Superintendents and reform: predicting the pain.
People want to see test scores rise, fast. Well, guess what? The kind of change required for that to happen causes pain. Lots. ALWAYS. Superintendents are brought in with the hope and expectation they’ll wipe away problems, and then, invariably, the community freaks out at the collateral damage.
Michelle Rhee is the latest to have her feet held to the fire
in this regard, but it’s been happening to superintendents at districts large and small for years. J.H. Snider nailed it in this EdWeek commentary
from 2006. I’m really big on the idea that journalists should be out in front on these kinds of issues. Well before the accusations and fury—before the appointments, even, if possible—they should do analytical reporting on what forms the pain of achieving new, high goals might take, and to what degree the community is prepared for it.
And you thought sausage-making was messy.
If you were an eighth-grader in an unnamed southeastern state taking a writing assessment in 1997 that described “someone or something who is important in your life,” you’d better hope your test was graded after lunch. Before lunch, a certain answer would have given you a failing score of 2. After lunch, once a state official deemed she was seeing too many 2’s, and the scorers complied by inflating grades—rubric be damned—that same essay would have gotten a 3.
Such is the state of the supersecret standardized testing industry, according to Todd Farley, who tells of the 15 years he spent writing and scoring test items in the new book Making the Grades
. Farley worked for and on many of the biggies: ETS, Pearson, Riverside, NCS; NAEP, WASL, the SOLs in Virginia, the California high school exit exam and more.
Farley comes across as smug, and spends a little too much time telling us the work was boring, the break schedule sucked, the companies wasted money. I don’t care that scorers had to work fast, grading an essay every minute or so. But I care that failing several qualifying tests does not disqualify you for a scoring job. I care that format often counts more than content. I care that supervisors cheat, changing scores not because they are wrong but because they don’t match each other or the psychometrician-predicted score spread. Kids and teachers and schools are being judged through a system we count on as standard, yet the process is rife with disagreement—grading one practice essay, scorers came up with every possible mark, from 1 through 6.
“I believe if a student was told he or she earned a 37 out of a possible 50 points on a test, after rescoring that very test might well be scored a 41, or a 33, or a 38, or a 34, or a 42, or a 35, ad infinitum,” Farley writes.
The book is filled with powerful examples. Coming from a newspaper and narrative background, though, having known the intensity of rushing to the bathroom to write down a conversation exactly as it happened and the tedium of transcribing those notes every day, I’m frustrated when an author presents direct dialogue or essays written years ago as if they are true examples rather than approximations. Farley’s book, he told me, contains both, and I wish he would have been more clear about that.
But I don’t doubt the veracity of his experience. Sloppy tests, sloppy rubrics, sloppy scoring: I heard much of the same when I interviewed scorers for Tested. In a 2002 essay in Salon, former scorer Amy Weivoda wrote that “after a few hours or days or weeks, we'd sleepwalk and skim and assign scores sort of randomly.”
In his presidential campaign, Barack Obama called for “assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test.” But reading Farley’s book, you start to see the appeal of Scantron.
P.S. Speaking of Scantron, what is the problem with publishers? The book cover art is a multiple-choice answer sheet. THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT WRITTEN ANSWERS. Reminds me of when my publisher tried to put a white girl in a private school uniform on the cover of Tested. I think there were three white kids at that school.
Reporters and the Gates Foundation.
This excellent AP story
by Libby Quaid and Donna Blankinship about the Gates Foundation’s huge influence on education policy made me even more concerned that many (though not all) reporters tell me how hard it is to get foundation staff to call them back. Today I spoke with Chris Williams, the Gates media officer handling K-12 education. (He returned my call the day I placed it.)
Chris said that there are only two people answering media calls for the U.S. program: he and Marie Groark, who handles higher ed. They are both also program officers. Therefore, busy. Chris said that he’s probably not going to call you back if your deadline is a couple weeks away. You may have to try three or four times before he responds. The foundation has a policy of never commenting on grants that have not yet been approved, and, Chris said, “lots of the queries that come to us are better answered by our grantees. They’re the ones on the ground doing the work.”
Journalists have told me district officials are often fearful of discussing their Gates grants. And a few reporters say they have had such trouble reaching the foundation that they have given up trying. It shouldn’t be that hard, but with $200 million a year at stake—not to mention an important role in helping states win the Race to the Top billions—it shouldn’t stop anyone, either.
Chris is at email@example.com or 206-709-3317 (office) or 206-295-6013 (cell). Marie is at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-709-3299. On issues regarding Washington state, libraries and community grant-making, call the communications media line at 206-709-3400.
Full disclosure: EWA receives some funding from the Gates Foundation, and Marie is one of our board members.
Why do college students need summer vacation?
