O, Free Press, Where Art Thou?

As I have noted, a common thread running through my blogs is the carelessness among the media covering education.

Case in point, yet another tone-deaf and completely unsupportable piece has appeared in the The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC): Duncan deserves high marks.

With just a modicum of effort, almost every claim made in this piece is easily refuted by something the mainstream press seems determined to ignore, evidence.

I have called for the “Oliver Ruler” and  a critical free press as well as posting an open letter to journalists, but many journalists remain committed to “balance” and thus are unwilling to evaluate the quality of claims or the credibility of people or positions.

But there appears to be some hope across the pond (it seems Oliver’s land can see what we cannot):

Stop giving airtime to crackpots, Phil Plait

BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes

So once again, not all issues have “both sides” and thus do not require seeking out balance for the sake of balance. As well, not all people or claims are credible; therefore, that those people or claims exist does not justify their being acknowledged. It is essentially malpractice to treat unequal claims as equal.

While the BBC is directly addressing science, in the U.S. the education reform agenda is currently being crippled by inexpert and incompetent leadership that is being reinforced by a media blinded by their pursuit of balance at the expense of credibility and evidence.

Leaving me still pining, O, free press, where art thou?

“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the film Gravity, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) fulfills what appears to be a prerequisite for women in films: She undresses alone:

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

As a science fiction film fan, I immediately thought of Sigourney Weaver in Alien:

Sigourney Weaver, Alien

At the end of the film, when Ryan Stone crawls out of the water, again in her underwear, I was by then struck as well by Stone’s cropped hair and the camera’s apparent fascination with Stone’s (Bullock’s) physique, both of which can be fairly described as man-like—not unlike her name:

Matt Kowalski: What kind of name is Ryan for a girl?
Ryan Stone: Dad wanted a boy.

While I found Gravity to be a powerful and well-crafted film—stunning cinematography, stellar acting, tight and compelling narrative—I am less enamored by the rugged individualism theme and the need to frame Stone as a (wo)man. The triumph of Stone is one grounded entirely in her conforming to male norms, much of which is portrayed in her androgynous body, boyish haircut, and man’s name (even the “stone” of her last name erases the emotional core of the character that could have been celebrated more fully than the weightless tear scene).

Instead of Gravity, the film possibly should have been titled Oxygen or Breathe, but Gravity ultimately does capture the weight of the male gaze and the weight of the male norm that anchor the motifs and theme of the film—regretfully, not elements celebrating Stone as a woman, but ones that reduce her to the same tired messages coming from Hollywood about the Great White Masculine Hope.

While the film appears to downplay Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)—the quintessential man’s man in film and life and Stone’s cavalier Obi-Wan Kenobi, always there (even in delusion) to make sure she bucks up—that secondary role proves to be a distraction because Stone must assume the qualities Kowalski would have played if the roles were reversed—lest we forget Clooney strips alone in films as well:

George Clooney, The American

The larger message found in Gravity is the inability of mainstream films to celebrate women as women. Consider the superhero makeover of Katniss in the Hunger Games films, as revealed in the second film’s poster:

Catching Fire promotional poster

And Lisbeth Salander in the U.S. film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, notably her Batman-esque scenes in leather and on her motorcycle (as well as her snarled, “There will be blood”):

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in U.S. film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

A week ago today, I was in the delivery room while my only daughter gave birth to my first granddaughter. That experience was surrounded by the professional brilliance of a nursing staff (all women) who provided my daughter the medical and emotional support that made a difficult and painful experience far less difficult than it could have been.

As a father, I was helpless, watching, worrying.

Once my granddaughter was born, and the baby and mother were healthy and safe, I could not stop considering how this day had held up to everyone the unbearable lightness of being a woman.

Yes, childbirth is a solitary thing, and maybe even heroic, but it is nothing like the rugged individualism myth (childbirth is communal and life-affirming; rugged individualism is competitive and conquering) and it is everything like the essential qualities of women that we should be celebrating: the selflessness, the endurance, and that which we call “maternal.”

But the nurses as well—with their professionalism and care—demonstrated a woman’s world, their pay and status secondary to the doctor (a man).

