framed the policy as a political volley: a ?win? for the mayor and a ?loss? for status-quo critics. Only The New York Times examined this third attempt to hold third graders back with a data-based glance at the past. A Times education beat reporter, David Herszenhorn, dug up a seminal 1998 study by the National Research Council on the issue. He spoke to a range of respected education experts. In the midst of the controversy a University of Chicago research group released a long-term study showing that Chicago?s aggressive eight-year practice of holding third-graders back did more harm than good.

Herszenhorn needed only to pull the clips of a predecessor?s 1997 school coverage to understand the complexities of teaching a class of eight-year-olds to read, mysteries that remote test results could never hope to capture. Nearly a decade ago, after convincing his editors at the Times that an immersion approach would be the best way to document the new era of high-stakes testing among those who were supposed to matter most, Jacques Steinberg spent a full year ducking in and out of Ted Kesler?s third-grade class at Public School 75 on Manhattan?s Upper West Side. The result was a potent glimpse into the stew of human triumphs and tragedies in the city?s public school classrooms.

Steinberg followed Kesler from home to work, brambling through the nine-year teaching veteran?s whims and tragedies. He entered the homes of many of the third-graders, watching one eight-year-old vie for homework space with her five siblings. An immigrant boy struggled with kindergarten-level books. The series of stories showed on a profound level the daunting daily journey of thirty children, all at different stages of reading, with varying capacities and passion for English. Their education was far more daunting and far more miraculous than an end-of-the-year test could gauge, yet the test loomed like the story?s villain, waiting to deliver its defining judgment.

Of course, blending this level of depth and color into education stories requires that educators open their classrooms to reporters, an invitation that has grown even rarer under the new era of top-down management regimes. In New York City, Joel Klein heads a newly centralized school system that tries to shield itself from public scrutiny more scrupulously than any previous administration. Most principals now routinely tell reporters they need permission from central headquarters before speaking to the press ? permission that rarely materializes, and certainly not on deadline. Herszenhorn said a story he wanted to pursue on changes, including the new standardized math and reading curriculum, was put on hold because the chancellor?s office initially insisted on choosing which schools he could observe ? obviously, an unacceptable bargain. By the time the Department of Education relented, the Times had dropped the idea.

Access to public school systems should be a given in a democracy (a right that demands a large helping of media responsibility). Narratives from inside and outside the classroom are powerful testaments to a shared sense of civic values, and an understanding of the role of education in sustaining a democracy. The best coverage confronts the complicated world of education not as a managed system of test results and ordered reforms, but as a busy intersection of culture, race, child development, pedagogy, neuroscience, and politics.

Ira Glass painted on such a canvas last October with a piece on This American Life he called ?Two Steps Back.? Glass focused on a gregarious Chicago public school teacher on the verge of quitting because of changes wrought in her school by the city bureaucracy.

The piece is distinguished by a ten-year journey back into the archives. Glass dug up tapes he compiled in 1994 when he spent a year for NPR?s All Things Considered inside two schools, including Washington Irving Elementary School, which had transformed itself into a model of urban success amid Chicago?s ambitious reforms. Glass had wanted to know how. It had no extra money, no special status as a magnet. What he learned about Washington Irving was this: kids simply wrote all the time and read all the time. The crusading principal was a master at fending off bureaucratic mandates. Teachers took over the curriculum. They made sure the parents came to school at least three times a year. The faculty designed elaborate narrative report cards that guided their curriculum. They stayed late, came in early, and found ways to keep respect for learning and for each other alive in the classroom.

Ten years later, Glass found the exemplary Washington Irving teacher, Cathy La Luz, in her classroom, near tears on his first day of reporting. La Luz was watching helplessly as the teachers? carefully honed programs were slowly unraveling. Mandates from central headquarters were flooding in, and the new principal was doing little to divert them. Little indignities, like a new requirement to turn in daily lesson plans, were eroding the teachers? sense of autonomy. Their self-designed report cards were scrapped. Teachers were required to write the state education goal of the day every day on the blackboard. The demand for uniformity from Chicago Public Schools headquarters had become overbearing. Officials were setting goals that La Luz felt were vague and lower than the school?s own.

Glass took listeners inside La Luz?s classroom, where children?s voices took over as they hashed out new endings for a book they were reading. We hear La Luz coax a daydreaming child to find where his attention had disappeared to. We hear the children banter with her about her new hairstyle and her new outfit. Then we hear the despair in her voice as she agonizes over whether she can endure the slow erosion of the profession she deeply loves. It is education journalism at its best, rich with nuances and context, alive with children?s voices and conflicts. The story said as much about the future of high-stakes, top-down reforms as it did about the future of urban teaching. Glass noted that the X factor in school reform is the chemistry between teachers and children, a fragile eloquence that can easily be garbled if it is not respected by outside contractors, outside authorities, outside monitors. ?Not that anybody wants to hear that,? Glass commented at the end. ?They don?t want to hear it.?

But perhaps they do.

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