Some of Lamar Alexander’s article
in the October 20 issue of Newsweek didn’t work for me (primarily, his attempt to scare people by insisting health care reform will drive up college costs), but he raises a good point when he suggests colleges run a full program year-round. I got a lot done on my summers off from college—performed surgery on lab rats, did PR for a children’s theater, served Fribbles at Friendly’s, wrote mediocre metro stories for the Middletown Press. But beyond the work opportunities, is there a good reason to pretty much shut college down over the summer? Have there been any stories about places reconsidering this?
Imagine controlling the hand that feeds you!
If there’s an Imagine charter school in your district, you should read David Hunn’s piece
in Sunday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Imagine CEO suggesting to its school leaders how they might manipulate the boards that control them. The unedited e-mail
is pretty brazen.
Did I mention I do windows?
In responses to our survey of people who have used the public editor resource, several mentioned they would like a clearer explanation of what I can help with.
Some background: EWA created the public editor position in 2008 in response to complaints from education journalists that they are thrown into the beat with little background, their editors don’t have as much time for them as they used to, and they are asked to take on more and more work. (More with less!
) The position is funded by several foundations: Lumina, Spencer, Carnegie, Joyce, Pew.
What do I do? I suggest sources and research, talk over ideas and help reporters put stories into national context. I’ve advised reporters on how to deal with recalcitrant superintendents, or editors. I critique pieces already published or edit ones in progress. If you’re an author, current or aspiring: I’ve helped writers shape proposals, commented on manuscripts and suggested avenues for publicity. I’ve put freelancers in touch with editors. I’ve edited resumes and cover letters.
The service is free; you don’t have to belong to EWA to get my help
—though we’d love it if you joined
. You can be an experienced education writer or working on your first piece—the only requirement I can think of is that you write, edit or produce education journalism (a term I think of in its broadest sense). You can call or e-mail
me anytime, about anything. When I don’t know how to help, I’ll put you in touch with someone who can.
One reporter said in the survey she didn’t want to wear out her welcome. Really, you can’t.
Why don't reporters visit teaching colleges?
Secretary Duncan came down
on teachers colleges yesterday. This isn’t a new concern. Yet I don’t think I have EVER read a piece in the media about what exactly people learn, and don’t learn, at schools of education. Can we fix that?
NPR has touched on the topic in its current series on teacher preparation
; I hope they go deeper. I’d like to see specifics. If you write about schools, visit the college most of your district’s teachers graduated from. What exactly is the disconnect between what they’re taught there and what they need once they leave? What courses are required, and what courses do school district officials wish had been required? Many teachers I know say they learned terrific techniques in school that they are sad not to be able to put into use in their classrooms, for various reasons. They also talk about classes that sound pretty useless and things they never learned well, such as how to teach special ed students.
I am a fan of alternative certification and have little tolerance for the bureaucratic hoops you have to go through to teach; don’t get me started about the time the dean of a traditional program for which my middle school book was required reading told me I didn’t have the prerequisites to even be accepted. But I don’t see great stories on the preparation those teachers go through either.
Given the prominence teacher quality has in the national debate, it seems like an obvious story to write—for K-12 reporters, higher ed reporters or both.
High heels in kindergarten: a story idea.
Okay, so I admit I’m always a little taken aback when I am visiting a school and see Latina kindergartners wearing frilly dresses and high heels. I’ve heard more than one teacher snicker at this; it makes it hard to sit criss-cross applesauce and participate in P.E. But after EWA’s meeting
on Latino youth issues with the Pew Hispanic Center earlier this month, I get it.
Linda Lutton, a Chicago Public Radio reporter who lived in her husband’s Mexican hometown for three years, told of how her daughter’s report card there was great but for one blemish: a low mark for cleanliness. Cleanliness! Apparently her ponytail was too mussy; rows of straight comb marks should have been evident. Claudio Sanchez, of National Public Radio, who was born in Nogales, Mexico, mentioned a saying he heard often in childhood. No matter how poor you are, no matter how tattered your clothes, no matter if you are stuck in the middle of the desert, you need to act purely and appear como gotas de agua fresca—drops of fresh water.
If I came from a country where kids were graded on neatness and appearance were a treasured virtue, I’d send my child to school in a party dress too. Can somebody please write a story about this? It would go a long way toward greater cultural understanding in our schools. Plus, great art!
What the teacher research DOESN'T say.
In his education speech
to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March, President Obama said, “From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents. It’s the person standing at the front of the classroom.”
To put it bluntly: “He’s wrong.”
That assessment comes from noted teacher quality researcher Dale Ballou at Vanderbilt’s National Center on Performance Incentives. As well, Doug Harris at University of Wisconsin, Doug Staiger at Dartmouth—and, well, those are just the first three I called. Not that any of them have any dearth of concern about the variance in teacher quality, or the power of a good teacher to drive improvement. But they agree that in their speeches and writing, politicians, policy makers and journalists often misrepresent what, exactly, the evidence has shown.
Which is: Of the various factors inside school, teacher quality has had more effect on student scores than any other that has been measured. (Principal quality: Nobody’s effectively isolated this yet, that I know of, but I’d venture to guess it makes as much if not more of a difference.) And that an effective teacher can move students of all backgrounds forward. Certainly nobody has ever proven that good teaching matters more than, say, genetic endowment, or home environment.