Just the day before the birth of my granddaughter, Nikki Lee wrote Ride like a girl, a blog exploring how riding a bicycle captures something like being a woman daily: vulnerability, being blamed even when a victim. Lee ends with:

These are just a few of the thousand little environmental microaggressions that you don’t have to deal with when you’re sitting behind the wheel of a car. Any individual one isn’t a big deal, and plenty of cyclists don’t pay active attention to them at all. After a while you just kind of deal with it, because listing out these small annoyances mostly serves to make you feel bad.

At the end of the day, you can always hang up your helmet and declare bike commuting “a great idea and all, but just not worth it”.

What if you didn’t have a choice?

And that brings me back to Gravity, where filmmakers do have choices, and audiences have choices.

Objectifying and reducing women to the male gaze appears to be the choice we are bound to, a gravity of another kind.

ESPN, Mansplaining, and the U.S. Media

What do NPR, conservative talk radio/media, and ESPN radio have in common?

Upon first blush, likely nothing. And that proves both what they have in common as well as how that unrecognized is the problem.

Let’s start with NPR, as Tracie Powell reports:

Anya Kamenetz, NPR’s education team lead blogger, used one of the network’s official Twitter accounts to tweet that she reaches out to diverse sources, but “only white guys get back to” her. Naturally, the post is catching a lot of attention on Twitter, and rightfully so.

And while this admission is being framed as controversial, I have noted that NPR represents a pattern of whitewashing (see HERE, HERE, and HERE); in other words, what is presented as objective or balanced journalism is actually honoring a white male (and thus dominant) perspective as the unexamined given.

From George Will and Cal Thomas—the old-guard right-wing punditocracy—to Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and others in the so-called new conservative media, whitewashing is the not-so-subtle racism, misogyny, and classism that pass for credible public discourse.

But as long as media objectivity remains a thin mask for (white) mansplaining, the so-called liberal media (NPR, for example) and the right-wing media are fundamentally indistinguishable. It is, then, important that we look closely at ESPN radio, the tour-de-force of (white) mansplaining.

ESPN, Mansplaining, and the U.S. Media

ESPN radio offers listeners a line up that is the antithesis of diversity: Mike & Mike, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, and SVP & Russillo.

This is hour upon hour of white guys holding forth as if their perspective has credibility (often it does not), as if their topics are monumentally important (often they are not), and as if their 20-something, fraternity view of the universe deserves our undivided attention (and that never does).

While the ESPN radio line up is solidly a bunch of white guys (and mostly snarky, arrogant white guys), it is also worth noting that African Americans and women serve roles as side-kicks (and on-air, the women look awfully similar to the eye-candy norm of Fox news).

Instead of careful, nuanced, or informed journalism, ESPN radio offers discourse driven by personality, arrogance, and the corrosive power of (white) mansplaining.

And while it may seem easy or justifiable to discount the danger of this dynamic because this is just sports, the obscene professional sport complex in the U.S. (like ESPN radio itself) is actually fertile ground for exploring lingering issues of race, class, and gender plaguing U.S. efforts at democracy and equity. If anything in the U.S. remains a man’s hostile world, it is professional sport (see HERE and HERE).

If only some in the media would step away from the alluring norm of (white) mansplaining that lulls us deeper into complacency.

The U.S. needs a critical free press whether that press is covering things great or small because major and so-called mainstream media continue to carry George Will and Cal Thomas as if their world views are credible, and not the toxic nastiness they perpetuate.

I invite you to suffer through 20 or 30 minutes of Limbaugh and then about the same time spent with Colin Cowherd. The nearly incoherent navel-gazing mansplaining between the two of them is indistinguishable—but it takes a bit of care to understand that among almost all of the mainstream media the space between right-wing talk radio, ESPN radio, and so-called credible outlets such as NPR, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, and many others is negligible.

If a white man isn’t telling us what and how to think (with a heaping dose of arrogance and juvenile glee), then the foundation of any and all being presented is (white) mansplaining—whether someone is contemplating whether LeBron James is holding the NBA hostage or NPR is fawning over schools teaching impoverished children of color “grit” through the whitewashed story of Steve Jobs.

