Those who read this site regularly know how hard it is to get the ordinary person to accept that much of what they read in the press on political issues is inaccurate, often framed and deliberately distorted by what we often describe as”the Mighty Wurlitzer” of the organized forces on the political right. What may surprise you is how true this is in the battles over education. One important example recently occurred over the issue of the effectiveness of Charter schools. The piece in today’s diary, by Jerry Bracey (whose bona fidesto address the issue will appear at the end of the piece) posted it on the Assessment Reform Network listserv run by FAIRTEST. He was kind enough to give me permission to post it.
Gerald W. Bracey
When a group of researchers at Stanford University, the Economic Policy Institute, and Columbia University undertook to evaluate charter schools research in early 2005, they undertook it as a stealth project, working in the kind of secrecy normally associated with spies. They told virtually no one about their effort and the few who stumbled on it in conversation were sworn to stay mum until the investigations appeared as a book, The Charter School Dust-up. They behaved in this most unusual, un-academic way because, as one of the authors, a person given to sober thought and understatement, told a colleague, “Those people are zealots.”
He did not name those people. He did not have to. Anyone in the field of education who had followed the swirl of controversy surrounding a 2004 study of charter schools would have been aware that he had in mind, generally, many of the 31 academics who had signed a full page advertisement in the New York Times August 25, 2004 and, specifically, Paul Peterson of Harvard who had organized the signatories for the ad and Jeanne Allen, President of the Center for Education Reform who had put up $125,000 to pay for it. The ad appeared again three weeks later in Education Week, minus the signatures of Nobel Prize winner James Heckman of the University of Chicago and David Figlio of the University of Florida who said they had not realized what they were getting into.
They could not have realized what they were getting into because no one in education had ever seen anything like the ad. Aside from those pushing products and services,full page ads in the Times typically address some hotly contested issue in the public domain – Israel, Vioxx risks or Social Security, for example. The ad was in reaction to a lone New York Times article about test scores in charter schools.
Although educators occasionally write articles on controversial topics that inspire impassioned debate – Arthur Jensen on the heritability of IQ, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray on the implications of The Bell Curve, for instance – the points and counter points mostly remain in the polite discourse of academia and are published in professional journals, literate lay periodicals or the “Commentary” sections of the profession’s weeklies, Education Week and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Occasionally, debate might spill onto an op-ed page. The ad was something else.
The ad was the culmination of unprecedented attacks on an analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) charter school data by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and on the New York Times for publishing the AFT’s findings. NAEP data are normally analyzed and released by the U. S. Department of Education which funds NAEP and operates it through a contract with the Educational Testing Service in Princeton. The AFT had moved to massage the data because the Department had failed to release its own analyses and showed no signs that it planned to.
In Spring 2003, the Department had added a sample of fourth graders in charter schools to its regular NAEP assessment activities in reading and mathematics (NAEP assessments typically occur in grades 4 and 8 and sometimes 12. Overwhelmingly, though, students in charter schools are in the elementary grades only). By September, 2003, the Department had analyzed the 2003 regular school NAEP data and placed the results on its Website. As of summer, 2004, it had not moved to examine the results from charter schools.
The AFT first offered its report to the Associated Press which declined it. The New York Times, experiencing its own difficulties extracting another charter school report from the Department, was more responsive (the contractor for this other study, SRI International, had delivered the final report in June, 2004, but the Times would have to use a Freedom of Information Request to get this document and would not be in a position to write about it until November).
With the Department withholding one report and neglecting the data from another, the Times might well have suspected that the Department was not pleased with the pictures the data painted. The Department, after all, had supported charters enthusiastically: in addition to a regular grants program for charter schools, in June it had given California $75 million for new charters. If the NAEP numbers showed charters weren’t doing well, taxpayers might question if the money had been well spent.
The Times reported the AFT analysis in a front page, above the fold, article on Tuesday, August 17, 2004. Children in charter schools, the article said, did not score as high on the NAEP tests as children in regular public schools. Poor children in charters scored lower than poor children in public schools. Children in central city charter schools scored lower than children in central city public schools. Black students in charter schools didn’t differ from blacks in public schools but the black-white achievement gap was as large in charters as it was in public schools. The Times story carried the headline, “Nationís Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U. S. Test Scores Reveal.” Those people read the headline and saw: “Times to Charter Schools: Drop Dead.”
The next day, all hell broke loose.
On Wednesday, August 18, the Times carried a second story, Section A, but not page one, largely devoted to quotes from then-Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, defending charters. Harvard’s Peterson, William Howell and Martin West penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “Dog Eats AFT Homework.” Editors at the Chicago Tribune struck a similar chord of ridicule, calling the study, “as new as a lava lamp, as revelatory as an old sock and as significant as a belch.”
The Tuesday Times article had quoted former assistant secretary of education and charter advocate, Chester E. Finn, Jr., saying “The scores are low, dismayingly low” (Finn’s Thomas B. Fordham Foundation sponsors charters in Dayton, Ohio). But Wednesday found Finn recovered from his dismay and on the attack in the New York Post: “This week’s firestorm over the performance of charter schools can be traced to a mischief bearing grenade hand-delivered by the charter hating American Federation of Teachers to the New York Times”.
