Arne Duncan’s disaster capitalism education deform

The Daily Howler

Read each thrilling installment: When it comes to public schools, David Brooks believes. Read each thrilling installment:

Part 1: David Brooks believes in Obama’s agenda. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/17/09.

Part 2: David Brooks believes in the power of tests. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/09.

Part 3: David Brooks believes in higher standards. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/19/09.

Today, we conclude our report:

PART 4—IN THE EXPERTS: In his column about Obama’s education agenda, David Brooks quoted Arne Duncan—and Duncan made some remarkable statements. Perhaps because Brooks doesn’t really know schools, he didn’t quite explain what they meant:

BROOKS (3/13/09): The problem is that as our ability to get data has improved, the education establishment’s ability to evade the consequences of data has improved, too. Most districts don’t use data to reward good teachers. States have watered down their proficiency standards so parents think their own schools are much better than they are.

As Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me, “We’ve seen a race to the bottom. States are lying to children. They are lying to parents. They’re ignoring failure, and that’s unacceptable. We have to be fierce.”

“States are lying to parents,” Duncan said (though Brooks doesn’t seem to have asked him how many). And this process is part of a “race to the bottom.” Those are very striking remarks. But what did the new Ed Sec mean?

Presumably, Duncan refers to these unnamed states’ proficiency tests—not so much to the particular curriculum standards a state may prescribe for its fifth or sixth grade. There are at least two ways a state can “lie to parents” through those tests—can “water down [its] proficiency standards so parents think their own schools are much better than they are.”

In the simplest sense, a state can create a set of tests which are quite easy to pass. If fifth-graders reading on third-grade level get ranked “proficient” on a state’s fifth-grade reading test, parents may get a false impression of how well their schools are doing.

In another sense, a state could make its proficiency tests easier from one year to the next. Most schools’ passing rates would increase—but only because the test was now easier. Here too, parents could get a false impression—the impression that their schools are improving when they actually aren’t.

What exactly did Duncan mean when he made those striking remarks? How many states was he talking about? Which ones—and how are they “lying?” There’s no real way to tell from Brooks’ column. Like many major pundits, Brooks doesn’t seem especially well-versed in these issues. There’s no reason why he should be, of course—but he’s comfortable telling us who the heros are (the “reformers”), and he’s comfortable naming familiar villains (the “education establishment,” “liberal orthodoxy”). In short, Brooks seems comfortable with familiar scripts—but how well does he actually know his subject? His failure to clarify Duncan’s remark is maddening to the extreme.

For ourselves, we’ll leave the L-word to Duncan. But can a state grossly mislead its parents by watering down its proficiency tests? Of course that can happen—and Duncan offered some truly striking remarks. But though Brooks believes, he doesn’t quite know—and he failed to ask the obvious questions. How many states have lied? Which ones? Duncan’s answers would have been major news. But there is no sign Duncan was asked.

We were especially struck bu Duncan’s remarks, because we’ve discussed these types of issues for many years, long predating THE HOWLER. And then, there’s that recent, striking case involving the state of Virginia. In 2006, we did several months of work at this site concerning the way the state of Virginia was misstating its test scores—its school-by-school passing rates. (Before we were done, the head of the state school board had acknowledged the state’s error.) Virginia’s parents really had been grossly misled. But David Brooks didn’t wrote about that—and neither did anyone else.

David Brooks seems to believe in the experts; he recited a good deal of their familiar cant all through his education piece. We thought it might be worth remembering how the experts (and the major journalists) behaved when it turned out that a major state had been faking its passing rates—had faked them so badly that the Washington Post got fooled by the con, right at the top of page one.

Long story short: Virginia had adopted a crackpot method for reporting elementary school passing rates. We became aware of the scam after the Post praised a small, low-income Alexandria school right at the top of page one. How bad was Virginia’s reporting system? This bad: At this small school, only five of its 19 third-graders had passed the state’s third-grade reading test. (At the time, Virginia was only testing third- and fifth-graders. Fourth- and sixth-graders weren’t tested.) At the third-grade level, this constituted the second-lowest passing rate in the whole state of Virginia! But uh-oh! While only five of 19 third-graders had passed, the state had reported—incorrectly—that seventeen of 19 had passed. And uh-oh! Failing to notice the statistical anomalies occurring in this school’s complete data, the Washington Post had taken the bait. In reality, this school had the second-lowest passing rate in the entire state of Virginia at one of the two grade levels tested. But there it sat, at the top of page one, praised as an inspiring, high-scoring school! The school was “a study in pride, progress,” the Post headline said. For links to past reports, see below.