For those of us fighting the fight and working daily in public education, that the teaching profession is dominated by women and that the students most in need of public education are living in poverty and children of color represent the pervasive and corrosive power of (white) mansplaining at all levels of society, but nowhere is that more distinct than in all aspects of the media, whether we are considering news or entertainment (as if there is a difference).

Too often, as well, when mainstream media allow surface diversity (gender [1] or race), those journalists are throttled by the fair-and-balanced norms—(white) mansplaining—that whitewashes any real diversity of thought.

In the 21st century, the U.S. is ample evidence that we have failed democracy, the free press, and universal public education. And those failures feed the current state of inequity that constitutes the country.

It cannot be stated often enough, then, that the U.S. needs a critical free press and that public narratives need a new mythology, one that not only replaces but refutes the current culture of (white) mansplaining that surrounds us daily.

[1] Consider the female lead of Gravity and how the narrative and motifs of the film play to and re-enforce a rugged individualism theme. The woman (played by Sandra Bullock) has a man’s name, Ryan Stone, and presents a physical presence that walks a thin line between objectifying a woman and highlighting her man-like “look,” athletic, hair cropped short. This is no celebration of a powerful female, but a message that this woman deserves our praise because she rises to the norms of men, created by men. Again, this is not substantially different than the motif on ESPN of praising African American athletes as “articulate.”

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

Dear Journalists (especially those who write about education):

After posting my U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press, which represents a recurring effort in my public work to address the problems with journalism about education and education research/reports, I continued to interact with Juana Summers (NPR) and Stephen Sawchuk (Education Week) on Twitter. Those exchanges have suggested to me that I need to examine more fully what my concerns raised specifically about mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports mean to my wider call for a critical free press.

First, I think I need to establish the foundational context of my complaints about journalism/education journalism.

I believe journalists and teachers should be (must be) comrades in arms because a free press and universal public education are essential foundational institutions for a free people.

I am not, however, suggesting that this camaraderie is some sort of wink-wink, nod-nod collusion between the two professions in which we “cover” for each other, but that we are comrades joined by the same mission to build the free society that many claim the U.S. seeks. In fact, as comrades I expect we should be each other’s most vigilant and accurate critics to insure that we both stay the course.

And that builds on my second larger context for my concerns about journalism and my call for a critical free press. My use of the term “critical” is the source of my calls for reform of both education and journalism—two fields that reach their potential when critical, but fail when they are bound by traditional expectations of impartiality, calls that teachers and journalists avoid being “political.” Critical teachers and critical journalists are activists; they use their professions as mechanisms for change. Apolitical teachers and journalists are essentially defenders of the status quo (thus, the calls for impartiality are always loudest from those with power and wealth).

So I want to return briefly to my criticisms of mainstream media coverage of NCTQ’s latest report.

While Summers, Sawchuk, and I exchanged Tweets related to my post, Adam Bessie, whose important public work refuting the “bad” teacher meme is central to my points here, offered a Tweet that simply identified a fact about Gates funding among NPR, Education Week, and NCTQ:

This Tweet represents the central issue to my concerns: Among the New Media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), many critical educators have been confronting the disproportionate and inappropriate (because Gates has no credibility in the field of education, but nearly endless funds) influence of Gates on education reform—an influence that I have confronted often with a question: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one.

Also, Bessie’s Tweet about the ubiquity of Gates funding has finally begun to gain some traction in the mainstream press. But bloggers still carry the greatest weight for being critical about the influence of Gates on education reform. (The most common places now to find critical journalism is in the New Media, such as blogs at Education Week [see Anthony Cody and Nancy Flanagan] and The Washington Post [see Valerie Strauss] or alternative press such as Truthout and AlterNet.)

Despite Bessie’s Tweet only stating facts, Sawchuk immediately responded with this:

It is at “offensive” that I think we should all pause and consider carefully.

I do not in any way think Sawchuk is a careless, “bought,” or shoddy journalist. In fact, as I stated to him, I have interacted with Sawchuk because I respect him, his work, and his profession (I do not interact with others about whom I cannot say the same).

I must add that my concern with Sawchuk’s coverage of NCTQ (as well as the other coverage I identified) is that the work fails because it conforms to the flawed traditional convention of fairness that Sawchuk mentions directly.