Finn’s characterization of the reaction as a “firestorm” is curious and telling. From the first Times article to Finn’s op-ed only 24 hours had elapsed. Nothing else had appeared in print before Finnís reaction. If there was a “firestorm”, it was internal, raging over the phones, faxes, and emails of those people (charter advocates who were veterans of the left-leaning Alternative Schools and Free Schools movements of the Sixties and Seventies kept their counsel).
Which is not to say that after Wednesday the firestorm metaphor was not accurate. Those people managed op-ed placement in virtually every New York daily, a feat that assuredly required coordination. The inferno blazed on the next day. On Thursday, August 19, the Reverend Floyd Flake, identified by the Times as a former New York Congressman (but not also identified as the President of the Charter Schools Division of Edison Schools, Inc.), pleaded for charters on the Times op-ed page. Allen debated the AFT’s Bella Rosenberg about the study on National Public Radio’s Tavis Smiley Show while the Department of Education sent Nina Shokraii Rees to do similar battle on “The News Hour With Jim Lehrer” (Rees came to the Department from the Heritage Foundation, once characterized by Los Angeles Times editor, Michael Kinsley, as a “propaganda machine masquerading as a think tank”).
The Manhattan Instituteís Jay P. Greene, a Peterson protégé, called the study “sheer nonsense” in the New York Sun. At the Center for Education Reform’s website Allen wrote, “The AFT has been working on their plan for months to twist AEP data and attack the nationís unsuspecting 3000 charter schools with a full-force media blitz.” How a single article in one paper, even an eminent paper such as the Times, could constitute a “full-force media blitz,” Ms. Allen did not explain. The New York Post, having published Finn’s op-ed the previous day, now weighed in with its own editorial, “Kids Come Last:” “The AFT hates them (charter schools) because they threaten the union’s public school monopoly.”
Neither Finn nor the Post seemed aware of the irony of their savaging the AFT’s position on charters. Without the AFT, there probably wouldn’t be any charter schools. Ray Budde, a Massachusetts teacher coined the term in the 1970’s and it generated little interest until championed by then-AFT president, Albert Shanker, in the 1980’s at the AFT’s national convention and in his weekly New York Times column. A Shanker Minneapolis speech led directly to the Minnesota legislature passing the nation’s first charter school law in 1991. Shanker soon became disenchanted with charters, though, seeing them divisive, self-sealed entities: “the basic principle of charter schools ensures that whatever common ground schools now share will disappear.”
The word “contract” can be substituted for “charter” with no loss of meaning. The contract that charter schools offered was this: we will remain public schools, but let us have increased autonomy in what the school teaches and how the school is run. Free us from the bureaucratic burdens of the rules and regulations that afflict public schools. In return, we will increase achievement. If we fail to improve achievement, we will cease to exist. Five years after the Minnesota law was passed, the University of Minnesotaís Joe Nathan, a long-time friend of alternative schools, characterized the bargain this way: ‘Hundreds of charter schools have been created around this nation by educators who are willing to put their jobs on the line and say “If we can’t improve students achievement, close down our school.” That is accountability – clear, specific, and real.’
Other charter advocates had gone beyond Nathan’s improve-or-die criterion and argued that the real purpose of a charter school was not just to improve achievement in that school. That was secondary. The primary purpose of a charter school was to act as a “laboratory of innovation” and stimulate improved achievement in the entire system.
Given the charters’ promissory note, a study finding that charter school students did not even keep pace with their peers in public schools would be a hard blow to the charter school movement as a viable instrument of education reform. Such a study in 2004 would cause not only the charter school movement to weaken. The day after the original article, A New York Times editorial called the AFT analysis a “devastating setback” to Bush’s signature education program, No Child Left Behind. Under the terms of that law, schools that repeatedly fail to make as much annual progress as the law requires can convert to charter school status. But charters performing lower than regular schools would render the conversion option meaningless.
While the Times editorial probably added to the impact of the study, a simultaneous event on the left coast also affected charters’ image. From the start of the charter school movement, some observers had feared that the charters schools’ increased autonomy increased the risk of fiscal malfeasance and fraud. A number of stories had indeed documented horrible conditions in some charter schools. One charter school student in Texas described his charter school that had no desks, no chairs, no textbooks, no chalkboards, no trash cans, no gymnasium, no lunchroom, no vending machines, and no functioning toilet this way: “If you name it, we don’t have it.” Other stories told how money intended for instruction got siphoned into other projects, such as purchasing a nice home for the school operator’s mother. The day before the New York Times charter piece, the Los Angeles Times reported that a charter operator in California, under investigation for possible criminal activities such as inflating enrollments to obtain more money from the state, had suddenly closed down 60 charter school campuses, leaving hundreds of employees without jobs and 10,000 students without schools three weeks before the start of the fall term. The New York Times’ article cited the Los Angeles Times’ story.
