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The Editorial Divide

I’ve become increasingly alarmed at the growing divide between the news and editorial functions of major metropolitan daily newspapers (e.g., in New York City, the New York Times, New York Daily News, and the New York Post; in Washington, DC, the Washington Post). The functions are largely independent, and that is as it should be; the ideological proclivities of the publisher and editorial board should not be shaping what counts as or is reported as news.

To be sure, the editorial page of a newspaper should express a point of view, and a typical reader will likely agree with some viewpoints, and disagree with others. But it’s a very dangerous thing when the editorials of a newspaper are not informed by the daily reporting of its journalists. Ignoring the news, reported with a minimum of spin by “beat” reporters, leads to simple-minded and ignorant editorializing on complex matters of public policy. It’s also insulting to the profession of journalism, and to the many reporters whose goal is simply to understand the news and get the story right. (I talk to some of the reporters to whom I’m referring.)

A case in point is yesterday’s Daily News editorial, “Truth in testing.” The editorial is an effort to shore up claims about the success of school reform in New York City under Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein. Last week’s revelations that the state testing system was dramatically overstating student growth and the closing of the achievement gap rocked the New York City Department of Education on its heels. The Daily News editorial board, which has long supported these reforms, came out firing, citing four “facts”: (1) The State Education Department defrauded parents and students; (2) Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Education Commissioner David Steiner owned up to the deception; (3) The drop triggered bogus charges that the schools have made no progress; and (4) Only radical action will give New York’s kids a shot at the quality education they need.

Interesting points, although they can scarcely be described as “facts.” The most provocative point is the third one. To support the claim of great progress, the editorial states, “From 2006 to 2009, scale scores among city kids rose 23 points in math and 13 points in English. Both held firm in 2010 … And city fourth- and eighth-graders improved on the National Assessment of Educational Progress by far more than kids in the rest of the state and across the country.” To be sure, scale scores on the state assessment did improve over the period 2006 to 2010, although it’s not possible to calculate an average growth like this, because the scales for the state’s assessment system are not vertically equated. (And “holding firm” is an artful way of saying that although the Children First agenda was in full sway in 2009-2010, test scores in New York City did not go up.) If the editorial board had dug a bit deeper into its own pages (see here, here and here), it would have learned that testing experts are unable to determine whether scores rose because student performance improved or because the tests got progressively easier and more predictable over time.

But the question I have is, where did these numbers come from? I’ve reviewed the reporting of the two primary education beat reporters for the Daily News, Meredith Kolodner and Rachel Monahan, and have found no evidence of these figures in their published articles. If the editorial board of the Daily News is going to write about education in New York City, shouldn’t they draw the evidence from the news side of their operation? Surely that would be better than simply parroting a set of talking points provided by the New York City Department of Education. (The figures do appear in a DOE PowerPoint deck released last week.)

Reporters such as Kolodner and Monahan (and their predecessor at the Daily News, Erin Einhorn) strive to learn from different sources, not just their cronies. Talking to people with disparate points of view yields a more balanced picture of the world. For example, if the Daily News editorial board had reviewed the paper’s reporting on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, they would have known that the claims that New York City students improved by far more than kids in the rest of the state and across the country was an out-and-out lie.

Below, I summarize the evidence comparing gains from 2003 to 2009 on the fourth-grade and eighth-grade NAEP reading and math tests in New York City with gains observed in nine other large urban school districts. Overall, scores did rise in New York City over this period, and this is an accomplishment that should not be ignored. But did scores rise faster than in other large districts? You be the judge.

In the chart below, a green arrow indicates that the gains from 2003 to 2009 in a particular subject at a particular grade level were significantly greater in New York City than in a comparison district. A red arrow indicates that the gains in New York City were significantly smaller than in a comparison district. And a grey circle indicates that the gains in New York City were not significantly different from the gains in a comparison district.

Out of 36 comparisons—nine urban districts, two subjects (reading and math), and two grade levels (fourth and eighth)—New York City gained significantly more than a comparison district in only four instances. Conversely, there are ten instances in which another district gained significantly more than New York City over the period 2003 to 2009. The remaining 22 comparisons show no difference in the rate of growth of NAEP scores in New York City and the growth rate for other urban school districts.

It is just not possible to read these results and to conclude that New York City’s fourth- and eighth-grade students improved on the NAEP by far more than kids across the country.

If the Daily News editorial board is going to ignore the careful and thorough reporting of its education beat reporters in favor of talking points provided by the New York City Department of Education, I have a suggestion: Place a black border around the editorial, and in small type at the top, print “Paid Political Advertisement.” That way, we’ll all know the score.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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