The traditional view of fairness in journalism has been brilliantly skewered recently by John Oliver on his HBO show: Oliver exposes that being “fair” in the climate change debate—having one person for “both sides” debate the issue—actually greatly misrepresents the current understanding within the field of science for the lay public. Mainstream journalists committed to this sort of “fair and balanced” are doomed to fail the much more important goal of accuracy. As Oliver demonstrated, the ratio of for and against climate change within the sciences is not 1 to 1 as a “fair” debate implies, but about 97 for and 3 against (and while Oliver didn’t explore this, a careful look at the against shows that even those 3% are less credible within the field).

If we extrapolate the Oliver Rule, then, to education reform, we do not find an equal 1 to 1 ratio of research on using value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate and dismiss teachers because the field overwhelmingly refutes using VAM in highs-stakes situations (even pro-VAM researchers call for “modest” uses of VAM) and mostly ideological advocates and political leaders (without expertise) endorse VAM for high-stakes education policy. However, VAM advocacy garners primary coverage in the mainstream press with little attention paid to the more credible research refuting its high-stakes and disproportionate use.

So let me be very clear here about both Sawchuk being offended and the difference between critical journalists and fair journalists.

I’m sorry, but journalists and journalism will always look bad when money speaks louder than expertise (see again Gates).

Now, imagine, journalists, if every day your field was repeatedly and inaccurately trashed for all the public: U.S. public education is a failure because our tests scores rank poorly internationally (misleading), schools with impoverished students have low test scores because of low expectations by the teachers (untrue), U.S. public education is failing because of corrupt teachers’ unions (untrue and basically opposite of the evidence), to improve public schools we need to identify “bad” teachers and fire them (untrue), public school teachers are “bad” mostly because they have tenure (untrue) [1], and the list goes on.

I genuinely regret Sawchuk being offended because he doesn’t deserve it, but I must emphasize that Sawchuk is among the media who are complicit in offending teachers, teaching, and schools everyday because journalists are quick to assume the misguided pose of “fair” and unwilling to assume the needed position of critical.

Many issues simply do not have “sides” (rape, genocide), and to be honest, most issues do not have equally credibly sides.

Does teacher education/certification need to be reformed (full disclosure: I am a teacher educator)? Absolutely.

But NCTQ has no credibility and garners its influence through the impact of money and media endorsement, and not validity (just as Gates has done).

Louann Reid, Chair of NCTE’s Conference on English Education, has identified this problem perfectly in her rebuttal of NCTQ’s recent report:

The recommendations are, however, backed by considerable funding, which helps extend NCTQ’s reach. CEE doesn’t have that kind of funding, but we do have reliable researchers and educators who can mobilize to tell the true stories of effective English teacher education. And I believe we must do so.

And herein lies the problem. While I also spurred some offense by my use of “press-release journalism,” the inordinate and uncritical coverage of NCTQ by the mainstream press proves my point that mainstream journalists respond to press releases (funding) while the experts (NCTE/CEE) remain mostly ignored.

And that’s the problem with “fairness” as the journalist’s guide instead of “critical.”

As researcher and scholar Bruce Baker added to the Twitter discussion, critical journalism would have responded to NCTQ quite differently:

It may appear “fair” to respond to NCTQ as one perspective in the education reform debate, but it isn’t beneficial to afford an organization and a report without merit more credence (or even the same) as the contributions of those who have credibility.

And choosing to cover a topic is a political choice; coverage is never unbiased. And framing a topic is also a political choice (what perspective to present first, how to frame in the headline and lede, etc.). In truth, assuming a dispassionate pose is always dishonest since as humans we are always being political. I suggest we are all better off being openly and purposefully political instead of conforming to misleading norms of “neutrality.”

Yet, this is how the mainstream media carry on day after day—especially in the misguided assault on teachers, public schools, and now higher education.

Legions of hardworking and dedicated classroom teachers are offended daily by the mainstream media being complicit in a false story being told by those with money and an agenda—while that same mainstream media either offer secondary equal time [2] or ignore a powerful group of educators, researchers, and scholars who have the experience and expertise to reform education as it needs to be reformed.