After the editorial and op-ed assaults on the AFT and the Times came the ad. It was headlined “Charter School Evaluation Reported by New York Times Fails to Meet Professional Standards.” The ad can be accessed HERE, a location at the Center for Education Reform’s web site. “We the undersigned members of the research community,” it began, “are dismayed by the prominent, largely uncritical coverage given by The New York Times to a study of charter schools by the American Federation of Teachers. The study in question does not meet current professional research standards.” By referring to the analysis as a “study” by the AFT rather than an analysis of NAEP data by the AFT, the ad continued the thrust of several op-eds portraying the research as wholly and self-servingly conducted by the union (one website even called the analysis “nefarious”).
The ad impugned the quality of the data and the analysis, and chastised the Times for reporting it. Under the heading “Journalistic Responsibility,” the ad declared, “The news media has [sic] an obligation to assess carefully any research sponsored by interest groups engaged in policy debates. Such studies need to be vetted by independent scholars, as is commonly done in coverage of research on the biological and physical sciences.”
These flaws the signers found in the research, in the Times journalism, and the standards the signers put forth to eliminate such failings, struck other researchers as odd or even hypocritical: some of the signers’ own researches did not meet the “professional standards”î described in the ad. Writing in The American Prospect, Economic Policy Institute researcher, Lawrence Mishel observed, “Many of these guardians of professional research standards have repeatedly violated the principles they now proclaim.” As if to further undercut the adís authority, one of the signatories, Caroline Hoxby of Harvard, rushed a pro-charter study into print — on her web site, at least, not in a report vetted by independent scholars — and summarized her research as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Hoxby’s research failed to live up to the principles in the ad and, perhaps due to the haste, also contained errors of fact.
With the data abroad in the land, the U. S. Department of Education now moved to report them. The Department report, released on December 15, 2004, affirmed the AFT’s analysis. Of 22 comparisons in reading and mathematics, 20 favored public school children. Hispanic fourth-graders in charters scored one point higher than Hispanic fourth-graders in public schools in reading (201 vs. 199), and white fourth-graders in the two types of schools tied.
At the press conference announcing the report, then-Deputy Secretary of Education, Eugene Hickok, reiterated the Departmentís charter support: “We’re big fans of charter schools.” Hickok also asserted that “Charter schools that don’t work, don’t stay open.” Diana Jean Schemo, the New York Times reporter who had written the August story found this a curious statement. She and fellow Times reporter, Sam Dillon had had to use a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the earlier SRI International charter study and that study had stated flatly:
The ad and the Department of Education’s actions renewed an oft-voiced concern about the Bush administration and politically oriented researchers, that they subordinate science to ideology (in November 2003, President George W. Bush named three of the ad’s signers, Eric Hanushek, Caroline Hoxby, and Herbert Walberg to the 15-member National Board of Education Sciences which oversees the Department of Education’s Institute for Educational Sciences). The Union of Concerned Scientists had earlier accused the administration of deliberately manipulating, suppressing and ignoring scientific advice it did not agree with while stacking advisory panels only with people who had met an ideological litmus test. Representative Henry Waxman, labeled “science’s political bulldog” by Scientific American, established a web site called “Politics and Science” to report on the administration’s failures to separate the two. In the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Ron Suskind observed of Bush’s presidency, “open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value.”
The troubling issues raised by the ad and its signers, by Hickok contradicting a report commissioned by his own office, and by the administration generally were framed by Harvard psychologist, Howard Gardner:
The existence of the ad and the many volleys hurled at the analysis and the article indicate that, in some quarters at least, there are researchers with little interest in what the world is really like, what the data really say, with calling it the way it is.
Here is a brief bio of Gerald Bracey as it appears on the website of the Educational Policy Reserach Unit of the Educational Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University, which can be read here:
Gerald W. Bracey holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University. He has held positions at Educational Testing Service, Indiana University, the Virginia Department of Education, and Cherry Creek (Colo.) Schools. Since 1991 he has been an independent educational researcher and writer who specializes in assessment and policy analysis. Bracey is currently an independent researcher and writer, an Associate of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, and an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University. Bracey also maintains a website, the Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency (www.america-tomorrow.com/bracey).
Recent books include The War Against America’s Public Schools (2002), Put to the Test: An Educator’s and Consumer’s Guide to Standardized Testing (2002), What You Should Know About the War Against America’s Public Schools (2003) and The Death of Childhood and the Destruction of Public Schools. An earlier book, Understanding Education Statistics: It’s Easier and More Important than You Think, was revised in 2003, while another previous book, Setting the Record Straight, is being revised for publication in 2004.
The last book has now been released. Jerry also writes extensively in the professional literature, most especially his columns in Phil Delta Kappan, which is published by Phi Delta Kappa, an professional orgaization in education, which provides links to the publication on their website. The website from which I obtained this bio (listed above) has a list with hotlinks to a number of Bracey’s writings.