Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Authoritarian journalism

See my follow-up post to the one below, Authoritarian journalism, over at The Cucking Stool.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Propagating a dishonest narrative

Democracy depends upon an informed electorate - that is the main reason the Minnesota Constitution mandates primary and secondary education. A polity cannot make rational decisions about self-government without reliable information about the country and state, along with citizens who can make sense of that information. It is one of the reasons we have the First Amendment.

In the field of education discourse, the notion of an informed electorate is in the trash bin, as it has been since 1983, when the Reagan Administration issued its erroneous and inflammatory Nation At Risk study, which implied that without big changes in our education system the country would be on a downward trajectory. That was the first insult to honest discourse in education.

The second came eight years later, when the first president Bush and some of the nation's governors, taking Nation At Risk seriously, commissioned a comprehensive study of American education, charging the reputable national lab at Sandia with putting its quality and effectiveness in historical and international perspective.

But the Republicans didn't get what they expected from the researchers at Sandia. Contrary to the chicken-little proclamations of Nation At Risk, it turned out that education in this country was basically excellent - and had been improving for 20 years. Indeed, said the Sandia report:
To our surprise, on nearly every measure we found steady or slightly improving trends.
Not only that, but
America's on-time high school graduation rate has remained steady for more than 20 years, hovering somewhere between 75% and 80%
Perhaps most significant was NAR's lie that the future workforce was threatened:
Our research on the technical work forces of various nationals also reflected well on the U.S. education system...the overall technical degree attainment by the work force is unparalleled in the world.
Nation At Risk had turned statistics on their heads. For example, NAR stated that SAT scores had been dropping. But it failed to note they were dropping because more students - from lower echelons of high school attainment - were now taking the test, and bringing the mean down. If researchers controlled for high school attainment the drop in scores disappeared.

When Sandia got ready to submit its report a firestorm erupted in the Republican government in Washington and the report was buried. It wasn't published until two years later, in 1993, in an educational journal, where it was almost completely ignored in traditional media (although those in deep education discourse took notice), making it Project Censored's number three most ignored report for 1993.

Which is a shame, because in one sector of the report, titled "Status of educators," the authors worried not that bad teachers couldn't be fired, but that regular teachers would be demoralized by unfounded attacks based on faulty assertions:
We believe that the low opinion educators hold of themselves and the poor public perception of teachers are based on misinterpretations of simplistic data...
This unfortunate cycle of low self-esteem, followed by unfounded criticism from the public, raises the specter of a downward spiral in future educational quality.
So the report on the accusations contained in the the Nation At Risk study basically said it was bunk, and that a public worked up into a frenzy against public school teachers could actually hurt primary and secondary education. But as I said, the Sandia report had virtually no impact on public discourse. It didn't advance the right wing narrative that our schools were going to hell in a hand basket, taking our children with them, and the fault lay with those nasty teachers' unions, and so it was ignored.

Twenty years later and we know the results of the efforts of the so-called reformers of the 80s, 90s and aughts: They have failed. The experimental schools they proposed - voucher and charter schools - do a worse job of educating children. At the same time public school teachers have been under relentless attack. The predictions of the Sandia study have come true.

Even hard core supporters of NAR and school choice have now admitted their errors - Diane Ravitch being the most obvious example. Even the scientific racist Charles Murray now admits the experiment failed. And yet - we continue on. Now a Democratic - Democratic! - president is advancing this false narrative, seeking to create more failed charter schools and pushing for loosened teacher certification standards. The president seems to think that all that time teachers spend in college learning how to teach is worth nothing.

Given the false narrative propagated of both failing public schools and the supposed culpability of teachers' unions in their failure it should come as no surprise that politically driven traditional media would jump on this bandwagon. It is simply too much to ask that popular media either resist or correct false narratives that pander to important media constituencies such as advertisers, who tend to be conservative, or vocal institutional critics such as those setup by conservative philanthropies.

So it is that the Star Tribune in Minneapolis should be on a permanent campaign against regular public school teachers and their unions, from dishonest op-eds, to dishonest editorials, to dishonest stories in its news pages - the narrative is always the same - our public schools suck, and the reason is teachers' unions.

I can imagine the conversation in the Star Tribune newsroom a few weeks back as it launched its latest broadside, "State's Bad teachers rarely get fired", against public school teachers, starting with editors charging reporters with the task of proving that the state's school districts suck because they cannot fire bad teachers. Normally good-government reporting would start with having to prove that the issue they were addressing - a supposed decline in the quality of public primary and secondary education, in this case - was truly a problem.

In the case of education reporting, however, the narrative is all that matters. Reporting in the Strib never comes close to analyzing if there really is a problem with public primary and secondary education. It jumps right over that step, and several others as well, right to the headline, "State's bad teachers rarely get fired." Editors know that readers understand the underlying narrative that has been blasted at them for years.

Are there really a lot of bad teachers in Minnesota? The story admits this question is nearly impossible to answer. How much does teacher quality affect education, anyways? And is it really difficult to fire bad teachers? This is where the Strib story really gets into false narrative.