Journalists, if you are ever offended, I would add that coincidentally you are now educators’ comrades for another reason.

As a lifelong teachers (31 years with 13 years teaching journalism to wonderful high school students), I am asking that you join us in the fight instead of taking your impartial stance that allows the well-funded but misguided reformers to keep on keeping on.

Any takers?

[1] How many mainstream journalists covering the Vergara ruling in California addressed that the judge issuing the ruling has job security himself?

[2] As “fair,” we are occasionally allowed to rebut the “reformers” somewhere in the middle or bottom third of the coverage, but even then we are framed as “critics.”

First, Do No Harm: That Includes the Media

Public education in the U.S. suffers under a powerful intersection of politics, the media, and the public. As I have too often documented, misinformation tends to be reinforced among all three of these forces.

The role of media, as Alfie Kohn has examined, is central to perpetuating not only misleading beliefs about school quality and education reform but also bad policy.

For example, in South Carolina, The Greenville News has posted an editorial position on reading legislation that misreads what is the best path forward for addressing literacy in this high-poverty and deeply segregated state, notably:

The core part of the legislation makes common sense and is widely supported. It would make it mandatory to retain any third-grader who is not proficient in reading by the end of the school year. It is an idea that has been implemented in Florida to promising results, and it simply makes sense. Promoting a child to fourth-grade if he or she lacks the needed reading skills dooms that child to failure. Although holding back a student can have negative effects on him or her, that student certainly will do better if educators ensure he or she first knows how to read before advancing past third grade.

While we may need some proof that retention of third graders based on high-stakes test scores is in fact “common sense,” it seems true that retention is “widely supported.” The problem with those justifications is that four decades of research strongly rejects retention and close analysis of Florida’s Just Read, Florida, policies discredits claims of its “promising results” (see a full analysis with extensive evidence of the research base on both here).

A point of flawed logic also drives this editorial position: Retention and promotion are not the only options available, and are thus a false dichotomy that likely sits beneath the reality that retention is “widely supported” by the public and then political leaders (see how narrow choices create a false narrative that an issue is supported in the fourth paragraph from the end here).

Further, embedded in this misunderstanding of the research base on retention are careless claims about Florida’s education reform success as well as the current understanding of reading/ literacy instruction and development.

Florida, in fact, is a lesson in what not to do in terms of education policy (see HERE, HERE, and HERE).

Reading/ literacy instruction has been eroded by the accountability era based on standards and high-stakes testing. Literacy is misrepresented by multiple-choice testing, and teaching to those tests greatly warps good literacy instruction.

Test-reading is almost nothing like reading in the real world.

Instead of misguided reading policies reinforced by uninformed media endorsements, a few important and grounding commitments should be guiding reading policy:

  • First, do no harm. Allowing reading policy to be linked to harmful retention policies is inexcusable.
  • Relieve literacy policy from the accountability machine. Authentic, rich, and holistic literacy is eroded by focusing on isolated and skills-based instruction and testing.
  • Recognize that literacy is deeply linked to social class. Unless some powerful efforts are made to address poverty and inequity, students from poverty will remain mislabeled as “bad students” in school and then mis-served in those schools by being funneled into skill-and-drill classes serving the mandates to raise test scores.
  • Set aside the crisis discourse and policies related to literacy. Treating third grade like an Emergency Room ensures that students in most need of patient and rich learning environments will continue to be offered emergency care, and thus once again will be cheated.
  • Embrace low-cost and evidence-based practices that will guarantee literacy growth by increasing student access to books in their lives and their schools: “Perhaps the most serious problem with current literacy campaigns is that they ignore, and even divert attention from, the real problem: Lack of access to books for children of poverty,” explains Stephen Krashen.

Literacy growth is a natural part of being human. Children in middle-class and affluent homes (and thus likely to be enrolled in schools and classes that reinforce rich and authentic literacy) enjoy the sort of experiences with literacy all children deserve.

Retaining third graders based on high-stakes testing will further perpetuate inequity and erode opportunities for children living in poverty to experience rich and authentic learning environments with texts that would result in the type of literacy growth associated with privileged children.