(How did this gross misreporting occur? This particular school had 19 third-graders; only five passed the reading test. But so what? Twelve fourth-graders were given the third-grade test and passed it; the state thus reported that seventeen students had passed the third-grade test, in a school which had nineteen third-graders. In this way, 5 out of 19 was magically transformed, and this floundering school ended up on page one, headlined as “a study in progress.” No, we really aren’t making this up—and yes, this was the state’s standard procedure; it inflated passing rates all over the state. Just how crazy was this system? The state even had a rule about what to do if more than 100 percent of a school’s students passed some particular test. Schools should round it down to 100 percent, the state instructed—thereby hiding the sheer absurdity of its inexcusable procedures.)

This Alexandria school sits minutes from Washington—in a region which teems with “educational experts” and top education reporters. But none of these “experts” had ever noticed the groaning problem with the way Virginia was reporting its passing rates—and we never saw any experts mention the problem after we revealed it. (After the head of the state school board acknowledged the depth of the problem.) Nope! None of these “experts” had ever noticed the truly clownish procedures which led to this particular bungle—even though these procedures were producing bogus passing rates at schools all over the state. None of these “experts” noticed the problem, even after Virginia’s second-lowest-scoring elementary school appeared at the top of the Post’s front page.

None of the “experts” noticed; we did. What explains that anomaly?

Actually, the answer is fairly simple. We noticed the problem because we aren’t rubes—because we aren’t the dumbest people on earth. We had learned long ago—many decades ago—not to trust the feel-good stories about public schools which often adorn our front pages. We had learned, decades ago, to take a second look at the data behind such claims. We had learned that you mustn’t trust pleasing claims of the type which sat atop that front page. We had learned the oldest saw in the book: When a story’s too good to be true, it often isn’t.

We had first learned that in the early 1970s. Thirty-five years later, the Washington Post still didn’t know—and neither did a capital city of “experts.” And oh yes: These are the “experts” to whose wisdom Brooks largely deferred in his column about public schools. When he offered his vague but familiar claims about who the villains are.

In large part, Brooks was reciting the views of the experts—the experts who failed to notice Virginia’s problem, even after we revealed it. Like so many modern elites, these “experts” work from expert scripts. They refuse to tell you the truth.

In 2006, it was actually true: The state of Virginia was grossly deceiving its parents about the success of their schools. Passing rates were inflated all over the state, thanks to the craziest bureaucratic procedure we’ve ever seen, in any area.

In his column, Brooks expressed his concern about the terrible problem Duncan cited. You see, Brooks seems to believe in the experts—and this is one of their high-minded scripts. We were quite struck by Duncan’s remarks, because we recalled what Virginia had done. Because Brooks seems to believe a bit too truly, he might want to review what the experts did when a “lie” of this type was revealed.

In fairness, you can’t blame Brooks for believing the experts. By one common standard of reckoning, when the experts all say the same thing, their high-minded notions should be believed. Over the years, though, we’ve learned something different: Whenever the experts all say the same thing, you can safely assume that they’re wrong.

By the way: Virginia’s groaning act of deception should have been major news. But your newspapers simply refused to report it. In Duncan’s argot, the state of Virginia had lied to its parents. Then your exceptionally high-minded newspapers lied to those parents again.

Brooks has never heard about his. As his “experts” whistled and cheered, his “press corps” chose not to report it.

Visit our incomparable archives: On February 2, 2006, the school in question hit the top of the Post’s front page. By March 23, the head of the state school board had acknowledged the state’s (groaning) error.

For a summary of this nonsense, with links to previous work, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/20/06. In that post, we discuss a column which appeared on this topic. For a working link to that column, click here. (You’ll encounter a somewhat standard procedure. Make snide remarks about the non-journalist—before you note that he was right.)

The next week, we spoke with Kirk Shroder, a Richmond lawyer who was president of the Virginia Department of Education during the period when this program was enacted. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/06. Shroder told us—and we believe him—that he hadn’t understood the problem involved with these procedures. Obviously, though, the state department was full of professionals who knew this whole thing was a scam.

Was Duncan referring to this sort of thing? We don’t know. Nobody asked him.

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