There’s much more about the research that I’ll talk about later, such as the nature of the good-teacher-several-years-in-a-row findings and the complications of translating all this into policy. But for now, just remember: When you read that teachers are the most important school factor, you can’t drop the “school” and pass it on.
Researchers: Is there anything else you think people are consistently getting wrong in the public conversation on education? Let me know.
Sad news about Jerry Bracey.
Hours after starting my blog, I heard from Jerry Bracey
. If you are an education reporter at any sizable media outlet and never heard from Jerry Bracey, I am surprised. He dedicated himself to correcting, not always politely, what he saw as misinformation in education research and journalism. As a frequent recipient of his long analyses, let me tell you, he found misinformation everywhere.
News is flying through the lefty education world that Jerry has passed away. Susan Ohanian spoke with a friend who talked with his wife yesterday, who said he died in his sleep at his home in Port Townsend, Washington. (It goes against everything I learned in a decade at the Washington Post to type this without knowing more.) I can tell you he went to bed late, as his rant to me—about a piece on teachers in the L.A. Times—was mailed at 2:20 a.m. Typical Bracey.
I didn’t always agree with Jerry. I didn’t always understand
Jerry. But I always appreciated his passion and his attempts to get journalists to think critically—and back himself up with data.
The blue moon has come.
When my brother Rick and I were in third grade, we had a teacher named Mrs. Frankiewicz. Mrs. Frankiewicz used to say that she never made mistakes—just once in a blue moon. One day, when she wrote something incorrectly on the board, my brother pronounced, “The blue moon has come!” (Genius then, genius now.) So “the blue moon has come” is the Perlsteinian term for hell freezing over.
Well, blue moons and frozen hell—I have a blog. My aversion to the concept of blogging is no secret. I loathe the word and all of its derivations, so much so that my husband got me this t-shirt
. Yet every time I rant about something, he says, “You should start a blog.” Grrrr. I don’t feel like the world needs unexpurgated access to everybody’s rants, nor their raves. I don’t want to read a commentary on how cute your children are, what TV shows you’re watching, what books you are reading (even if it is one
) or what you made for dinner last night.
Unless it was cupcakes. Because I have been known to read blogs about cupcakes
. And bad celebrity clothing choices
. And journalism
. And even education policy
. So, yeah, I guess I read blogs all the time. But I still never wanted to write one. In my job interview to become public editor for the Education Writers Association, one of the many people around the big conference room table (seven against one—how fair is that?) asked if I would be willing to blog. I changed the subject. I still got the job.
A year and a half later, it turns out I am
willing, and eager. My job is to help improve coverage of education, through direct coaching of journalists and broader commentary. (If you want to know more about it, or contact me for help, look here
.) So a blog makes all kinds of sense. I find myself taking up issues on EWA's internal listserve and in our newsletter
that I realize people outside the organization might like to hear about. When I have a story idea to suggest, or when an oft-repeated myth needs debunking—no, states do NOT build prisons based on third-grade reading levels—or when a report comes out I know reporters will be calling about, I’ll have a place to share.
And, of course, a blog’s comments allow a give-and-take, which I look forward to. EWA’s listserves are a great spot for discussion. (Members only, but you should join
!) I don’t mean to supplant that. But it can’t hurt to have a broader conversation, open to everyone.
I believe that one of the most important purposes of journalism about education, or any social issue, is to explore the point at which policy meets reality. This is especially the case during fast-moving times for policy-making—like now. In many ways, the national debate is moving quicker than the journalism. If you visit this blog, you’ll get my take on how reporters can pull ahead and make sure the right questions are asked before
new approaches are in place. My job is not to take positions on policy, but it's certainly my duty to point out inconsistencies and gaps that journalists should explore.
A few things:
- Part of my job is calling out bad journalism, but I have no desire to embarrass anyone. I am a coach—and not the Bill Parcells kind. When I was in college, I was a crew coxswain, responsible for making sure eight rowers moved in sync. My freshman coach gave me a tip: praise people by name, but critique them by seat number. I’ll single out stories for kudos, but criticism will come in the collective. If you want to read a blog that picks on individual reporters, go elsewhere.
- I think imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and an important step to good journalism. Do I encourage plagiarism? Of course not. But there are so many local stories I read that I wish everyone were writing in their own cities. That’s a big theme of my newsletter columns and will continue to be a theme here.
- I am new to this whole thing; I don’t know the etiquette yet. I welcome tips and comments. But don’t be a jerk.
- I guess I lied when I told the many people “following” me on Twitter that I would never, ever tweet. I will post notifications of new blog posts to @lindaperlstein and on Facebook.
- I may not be able to resist the occasional reference to food or reality television, and I’m certainly going to talk about what books I’m reading, insofar as they are related to education, or journalism, or both. But I promise never to write about how cute my child is.