A final problem with the media’s endorsement of “common sense” and “widely supported” education policy is the recurring call for compromise (see Cindy Scoppe at The State), also expressed in The Greenville News editorial:

The important work this fall and heading into the next legislative session is for education leaders and lawmakers to get on the same page about how such an effort would be implemented. There is plenty of room for common ground on this issue….

When policy is evidence-based (as it should be), a compromise between positions that are not evidence based and positions that are evidence based results in flawed policy. In other words, compromise between wrong and right can only result in wrong.

Yes, I recognize that politics is the realm of compromise, but I also believe therein lies the great failure of politics for setting education policy.

In the end, then, much could be solved if we kept our focus on first, do no harm instead of seeking always compromise as the basis for decisions on education policy.

What We Know Now (and How It Doesn’t Matter)

Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (2006) explores the evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) debate that represents the newest attack on teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. The documentary is engaging, enlightening, and nearly too fair considering Olson admits upfront that he stands with scientists who support evolution as credible science and reject ID as something outside the realm of science.

Olson’s film, however, offers a powerful message that rises above the evolution debate. Particularly in the scenes depicting scientists discussing (during a poker game) why evolution remains a target of political and public interests, the documentary shows that evidence-based expertise often fails against clear and compelling messages (such as “teach the controversy”)—even when those clear and compelling messages are inaccurate.

In other words, ID advocacy has often won in the courts of political and public opinion despite having no credibility within the discipline it claims to inform—evolutionary biology.

With that sobering reality in mind, please identify what XYZ represents in the following statement about “What We Know Now”:

Is there a bottom line to all of this? If there is one, it would appear to be this: Despite media coverage, which has been exceedingly selective and misrepresentative, and despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, XYZ have not been effective in achieving the outcomes they were assumed to aid….

This analysis is addressing school uniform policies, conducted by sociologist David L. Brunsma who examined evidence on school uniform effectiveness (did school uniform policies achieve stated goals of those policies) “from a variety of data gathered during eight years of rigorous research into this issue.”

This comprehensive analysis of research from Brunsma replicates the message in Flock of Dodos—political, public, and media messaging continues to trump evidence in the education reform debate. Making that reality more troubling is that a central element of No Child Left Behind was a call to usher in an era of scientifically based education research. As Sasha Zucker notes in a 2004 policy report for Pearson, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”

Brunsma’s conclusion about school uniform policies, I regret to note, is not an outlier in education reform but a typical representation of education reform policy. Let’s consider what we know now about the major education reform agendas currently impacting out schools:

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, education reform continues a failed tradition of honoring messaging over evidence. Neither the claims made about educational failures, nor the solutions for education reform policy today are supported by large bodies of compelling research.

As the fate of NCLB continues to be debated, the evidence shows not only that NCLB has failed its stated goals, but also that politicians, the media, and the public have failed to embrace the one element of the legislation that held the most promise—scientifically based research—suggesting that dodos may in fact not be extinct.

* Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.; Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958; See page 4 for 2012 SAT data: http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/TotalGroup-2012.pdf

Class Grades

Since I am quick to criticize the media for its role in the failures of the current education reform movement—such as PBS, The Charleston Post and Courier, and Education Week—I must also recognize when a media outlet provides much needed insight into education policy that has clearly run off the tracks, such as the so-called Florida miracle and the enduring practice of assigning letter grades to schools.

In “Low-income schools struggle under state’s grading system” (Miami Herald, August 10, 2013), Michael Vasquez and David Smiley offer a clear but disturbing picture of accountability in Florida:

With dozens of changes in just the past three years, the formula behind Florida’s A-to-F school grading system has been criticized as a confusing mess. But there’s been at least one constant in Miami-Dade and Broward results: The wealthiest schools never get Fs, and schools with high populations of poor students face an uphill battle to even get a C.

The trend is visible through a decade-plus of school grade results, dating back to the first grades issued in 1999.

Vasquez and Smiley, along with the Miami Herald, represent a needed aspect of journalism addressing education reform: Recognizing large and compelling patterns, and thus the consequences of education policy.

The analysis of assigning letter grades to schools in Florida exposes some important conclusions:

•  Although high poverty rates don’t necessarily doom a school to a subpar grade, D and F schools are overwhelmingly serving students from poor neighborhoods, and the few schools that do overcome poverty to achieve an A are outliers. (There were nine such schools this year, all in Miami-Dade).