Since there is no real scientific proof that our schools are failing horribly, or that teachers' unions are the reason, when media looks for "experts" to ratify the prevailing narrative they most often turn to the people who ramped up the attack in the first place.

In the Strib's case they turned to something called the "National Council on Teacher Quality" to corroborate the author's own assertion that
"...overwhelming evidence...shows how important good teachers are to student learning. Minnesota has been hammered by one national study after another in recent months for not doing enough to fire bad teachers and having no system to evaluate them."
The charges from the NCTQ were alarming, to say the least:
In January, the National Council on Teacher Quality gave Minnesota an "F" in "exiting ineffective teachers" on its annual report card on state teacher policies. The council also cited the state as one of 23 having no state policy for getting rid of bad teachers.
But what is the National Council on Teacher Quality? Despite using the NCTQ as a bedrock source,  the Strib doesn't qualify it in ANY way - it merely implies the organization's apparent objectivity.

It turns out, though, the NCTQ is a right wing outfit funded by usual conservative philanthropies that have agitated against teachers' unions using changing rationales for decades, including the loathsome Bradley Foundation, the virtual fount of the movement. Its board is filled with the people who populate right wing think tanks funded by those same philanthropies, who have plotted and carried out the dishonest attack on public schools.

One notable person on the board is Chester Finn, perhaps one of the most important voices in the attacks on public school teachers. Finn has been advocating for school choice for decades. When someone finally asked him how competition would help the left behind schools, he basically had no answer. The magical market would do the trick, he ridiculously asserts.

So in order to justify its entire story, the Strib relied on an organization funded and staffed by right wing Republican critics of public school teachers, without ever informing readers of the nature of that organization. How does that happen? The writers of the censored Sandia report had specifically warned about "..unfounded criticism [of school teachers] from the public [that] raises the specter of a downward spiral in future educational quality." It's as if the reporters at the Strib had read the Sandia report and decided to make the researchers' worst fears come true (of course in all likelihood the reporters have never even heard of the report).

The story then goes on to make an even more simplistic and ignorant assertion that
Meanwhile, Minnesota recently lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars in the federal "Race to the Top" competition for schools, partly because its teacher quality policies were deemed inadequate.
In fact, as the authors could easily find out, the whole Race To The Top "competition" was a fraud, and the outsourced authors of Minnesota's application - paid for by some of the same philanthropies that support the NCTQ - wrote a piece of junk, lacking required data and making other fundamental errors. Not that it would have mattered - the "competition" - if that's what you want to call it, was bogus. A report from the Economic Policy Institute- a liberal think tank (which might explain why Strib reporters have never heard of it), stated:
“...examination [of the applications for Race To The Top funds] suggests that the selection of Delaware and Tennessee was subjective and arbitrary, more a matter of bias or chance than a result of these states’ superior compliance with reform policies.”
And that
“The necessary subjective judgments required both for category selection and weight assignment makes a fair competition practically impossible, even if the competition is undertaken with great care.”
But of course the notion that Race To The Top might be a joke, or that someone other than school teachers are responsible for Minnesota not "winning" the competition doesn't fit the narrative of public school teachers being the bane of education's existence.

The story never actually proves the headline's baseless accusation that teachers cannot be fired, by the way, as pointed out by the superintendent of the Richfield public schools, who replied in a letter following the story's publication. It turns out, he writes, that the fake issue of "firing bad teachers" is a canard:
School districts in Minnesota already "weed out" many low-performing teachers. The Star Tribune's article stressed how few teachers are fired. It did not calculate how many teachers are let go in the first three years of their contracts. Districts in Minnesota (and Wisconsin) hire carefully. And they use the first three years to identify the very few substandard teachers they do hire. If a district is doing a good job (and I can attest to the fact Richfield and Mequon are), it will very seldom have to fire a teacher after three years.
So the very premise of the Strib's story "..bad teachers rarely get fired," first, isn't true, and second, is a meaningless statement given the methods used to hire teachers. The experts the story cites to justify its attitude turn out to be right wing operators who have been attacking teachers' unions for decades, only the Strib doesn't tell its readers this crucial fact. Nevertheless, reading the story, and the comments from readers, it is clear that it will be believed, and added to the arsenal of falsehoods used to attack teachers' unions.

This is what true advocates of public education are up against: a poisonous narrative that paints a deliberately false picture of education in America in order to gain political advantage, supported by a complicit and ignorant traditional media. Make no mistake about it, the more success the so-called "reformers" have the worse our education system will be. That is the true impact of today's journalism.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Changing rationales for 'school choice'

For decades now conservatives - and some liberals - have decried the state of American primary and secondary education, citing selected test scores that compared US students to those in other countries,  comparing scores among US schools themselves, and also citing racial disparities in educational outcomes.

For conservatives especially this concern for education was never really about educating students. Instead they were motivated by extending the "free market" religion to education, despite there being no real "market" for schools, and for de-funding their Democratic political opponents by obliterating one of the last bastions of unionism - public school teachers' unions.

