Special report: The fruit of a forty-year script!
Think about this logically. It is IMPOSSIBLE to make immediate improvement. Only after the School superintendent has been around several years or more will it begin to be reasonable to ask the questions: "how much progress, if any?"PART 4—LESSONS LEARNED (permalink): Are Baltimore’s public schools doing better since Andres Alonso took charge?
Sabrina Tavernise seemed to give that impression when she profiled Alonso in the December 2 New York Times (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/8/10). “For years, this city had one of the worst school systems in the country,” she wrote in her opening paragraph. “[P]roficiency levels were far below the national average.” A bit later on, she described the mayhem before Alonso took charge—became superintendent—in 2007:TAVERNISE (12/2/10): When the school board offered him the job of superintendent in 2007, [Alonso] took it without ever having set foot in the city. Nine commissioners met him three times in different places in Maryland, in order to avoid talk that he was leaving his job in New York.
''It's a test case for what's possible,'' Dr. Alonso said. ''There were incredible opportunities because the troubles were so big.''
Different in this case would mean that he lasts 2+ years.The system had churned through six superintendents in six years, so Dr. Alonso's priority was to persuade people that things would be different this time. For his changes to work, he needed a lot of support, but that took some convincing.
Hell, you weren't even really wanted for bake sales.''The community felt alienated,'' said Bishop Douglas I. Miles, a pastor at Koinonia Baptist Church and a major sponsor of youth programs in the city. ''There was a sense that we weren't wanted except to do bake sales.''
Poor Baltimore! For years, the city’s proficiency levels were far below the national average. And not only that! Before Alonso took charge, the city had endured six superintendents in just six years! What Tavernise doesn’t say is the following: In at least the four years before Alonso took charge, Baltimore’s proficiency rates were rising on the state of Maryland’s annual tests. In the three years since Alonso took charge, proficiency rates have continued to rise—at roughly the same rate.
But Bob - haven't I seen that movie before on TV - negros and even Latinos can be taught how to jump 4-5 grade levels in just a couple of months with the right kind of Samuel L Jackson tough love.There’s no way to know if those rising rates simply reflect easier tests.
For various reasons, it’s hard to know what to make of Baltimore’s improved passing rates, before and after Alonso arrived. But all through her high-profile portrait, Tavernise openly fawns to Alonso, in ways we’ve already discussed. And her fawning follows a forty-year script: In this familiar pseudo-journalistic tale, an energetic reformer takes over a school (or now, a school system) and seems to make miracles happen.
Nothing we say here is meant as criticism of Alonso, who didn’t write the profile in question. But as we pondered this fawning profile, we took away three major lessons. Incomparably, we’ve discussed these lessons many times in the past:
Instruction doesn’t seem to matter: Tavernise never explicitly claims that Alonso has improved academic performance, although she gives that impression right from her opening paragraph. In this type of fawning profile, the journalist will typically run through a list of changes the subject has allegedly made—changes which explain the improvement he has allegedly wrought. Discussing Alonso, Tavernise discusses his outreach to the community; she also discusses changes concerning the suspension of students and changes he has made concerning budget decision-making.
Inevitably, she also discusses a wonderful change in which Baltimore teachers have agreed to be “compensated based on performance, not longevity.”
At no point does Tavernise offer evidence that these reforms have actually “worked”—that they have actually led to improved academic achievement. But something else can’t be found in this piece. At no point do we read about any changes Alonso has made regarding instruction. How should deserving low-income children be taught, starting on Day One of kindergarten? At no point does Tavernise suggest that Alonso has made any changes in this basic part of the deal.
We don’t mean this as a criticism of Alonso, who may have prompted pedagogical changes which Tavernise simply skipped past. But again and again when we read these profiles, the most basic parts of a school system—curriculum, instructional method—escape any mention at all. In fact, today’s “educational reformers” often seem to have no real ideas in these basic areas. Know-nothing journalists, knowing nothing, don’t seem to notice this flaw.
The lovely shall be fawned to: “The lovely shall be choosers,” Frost wrote—and the favored shall be fawned to. Why did the New York Times choose to fawn to Alonso, in the absence of any specific claim that his reforms have actually “worked?” We can’t necessarily answer that question. But it’s hard to doubt that the answer lurks in this brief shining paragaraph:TAVERNISE: [Baltimore] is a particularly stark laboratory for urban school reforms. It is a fraction of the size of New York, where Dr. Alonso was a deputy to Chancellor Joel I. Klein, and more troubled than Washington, whose many private schools and status as the nation's capital have complicated overhaul efforts.As we’ve noted, it’s hard to make sense of Tavernise’s dramatic claim that Baltimore “is a particularly stark laboratory for urban school reforms.” But in the world of know-nothing education journalism, “school reform” is now synonymous with the types of approaches favored by Chancellor Klein and his high-profile associates, including former Washington chancellor Michelle Rhee. To scribes at the Washington Post and the New York Times, these “reformers” are presumed to be right in virtually every approach. As a result, their efforts will be fawned to, even in reports which make no specific claims about actual academic success created by their approaches.
Urban schools need (reliable) annual tests: We’ve often said that we can’t imagine running an urban school system without (reliable) annual tests. Tavernise’s fawning report helps show why we say that.
The data dearth - which the reporters never seem to notice. HmmmmBaltimore does conduct annual testing, though we’re not sure the tests in question—the Maryland statewide tests—are truly reliable at this point. In recent years, several major states, including New York, have renounced past results from their statewide testing programs; we’re not sure that Maryland’s tests can be assumed to be better. At any rate, Tavernise makes no attempt to discuss the gains in passing rates which have occurred in Baltimore during Alonso’s tenure. This doesn’t stop her from implying that great gains have occurred during his short, three-year reign.
Translation: Absent reliable testing programs, big school systems and their cheerleaders can tell the public just about anything about the success they’ve engendered. In this case, Tavernise paints a glowing portrait in the absence of any attempt to examine testing data. If city school systems had no tests at all, such claims would be made all the time, by the self-impressed systems themselves and by their fawning allies.
Children in urban school systems matter (they matter VERY much). At least once a year, their parents deserve to be given a rough idea how their children are doing in school. Absent reliable testing programs, anyone can—and will—tell these parents any darn thing they please.
We the people are in the same boat. Absent hard, reliable data, the public can be told any darn thing about the progress in urban schools. Tavernise makes this all too clear in her dumb, fawning report.
Interestingly, the State of Iowa seems to have a clue! And the reporters for the Des Moines Register do too!This report is the fruit of a tired old script. Scribes have fawned about (favored) urban schools for decades, misleading us all in the process.