•  Of the 209 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward with at least 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch, 78 percent received a grade of C or worse. Roughly 39 percent of these high-poverty schools received a D or F.

•  Of the 43 local schools with much lower poverty rates (30 percent or fewer students receiving free or reduced lunch), 86 percent received an A, and none received a D or F.

Despite efforts to identify educational quality among schools by focusing on growth models, data used in accountability policies remain primarily a reflection of out-of-school factors. Further, the schools that sit outside the typical patterns are rightfully identified by Vasquez and Smiley as “outliers.”

This analytical report on letter grades for schools in Florida is a strong example of quality journalism that seeks out and presents complex and detailed evidence, placing that data in the broader context of the many factors that impact not only the evidence we gather on our schools but also what conclusions we draw as well as how we draw those conclusions.

In the article, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho explains, “‘Just as much as poverty can’t be an excuse, the exclusion of poverty as a factor is immoral.’”

Rare is the news article that allows a perspective this complex.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) ushered in several grand promises in 2001, such as closing the achievement gap, but one of the central requirements of the legislation—the use of scientifically based research—is now poised to dismantle the entire accountability movement, including policies such as labeling schools with letter grades based primarily on test scores.

The evidence is clear that thirty years of accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing has failed. The next step is composing and sharing a unified message of that fact, while also building a coalition to reset the reform agenda so that we address poverty, equity, and opportunity in the lives of children and their families as well as in the schools those children attend.

Charter Schools: A Primer

Stakeholders in education include virtually everyone in a democracy—students, parents, teachers, politicians, business leaders, the media, and more.

Historically, public education in the U.S. has experienced two continual popular narratives: (1) public schools are failing, and (2) [insert reform here] is needed to overhaul schools for (a) international competitiveness and (b) a stronger workforce.

Recently, charter schools have seen a significant rise in advocacy and implementation as a complex mechanism for reform. Along with that rise has come a new wave of research on the effectiveness of those charter schools, particularly as they compare with traditional public schools (TPS).

Most stakeholders in education receive their information about charter schools from the media; thus, when the media covers the charter school debate and research, the influence of those media accounts can be disproportional to the quality.

For example, The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) has taken a strong position for charter schools in SC: “But there is one area where the state has taken bold steps to improve education: charter schools.” However, an analysis of charter schools in SC that compares state report card data between those charter schools and  TPS using the state metric of “Schools with Students Like Ours” revealed in 2012:

Charter schools in SC have produced outcomes below and occasionally typical of outcomes of public schools; thus, claims of exceptional outcomes for charter schools in SC are unsupported by the data (3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical).

Since the pattern of advocacy and implementation of charter schools includes a significant amount of support from political leaders, business leaders, the media, and advocates (such as charter-based organizations and think tanks), most stakeholders need a clear and accurate primer addressing what we currently know about charter school effectiveness, and that must be guided by this caution from Matthew Di Carlo:

There’s a constant barrage of data, reports and papers flying around, and sifting through it with a quality filter, as well as synthesizing large bodies of usually mixed evidence into policy conclusions, are massive challenges. Moreover, we all bring our pre-existing beliefs, as well as other differences, to the table. There are no easy solutions here.

But, one useful first step, at least in education, would be to stop pointing fingers and acknowledge two things. First, neither ‘side’ has anything resembling a monopoly on the misuse of evidence. And, second, such misuse has zero power if enough people can identify it as such.

One overarching point needs to be made about the charter school debate first. Charter advocacy and criticism both too often fail in their use of data, as Di Carlo warns, but both also make another mistake, ignoring the evidence base entirely.

What, then, is the current state of evidence on charter school effectiveness? [1] And, how do charter schools address, or not, clearly identified problems and goals of TPS—including what questions and concerns remain in the context of what the evidence suggests about charter school effectiveness?

• Research has repeatedly shown that measurable outcomes (test scores, graduation rates, college admissions rates, etc.) from charter schools produce about the same range of quality as TPS (and private schools) and that the type of school structure (charter v. TPS) appears not to be a determining factor in the outcomes with the demographics of the students and the community remaining powerful correlations with those outcomes.

