First Person

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 TimesNew 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.

naep-comparisons

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.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.