The campaign against public schools picked up steam when the alarmist Nation at Risk study hit our collective consciousness in 1983.  Since then such numbers of our supposed deficiency  have been effectively used in political arguments that consistently place blame with public schools, and particularly public school teachers' unions. I don't need to rehash the facts about this - education is not the ticket to prosperity it once was, and educational attainment - as measured by test scores - is about what it was in 1983. The real point is that education cannot hope to remedy what "free market" economics has destroyed .

Nevertheless, test scores - as flawed a tool as they are for measuring human development -  have been the coin of the education realm since this debate began. Unfortunately for conservative education reformers, their suggestions for injecting "choice" into primary and secondary education have not borne statistical  fruit. If anything, charter schools and vouchers do a worse job of educating students, overall, than regular public schools. It turns out that all that bureaucracy surrounding regular public schools is there for a reason - it makes them better and more accountable.

Now that their rationale for destroying teachers' unions has itself been debunked by experience, conservatives had two honorable choices: The first would be to admit they were wrong about their concept that school choice is a way to better schools, like Diane Ravitch has done, and try to help undo some of the damage they have done. The second would be to admit that the real goal all along has been to eliminate teachers' unions, in which case to hell with the kids' educations, and press on with more charter schools, vouchers, and loosened teacher standards.

Admittedly the second choice is merely a thought exercise on my part - conservatives would never confess to the naked political ambition that underlies their education strategy. Perhaps the biggest strength of the school choice movement is the notion that it exists to benefit children, not Republicans.

Now the ever-creative Charles Murray, writing in the New York Times, has suggested a third way for school-choicers: Forget about the numbers, says Murray - they never really captured the fullness of educational achievement anyways. No - the great thing about charters and vouchers is that the parents are happy.

Thus it is with Republicans: The endpoints are always the same - "political war" in the words of David Horowitz - beat the unions, free the corporations. The current rationale doesn't matter - only that it works, politically, now. Leaders need not worry that any change in argument is a direct contradiction of decades-long held positions; all they need do is whip up the Wurlitzer to erase that history.

When George W. Bush first came to office in 2001 welcomed by huge budget surpluses he said we needed tax cuts to productively invest the money; later when the economy slowed and the surpluses were disappearing, Bush advocated the same policy, tax cuts, only for different reasons: to stimulate the economy. Same policy, different reason.

But back to Murray.  Does the New York Times deny the outright racism of Charles Murray, the man who wrote a book dressed up as science, filled with lies, that sought to prove  that blacks are genetically intellectually inferior to whites, with no chance of remediation? Or does the Times endorse Murray's view? Certainly the Times would never publish the writings of a raving anti-Semite; why do they do that with a racist and intellectual fraud?

One thing that is really maddening about Murray's duplicitous change of rationale for school choice is the reaction by some in the Reality Based Community, specifically the usually reliable Daily Howler website, which in critiquing Murray's arguments essentially endorsed his view that charter schools should be expanded, despite the lack of empirical evidence they do a better job of educating children. But the Howler went even further, actually spreading misinformation about the purported success of those schools in closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities, and implicitly equating any educational gains over the past 30 years with the advancement of high-stakes testing and school choice.

The Howler, in its typical dismissive tones, wrote that "liberals" are in denial about the "success" of that regime:
Does Murray know that black kids and Hispanic kids have actually shown large score gains in reading and math (especially math) in the past dozen years?...Most liberals have never heard that fact.
It seems strange that the Howler would introduce questionable numbers about the academic achievement of students in response to the racist Murray admitting that school choice is a bust. The Howler leads off his criticism by citing writing done by Ravitch, who, the Howler must admit, is "technically accurate."

In fact, here in Minnesota, at least, the advance of "school choice" and the wrong-headed No Child Left Behind law have left minorities further behind whites in academic achievement. That is not an assertion - it is the conclusion of  a study done by the University of Minnesota Law School. Charters in Minnesota - the state where they were invented -  do a particularly bad job of educating minorities
“Rather than being a solution to the educational problems faced by low-income students and students of color, charter schools are deepening these problems.”
I wish I could say that the discovery by real researchers that school choice has been an academic bust had turned the nation away from charter schools and vouchers, but that wouldn't be true. Instead, our pundits and opinion leaders - for their own personal reasons - sadly including The Daily Howler - have either ignored or misinterpreted the results. Charles Murray's admission, and the Howler's half-hearted agreement with the scientific racist that charters are justified even without evidence that they better educate students, are just the most recent examples.

ADDING: It is particularly disappointing to see Democrats (Obama included) stay on the charter school bandwagon long after they have been discredited academically, especially when the issue should be both a policy and politics win. Policy because getting rid of charters would improve the education of more children, while freeing up funds for their schools. Politics because many charter schools don't require union membership, thus the expansion of charters means fewer teacher unions, which are a predominant Democratic constituency. By pushing charters the Democrats are actually shrinking their own base in order to make schools worse.

UPDATE: Not to put too fine a point on it, or to put too much stock in prostitute toe sucker Dick Morris, but his most recent outburst spells out in clear detail what Republicans would like to do to public education: 
Huge Republican Gains are Going to All But do Away With Public Education.