• Claims of “miracle” schools fail to stand up under close scrutiny, but even if outliers exist in charter schools, outliers exist in TPS and private schools as well, and thus, outliers may prove to be ineffective models for scaling any success.

• Charter schools do not appear to address and often seem to mirror or increase key problems with TPS: (a) teacher assignment (high-needs students assigned to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers), (b) class and racial segregation, (c) selectivity and attrition of students, (d) teacher turnover and retention ["churn"], (e) concerns about excluding the most difficult sub-categories of high-needs students [English language learners, special needs students, highest-poverty students, students from home that cannot or will not pursue choices].

• Charter school student outcomes are often complicated by issues of selectivity, attrition, and scalability.

• Some charter school ideologies—notably “no excuses” policies—trigger concerns about classism and racism that are rarely weighed against data.

• Charter schools (along with school choice and home schooling) introduce problems concerning athletic participation as well as a wide range of extracurricular participation in TPS.

• Charter schools also complicate already stressed and controversial TPS funding policies and agendas.

The charter school debate seems to warrant a similar caution that many other reforms now deserve, including VAM-style teacher evaluation. As Di Carlo explains:

As discussed in a previous post, there is a fairly well-developed body of evidence showing that charter and regular public schools vary widely in their impacts on achievement growth. This research finds that, on the whole, there is usually not much of a difference between them, and when there are differences, they tend to be very modest. In other words, there is nothing about “charterness” that leads to strong results.

With commitments to charter schools, many policy makers are moving too quickly and failing to examine the evidence so far along with weighing that evidence against clearly defined problems with TPS and specifically identified goals for the reforms.

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[1] A number of studies inform the list above. Readers are invited to examine a wide array of research and reports listed below, but also urged to search for new evidence:

Charter Schools Not the Answer, Especially if We Fail to Identify the Question, P. L. Thomas

Comparing Teacher Turnover In Charter And Regular Public Schools, Matthew Di Carlo

Charter Schools posts at The Shanker Blog

Search “charter schools” at NEPC

Charter Schools posts at School Finance 101 (Bruce Baker)

Charter Schools research at NCSPE

Search “charter schools” at EPAA

Between Educational Research and the Public, a Cloud of Misinformation

Walt Gardner, blogging at Education Week, has posted “Esoteric Formulas and Educational Research,” concluding (with a focus on the complex formulas used in pursuit of value added methods of evaluating teachers):

“The point is that we are too accepting of research that relies heavily on esoteric formulas. I want evidence to support conclusions about educational issues. But the evidence has to be understandable. Just as legal contracts now are increasingly written with consumers in mind, I hope that educational studies will do the same in the future. Taxpayers are entitled to know if students are being well taught, but they can’t make that judgment when they are given incomprehensible data.”

I would suggest that the greatest problem related to educational research is that a cloud of misinformation exists between good educational research/data and the public; and that this cloud is created by political leaders, think tank advocacy groups, and the media [1] who all either do not understand stats or purposefully misuse stats. I also believe some see the world only through a technocratic lens (such as the pursuit of VAM)—also a huge failure of applying appropriate paradigms in different contexts. Larry Ferlazzo has recently cited Nate Silver, who recognizes VAM as misguided: “There are certainly cases where applying objective measures badly is worse than not applying them at all, and education may well be one of those.”

Democracy and the market both work best for the public good when the public and consumers are informed. Political leaders, think tanks, and the media do no one any good by continually being inept themselves (and dishonest) in the use and misuse of research to drive political agendas or advance their own brand.

Some excellent resources to confront how badly educational research is portrayed for the public see the following:

Bracey, G. W. (2006). Reading educational research: How to avoid getting statistically snookered. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Molnar, A. (2001, April 11). The media and educational research: What we know vs. what the public hears. Milwaukee, WI: Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation. Retrieved from http://epsl.asu.edu/epru/documents/cerai-01-14.htm

Yettick, H. (2009). The research that reaches the public: Who produces the educational research mentioned in the news media? Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/research-that-reaches

[1] See chapters on the media in two of my most recent books: Parental Choice? and Ignoring Poverty in the U.S.