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Kristof Shills, Loveless Scrutinizes

Last week offered a classic illustration of edu-hype, courtesy of the New York Times. Fortunately, it also featured a trifecta of that much rarer edu-commodity--tough-minded, skeptical scrutiny--courtesy of the Brookings Institution's Tom Loveless (a man who may be allergic to edu-faddism).

Let's start with the NYT's latest contribution to the edufad spin machine. In 700 overwrought words, credulous columnist Nicholas Kristof penned a tardy Valentine's Day card to Randi Weingarten. Kristof apparently paid a visit to New Haven, got spun by the local p.r. machine, and wound up wowed by the sweet talk and the sterling sentiments of the mayor. He declared the results "jaw-dropping" and deemed New Haven "ground zero for school reform in America." What results? In one of the funnier sentences I've read of late, he explained, "It'll take years to verify that students themselves are benefiting, but it's striking that teachers and administrators alike seem happy with the new system." Ah, now that's shoe-leather reporting.

Kristof's use of "ground zero" may be off-putting, but the sentiment is swell. If only I had as much faith in his finely honed perception as he does. After all, his enthusiasm has been voiced countless times about countless districts in recent decades. The lack of irony is sweet, though it suggests that Kristof may be unaware that so many disappointments and debacles were initially lavished with similarly smarmy praise.

Take Atlanta, which has been shredded over the past year for a cheating scandal that led superintendent Beverly Hall to resign in disgrace, brought the district into disrepute, and was termed by The Christian Science Monitor "America's biggest teacher and principal cheating scandal." It was just a short while ago, after all, that Hall was winning AASA's Superintendent of the Year award, the district was being heralded for remarkable strides, and the vice chairman of GE was writing for the local paper that she had demonstrated "the gains that can be made with consistent and capable leadership." Or consider Cleveland, which was in the news last week for mayor's Frank Jackson's dramatic "Plan for Transforming Schools." Jackson's plan got cheers for its aggressive reforms. Though, it was just a couple years ago that the Cleveland Plain-Dealer was heralding then-chief Eugene Sanders' transformation plan as a "sweeping reform plan...[that] pledges radical reform to turn around a dysfunctional public school system by putting children first and incorporating cutting-edge designs for urban education tied to real-world economic challenges." How'd that work out? When Sanders announced in December 2010 that he was leaving, the Plain-Dealer lamented that CPS "remain[ed] tarnished by dismal test scores and a 54 percent graduation rate." In fact, if Kristof had bothered only to zitz a few miles across Connecticut, he might have learned that Hartford Public Schools won widespread acclaim a decade ago as a school system where management and labor could work harmoniously together, with the Hartford Federation of Teachers playing host to the 2001 national AFT conference on union-school management collaboration. What happened? A year later, HFT president Edwin Vargas was ousted by a challenger who promised to more forcefully defend teachers.

Now, look, let me be clear. While I'm a skeptical guy, I recognize that optimism is a great and good thing. I don't begrudge Kristof his good cheer. That said, I do have an issue with shysters who fuel edu-faddism by leaping to declare every happy visit to a district evidence of a new dawn. The problem is that such thinking fuels the "spinning wheels" of faddism, while encouraging happy thoughts to trump tough-minded attention to keeping reform-minded union leaders from getting punted, sustaining fragile collaborations, and insisting on more than hype and big talk.

Ah, well. It all just reminds me why I look forward to those rare occasions when my pal Tom Loveless finally publishes something. Tom has the rare gift of simply, straightforwardly lacerating whole buckets of self-serving conventional wisdom. In last week's annual Brown Report, he did it again.

Despite the hyperventilating enthusiasm for the Common Core, Tom predicts the new standards will have little effect on student achievement, given that the rigor of state standards has been unrelated to state NAEP scores. As Ed Week's Catherine Gewertz noted, "If there was a connection [between standards and outcomes], we would have seen signs of improvement from states' own individual standards--all states have had standards since 2003--but NAEP scores don't bear that out."

Tom slams the faddish enthusiasm for mimicking nations that perform well on international tests, noting that educators and policymakers misinterpret the results of these assessments and rely upon "dubious" causal claims. He points out that the PISA data, for instance, do not allow any single policy to be singled out from the mass of factors that might explain why a nation's performance. He blasts as the "A+ Country Fallacy" the habit would-be reformers have of asserting, "Country x is doing something I favor, and Country x scores at the top on TIMSS and PISA; therefore what I favor is a good idea." The problem is this kind of cherry-picking analysis makes it impossible to tell whether the policy actually matters. Tom wryly blames this magical search for recipes for "the recent outbreak of Finland-worship in the United States."

You only need to watch late-night TV to know it can be fun (and profitable) to shill for new miracle cures. I get that. And I'm sure Kristof, as he's peddling timeshares at 3 a.m., tells himself that these are different from all those rip-offs that have come before. But I see Loveless as the overworked sheriff trying to keep the shysters from doing too much harm. And I feel for him. Because his job doesn't get any easier when the New York Times helps to crank the spin machine.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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