Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Washington Post's Moral Imperative

Last week the Washington Post editorial board came out in favor of No Child Left Behind, headlining it as a moral imperative and inadvertently highlighting one of the problems with journalism these days.

They open with Duncan's story about the illiterate black "B" student. And they follow with this paragraph about the bad old, pre-NCLB days:

In those years, no one was held accountable for student achievement, and schools routinely ignored and concealed the problems of struggling students, especially poor black and Hispanic students. Returning to that way of operating should be unthinkable, but that is unquestionably what will happen if testing and accountability requirements are gutted from federal law.

So once again we get the notion that the only possible way to root out schools that systematically rob poor and minority students of their education, the only possible way that such a situation can be brought to light, is through a standardized test. This is lazy enough reasoning from other folks, but from a major metropolitan newspaper, it's worse. Because you know what else could root out any problems in poor schools?


There are huge problems in our poor urban schools, problems with unsafe conditions and broken down buildings and lacks of resources and a hundred other issues that we would know more about if newspapers only bothered to cover poor neighborhoods with the same fervor that they follow the boardrooms and cocktail part circuit.

The Washington Post is worried that educational failures will be "swept under the rug." A simple antidote that a major newspaper could offer might be to less time talking to chancellors and other members of the power elite and more time talking to the teachers, students, parents and community members who have first-hand knowledge of what's happening in those under-funded, neglected schools.

Hell, instead of simply repeating Duncan's story, some journalist could have done the legwork to find out what has since happened to that student.

Is the Washington Post saying that it wants another government report to simplify the education beat. Is some editor really saying, "We need the government to send us over some numbers so nobody actually has to go into those neighborhoods and visit the actual schools." I'm trying to imagine Woodward and Bernstein calling up the Nixon White House to say, "Yeah, just send us over your thoughts about that Watergate thing and we'll just print 'em." Running tests scores is not reporting on the state of schools, and being a consistent cheerleader for an embattled school chancellor instead of doing some actual investigation and reporting is as huge an example of under-rug sweepage as you'll ever find.

Let me be clear-- schools should be accountable for what they do with tax dollars, and schools should not be allowed to systematically rob any students of their educational opportunities. But for a major newspaper to claim that standardized testing is the answer while ignoring their own role and responsibility for investigation and informing of the public is baloney.

The editorial goes on to offer some other slices of baloney as well. The Post claims that NCLB is threatened by an "unholy alliance" of anti-fed conservatives and teachers unions (because they don't want to be accountable for anything). The Post also boldly asserts that "the law has worked," and weasels around the truth with this carefully crafted sentence:

The performance of poor and minority students has improved in the past 10 to 15 years. The Education Trust, advocates for closing the achievement gap, has catalogued the evidence in the performance of minority and low-income students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress...

Follow the link and read very plainly that the achievement gap has widened, and the Post didn't lie about that-- they just encouraged you to read something between their lines that isn't there.

There's not enough space here to catalog all the ways in which the law has not worked, but has in fact failed on a spectacular level, failings students, teachers, parents, and communities.

There is a moral imperative to make certain that students, particularly poor and minority students who have been underserved for too long, are not ignored. Providing support for those who are already there fighting on those front lines and doing that work on a daily basis as well as making their stories known-- that would be a good place to start. Making sure that those communities are empowered and involved instead of silencing them and ignoring them would be another great step. Shining a light on the ways the system has short-changed them would be another good move.

The Post deserves considerable praise for supporting the work of Lindsey Layton and the indispensable Valerie Strauss. But ordering up another round of tests and offering support for a failed law? That is not the way to meet the moral imperative.

(Note: In the original edit I somehow lost my acknowledgement of Post all-stars Layton and Strauss. It's back in now)

1 comment:

  1. "The performance of poor and minority students has improved in the past 10 to 15 years."

    Even to whatever extent that's true, all it means is that poor and minority students are getting better at taking standardized tests. With apologies to Shania Twain, that don't impress me much.