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Magazines: Last Week's Problematic New Yorker Parent Opt Out Story

image from www.newyorker.comI've got no objection to the New Yorker covering parents opting out of standardized testing for their kids.  

I and others have written about it a ton.  The more the merrier.

But last week's piece (The Defiant Parents) in the New Yorker didn't seem like the magazine's best effort.  

In fact, it seemed pretty lazy.  

Of course, reasonable people can disagree about the merits of opting out or the best way to cover the story,and it's only a blog post online rather than a full feature article.  

But I have to admit I was pretty disappointed -- their stuff is usually very good.

Take a look at the specifics below and let me know what you think.

For starters, the writer (Rebecca Mead) is a parent at one of the schools involved where educators are encouraging opts outs this spring. That's fine, but maybe for a personal essay rather than a journalistic piece.

Most of the ground being covered -- middle-class parents and progressive educators being uncomfortable with testing -- is familiar and narrowly constructed and super vague at key points:

The opt out movement is described as "bourgeoning" but not quantified beyond that.

Low pass rates on new state tests are presented as evidence that low-income families are being "demoralized" but there aren't any low-income families presented who are opting out.

The use of outside "corporate" vendors to develop the tests is presented as if the writer thinks pencils and textbooks and tablets used in schools only come from nonprofits or public agencies.

The amount of testing -- a little over an hour a day for a week -- is presented as if it's an enormous amount of time without any clear rationale.

For me, any self-respecting opt out story has to indicate the size of the movement (or that the number is unknown over might be very small), give readers context on why annual testing exists, and (particularly in this case) back up claims that testing is hurting low-income families in particular. But that's just me. 

Image via the New Yorker.



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The New Yorker has an interesting history with education "reform." A few years ago they ran a lengthy puff piece, laden with inaccuracies and claims that didn't add up, about Steve Barr, whose latest wildly hyped effort in New Orleans just collapsed.

Quite a few more years ago, a very respected New Yorker writer did a long, seriously gushing puff piece on a for-profit charter school operator, Advantage Schools. Shortly thereafter, the Boston Globe followed up with an expose on the many problems (academic, financial, logistic) in Advantage Schools (which was based in Boston but had schools around the country). Very soon after that, Advantage Schools collapsed.

While journalistic standards call for correcting specific factual errors, there isn't really a standard covering what to do when an entire article is revealed by subsequent events to be a total misfire, so the New Yorker never followed up on the Advantage embarrassment.

The last paragraph of the Mead piece is completely, utterly preposterous. Opt-outers are really doing it for the poor, the unaware, the powerless? Prove it or STFU, pardon my French.

In addition to this and the failure to quantify "burgeoning" (320 kids / ~400,000), there are some disclosure hiccups. Mead's child's school admits children in exactly the same way that charter schools do, and the skimmed, creamed result is a school that is considerably whiter and more affluent than its district (yes, even District 15). In another recent Mead piece, she mentioned that she lives near Fort Greene Park. She is zoned for one of three schools that are decidedly not white or affluent, one of them being the K-5 elementary that's the default K-5 elementary for the shelter Dasani used to live in. Perhaps helping out the less fortunate isn't as high on her list of priorities as the final paragraph of her piece would lead one to believe.

If anything is demoralizing kids, it is test prep, not the tests themselves. If BNS is putting an end to test prep as well as smoothing the skids for those who want to opt out, more power to them. But how opting out will make schools and districts eschew test prep has not been explained to me.

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