When he's good, New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip is very good (see his report on Atlanta cheating).? When he's bad (see here and here or just go to Flypaper's very own Michael Winerip Archive), he's very bad.? The difference between the good and the bad can be easily ? and predictably -- traced to Winerip's inability to match his reportorial skills to his ideological beliefs; the latter seem to completely disarm the former.
In this morning's report, on a New Hampshire school, tellingly headlined ?In a Standardized Era, a Creative School Is Forced to Be More So,? Winerip is at his reportorial worst as he strains to make the point that No Child Left Behind is forcing another great (?creative?) school to ?teach to the test.?? Given that NCLB has become everyone's favorite punching bag of late, Winerip's whines have become something of a yawn.? However, it is instructive to read this piece because it perfectly illustrates the reasons the public is so misinformed about the best education reform efforts: bad reporting.
To start, we need to be aware of what Winerip leaves out, beginning with the facts. How many students go to Oyster River Middle School, the subject of his story? How many are minority, Free and Reduced lunch?? We don't know. Has the school's proficiency rate ? which Winerip says is ?about 85 percent? ? gone up or down?? Which grades does it apply to? Which subjects? We also need to pay attention to all the people Winerip doesn't interview for the story; in fact, he only quotes two people.? The star of the show is a 67-year-old English teacher, awarded a teacher of the year title by the National Council of Teachers of English in 2000, who Winerip says was ?just about killed? by all the test prep forced on her by NCLB. The only other person from Oyster River that Winerip quotes is the principal of the school, who says, ?I believe we can do better.?? No other teachers or administrators are interviewed; no parents, no community members. And yet, Winerip is able to conclude that NCLB ?has taken over everything.? This is the kind of hyperbole that makes so many Winerip stories so laughable.
We are told that Durham, NH, is a ?prosperous? town, home of the University of New Hampshire and that the kids in Oyster River Middle School are plenty smart because the kids in the high school score 111 points above the state average and 170 above the national average on their SATs.? How dare the feds tell these bright kids and their bright teachers what to do?
In fact, they really don't.? The offense which got Oyster Middle school its failing NCLB grade is that ?about a dozen of its 110 special education children did not score high enough.?? High enough? On what? Winerip doesn't say -- another example of lousy reporting; in fact, it's worse than that since we know that Winerip is capable of bringing home the factual bacon when he wants to.
The point which seems to elude Winerip here? is that this is exactly what NCLB is supposed to do: highlight districts that hide their subgroups behind a curtain of well-tailored middle-class gauze.
Remember Princeton, NJ?? Great SAT scores. Among the the best performing school districts in the country, right?? Right, unless you were poor and black. (If someone could point me toward the report on Princeton schools, published before NCLB, I would appreciate it.)? In fact, the state of New Jersey has the same problem today ? it ranks in the top ten in the country on NAEP scores, but has the 47th and 48th worst achievement gap.? (See here.)
Aside from the problem that Winerip trots out standardized test scores (SATs) to prove that kids don't need standardized tests, the stranger oddity here is the failure to explain why the entire Oyster River middle school was focused on ?test prep? when, in fact, as Winerip himself reports, only a few special ed kids caused the problem?
He paints a pained picture of a school that had ?little need for test prep? before NCLB ? just look at the SAT scores! ? but was now all but killing its teachers with ?the new focus on test prep.?
Again, Winerip is long on rhetoric and short on reporting. And all of it is rather thin gruel with which to nurture an NCLB condemnation. In fact, if anything, the story proves the value of the law: some special ed kids are now getting the attention they deserve and a principal is seeing that there can be improvement.
--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
*Eduwonk and I did not consult in advance on our Winerip posts; it's just another example of great minds not conspiring.