Friday, March 18, 2005

State of the Beat: How Are the Kids

State of the Beat: How Are the Kids
Publication Date: 2005-03-14

By LynNell Hancock

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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.


  1. I have wondered at length why more stories from teachers, students, and parents have not surfaced in the media, and this story certainly provides some answers to my questions. It seems to me that until these voices are given PRIORITY and generous space in the media's forum--essentially, made more PUBLIC--the insidious invasiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act will continue to flourish. That said, schools (and school districts) will have to take the brave step of letting reporters into classrooms so that the story CAN be told. Although many educators and school administrators disagree with how testing is driving the curriculum, they put themselves at extreme risk for voicing their concerns. As a fledgling researcher, I understand the nuances necessary for getting into a school system to conduct a study. I find the process overwhelming; in order to conduct research, you have to go in with research agenda that is not overtly controversial or you risk being shut out of schools altogether.

    There is also the fear that what I find in schools--through observations, talking with teachers and staff--will have to be "massaged" through the writing process in order to even be considered for publication. It seems that newspapers, weekly magazines, and other widespread media outlets are reticent to publish stories that criticize legislation directed at "leaving no child behind." It is as if they fear that a critique of this policy will put them in hot water with their owners--if this is the case, then what is the purpose of a news souce in the first place? Because I spent a decade in the classroom, I am still fearful about repercussions attached to my making public the inequities I see in schools, and the growing divide between those students granted an education, and those given only test preparation and little else. Will this threaten future prospects to work in a school district as a reformer? What if my choice to offer a voice of dissent makes me unemployable? Until we can all get out from under this grip of fear and be willing to speak truth to power, students across the nation will continue to endure a substandard education, and the democracy we hold so dear will be increasingly diminished...

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