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Media: Everything You Read In That Mother Jones Article Is Wrong

image from www.motherjones.comThis recent Mother Jones feature (Everything You've Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong) has gotten a lot of attention over the past week, among reform critics and fans of longform writing especially.  (There's a radio segment from KQED, too A Year at Mission High: Forum.)

Much of the praise is deserved.  The piece (written by Kristina Rizga) is vivid and well written, compelling and challenging.  But I'm not sure it's really all that convincing, or fair.  It makes some errors of fact surrounding the operation of the NCLB and SIG programs that I have come to find infuriatingly common. 

The feature denounces over-reliance on stereotypes of struggling schools and the use narrow slices of data, but then does a poor job (in my opinion) moving past stereotypes of federal policymaking and avoiding false connections.

The basis case made in the piece is that kids -- and "failing" schools -- do much better in real world measures of academic progress than they do on standardized tests. Schools like Mission High aren't failing, really.  They just don't test well.

The suggestion is that there are lots of low-performing schools like Mission High, in terms of either diversity, progress, or other measures like college acceptance rates.  But there's really no evidence of this. There may be handfuls of schools like Mission HS, but not enough to make them representative of low performing schools over all. A more typical low-performing school wouldn't have let Rizga in to report on it.

The article is equally misleading when it comes to descriptions of the laws that govern schools.  According to the piece, failure to perform on state tests results in "stiff penalities" for schools like the one being profiled here. But this is just nonsense.  The principal at Mission High stays on the job - he's a relatively recent arrival.  His school gets a windfall of cash. The protagonist -- an immigrant student named Maria -- is dismayed that her standardized test scores are so much lower than her classroom performance but otherwise unimpeded in her academic progress.   

So again, much to admire by way of reporting and writing, but not so much when it comes to representing struggling schools or federal law fairly or carefully.  

Comments

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Misrepresenting what’s actually going on in education, solutions to problems that might actually work, seems to be a worryingly prevalent trend in modern journalism. “Maria”’s problem wouldn’t really impact her, but rather her school, just as an example.

@Sarah, you're joking, right? Even respected mainstream journalists do pretty much nothing but rewrite the press releases from the so-called "reform" sector -- the coverage of the parent trigger fiasco is a definite case in point.

That's one reason Kristina Rizka's article -- in which she spent a year in the school and wrote what she saw and knew -- is getting a lot of attention. Alexander praises it with faint damns, but your comment is just entirely out of touch with reality.

Hi Alex--Thank you for reading and commenting. Just wanted to respond to some of your specific comments:

1. “The suggestion is that there are lots of low-performing schools like Mission High, in terms of either diversity, progress, or other measures like college acceptance rates. But there's really no evidence of this.”

Is there an academic study that has looked at most of our country’s 100,000 schools and evaluated them in a more nuanced way--test scores, quality of student work, graduation rates, college enrollment, or parent and student satisfaction surveys--than just test scores? I couldn’t find any. I also found very few reported stories that went beyond the test scores, which I point out is a shame. It gives us overly simple answers to very complicated questions.

But some education reporters have found schools where there was a disconnect between what the tests showed and what students and community said about the quality of their schools.

For example, see The New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/27/nyregion/brooklyn-school-failing-by-the-data-succeeds-where-it-counts.html

Or PBS’ John Merrow:
http://learningmatters.tv/blog/on-pbs-newshour/good-school-bad-school/7162/

Question for you: Where is the evidence for your strong conviction that most schools are NOT like Mission High? How do you know?

2. “The article is equally misleading when it comes to descriptions of the laws that govern schools.  According to the piece, failure to perform on state tests results in "stiff penalities" for schools like the one being profiled here. But this is just nonsense. The principal at Mission High stays on the job - he's a relatively recent arrival.  His school gets a windfall of cash.”

I know that you know that SIG comes with both carrots (funding) and sticks (request to choose four restructuring options). Yes, Mission High uses a loophole but that doesn’t mean that the rest of 843 SIG schools didn’t have to go through radical changes. Are you saying that a requirement to replace the principal or half of the staff are not “stiff penalties?”

“The protagonist -- an immigrant student named Maria -- is dismayed that her standardized test scores are so much lower than her classroom performance but otherwise unimpeded in her academic progress.”

Actually, if you read the story closely you see that Maria views test scores--as most immigrant students I met do--as a meaningful grade by the people outside of her school and it did deplete Maria’s confidence when she first saw the score. Did she still get good grades? Yes, but it took a lot of work by her teachers and counselors to convince her that she is still smart despite the fact that she is still learning English and struggling with basic skills that she didn’t get in her previous rural school in El Salvador.

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