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Media: Three Ways NYT Gets Turnaround Story Wrong

image from graphics8.nytimes.com Today's Michael Winerip story / column on the nice principal in Vermont forced to switch jobs to make the school eligible for turnaround funding is more than a bit misleading.  First off, it suggests that the nation's failing schools are full of hard-working and effective principals like Joyce Irvine. This is unlikely to be the situation in many places - why focus on exceptional situations?  Second, the story might easily lead readers to think Irvine was laid off, only later revealing she's in the district office -- a promotion, many would call it.  Last and most obvious, the story  mischaracterizes the way schools are rated, suggesting that even the most recently arrived students' test scores count against a school.  In general, students have to attend a school for a year before their scores count against (or for) a school. 
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Points 1 and 3 are well-taken, but not 2 - promotions don't usually entail a pay cut and going into a position you don't want. It's good that she's not on the street, but she's clearly not where she'd like most to be.

#1) The whole point of the story is that the nation's struggling schools are not all led by moronic, uncaring principals. The default impression created by media is that a school where test scores are low is, de facto, populated by lazy/incompetent teachers and weak leadership. I believe the story was written to say--look, this isn't always the truth. And actually, many of the nation's "failing" schools *do* have hard-working principals. Not all, of course.

Maybe the story should have been about figuring out whether a failing school really does have an ineffective principal--but that would be a different story. You can criticize the story for showing a different side of a common misperception. That was the intent. And I would argue that we have no idea what percentage of school "failure" can be blamed on lousy administrators, nationally.

#2) Irvine was bailed out by a compassionate district that didn't want to lose her. Unfortunately, lots of bad principals remain in place in districts where they chose to sacrifice veteran teachers instead (perhaps because it was cheaper to replace teachers with compliant newbies, thus giving the district money for training and facilities). The point is not what happens to a principal after they lose their position--the point is that some of them are unfairly losing their jobs due to bad policy.

#3) Finally--the nit-picking over test scores is precisely what's wrong with education writing: it's become far too complex, and centered around federal regulations poorly understood by even school officials. And look at your last sentence: "student have to attend a school for a year before their scores count against a school."

Is that what it's come to? "Don't come here! We don't want your scores to count against us!?" It's morally repugnant.

"First off, it suggests that the nation's failing schools are full of hard-working and effective principals like Joyce Irvine. This is unlikely to be the situation in many places ..."

How do we know? How do we define "ineffective principal" and determine what proportion of (so-called) "failing" schools have them? How many of them might be improved with a little support and coaching? And for how many is there a surefire, more "effective" replacement waiting in the wings? What are the macro ramifications of painting a target on the back of every principal at a "failing" school?

Winerup uses this single case study to illustrate the implications of this blunt, unthinking policy. I see nothing wrong with this approach. It is certainly no less defensible than condemning all principals of "failing" schools with broad brushstrokes and no supporting evidence whatsoever.


good comments - thanks.
but wouldn't winerip's story have been better / stronger if he'd gotten his facts right about how schools are rated and had some numbers to back up what he implies is a larger problem?

first, tell me how many principals are being removed as part of turnaround efforts. second, make the case that a substantial number of them are as hard working and effective as irvine is made out to be. then we'll have something to talk about. until then, all we have is a sensationalistic story.

as for milder reform efforts, let's assume that the low scores aren't a surprise and -- i would hope -- districts have already tried coaching and PD and all the rest. federal funding for education has gone up at least 50 percent in the last 10 years, and scads of coaches and mentors have been hired. been there, done that.

Principals are going to be the "canary in the coal mine" with these reforms. Regardless of how many effective or ineffective principals there are, turnover is already a huge problem. Even without the added stress of these reforms, schools won't be able to replace exhausted Baby Boomers. Holding principals responsible for meeting test score growth targets, although they don't set district policies, is just as unfair as doing that to teachers. Honorable principals will feel the guilt of beating up on teachers, while others will love the power too much. These test driven evaluations will not effect teachers for a few years, but principals will feel the pain immediately.

You are right that the constant churn of students doesn't directly effect test scores, but they still put vast amounts of work on educators. Principals have long had much too much on their plates. Real turnarounds would require money to build more capacity, not just measure things more. Hopefully we'll see more stories like this. Few educators are aware of the dramatic changes that many will face when they return to school this fall.

I appreciate the interrogation of the article, but I don't find high-stakes testing, NCLB, or RttT any less ridiculous - or less germane to the conversation we, as a country, need to have about the purpose of school - for it.

Out of curiosity, what prompted you to use a word like "nice" instead of "effective" or "good?" It seems like Ms. Irvine did more than be "nice" on the job. Did I miss some subtext or am I ignorant of a Times bias? "Nice" sounds dismissive of Irvine, rather than of the article.

Sincerely,
Chad

Unfortunately, Vermont does not seem to publicly report the number of students excluded from NECAP testing per school. However, according to the Guide to Using the 2009 NECAP Reports:

"First Year LEP—Students in this category are defined as being new to the US after October 1, 2008 and were not required to take the NECAP tests in reading and writing. Students in this category were expected to take the mathematics portion of the NECAP."

144 students took the math, 138 took the reading, so that suggests six official first year LEP.

In this case you have to remember that the NECAP is given in October. So a student new to the country at the beginning of the 2008 school year would be required to take the 2009 NECAP. Also, other students transferring into the school at the beginning of the year take the test in October. There are two separate reports, "teaching year" and "testing year," where the former tracks where students were taught the previous year and the latter just includes whomever takes the test in the school in October. The "testing year," unfortunately, tends to be the one used and reported.

The school is 42% ELL. That is an extremely high percentage for any school that isn't an explicit ELL intake school for a city like New York.

You are incorrect about ESL students and testing. As the story accurately points out, a student who arrives in this country is tested in math immediately. The one year reprieve (to allow one year to become fully fluent in a foreign language and all that entails) is for language portions of the test only. Anyone who teaches today knows how heavily laden math is. Yet, it is assumed by the federal government that numbers are universal and thus math knowledge is testable even in a foreign language.

"but wouldn't winerip's story have been better / stronger if he'd gotten his facts right about how schools are rated and had some numbers to back up what he implies is a larger problem?

first, tell me how many principals are being removed as part of turnaround efforts. second, make the case that a substantial number of them are as hard working and effective as irvine is made out to be."

Sure. But of course that would be a massive research project, because the numbers don't exist. It should really be the job of the US DOE to come up with some credible numbers on how many schools are really "failing" -- and no, simplistic cuts of the lowest 5% on state tests or graduation rates don't count -- and what the reasons for this "failure" might be. Or maybe the Gates foundation could fund such a study. In any event, it's far beyond the capacity of a newspaper reporter working with a limited budget, little coercive power to extract data from school systems, and a tight deadline.

You missed what I think is the biggest thing that was flat out wrong about the article: Removing the principal is simply not necessary. The district could have gone with the "easy way out" that most districts have gone to:
(v) Any other major restructuring of the school's governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms, such as significant changes in the school's staffing and governance, to improve student academic achievement in the school and that has substantial promise of enabling the school to make adequate yearly progress as defined in the State plan under section 1111(b)(2).
The reason the law is so weak is its incredible flexibility. There was no reason that the district had to fire her. If they really wanted her in that position, there were other options open to them.

everyone disagrees with me except this guy at the education standard, who feels like winerip is taking a cheap shot at "big government" instead of focusing on kids:
http://theeducationstandard.wordpress.com/2010/07/19/ny-times-misconstrues-school-turnaround/

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