First Person

The Editorial Divide

I’ve become increasingly alarmed at the growing divide between the news and editorial functions of major metropolitan daily newspapers (e.g., in New York City, the New York TimesNew York Daily News,  and the New York Post;  in Washington, DC, the Washington Post).  The functions are largely independent, and that is as it should be;  the ideological proclivities of the publisher and editorial board should not be shaping what counts as or is reported as news. 

To be sure, the editorial page of a newspaper should express a point of view, and a typical reader will likely agree with some viewpoints, and disagree with others.  But it’s a very dangerous thing when the editorials of a newspaper are not informed by the daily reporting of its journalists.  Ignoring the news, reported with a minimum of spin by “beat” reporters, leads to simple-minded and ignorant editorializing on complex matters of public policy.  It’s also insulting to the profession of journalism, and to the many reporters whose goal is simply to understand the news and get the story right.  (I talk to some of the reporters to whom I’m referring.)

A case in point is yesterday’s Daily News editorial, “Truth in testing.”  The editorial is an effort to shore up claims about the success of school reform in New York City under Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein.  Last week’s revelations that the state testing system was dramatically overstating student growth and the closing of the achievement gap rocked the New York City Department of Education on its heels.  The Daily News editorial board, which has long supported these reforms, came out firing, citing four “facts”:  (1) The State Education Department defrauded parents and students;  (2) Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Education Commissioner David Steiner owned up to the deception;  (3) The drop triggered bogus charges that the schools have made no progress;  and (4) Only radical action will give New York’s kids a shot at the quality education they need.

Interesting points, although they can scarcely be described as “facts.”  The most provocative point is the third one.  To support the claim of great progress, the editorial states, “From 2006 to 2009, scale scores among city kids rose 23 points in math and 13 points in English.  Both held firm in 2010 … And city fourth- and eighth-graders improved on the National Assessment of Educational Progress by far more than kids in the rest of the state and across the country.”  To be sure, scale scores on the state assessment did improve over the period 2006 to 2010, although it’s not possible to calculate an average growth like this, because the scales for the state’s assessment system are not vertically equated.  (And “holding firm” is an artful way of saying that although the Children First agenda was in full sway in 2009-2010, test scores in New York City did not go up.)  If the editorial board had dug a bit deeper into its own pages (see here, here and here), it would have learned that testing experts are unable to determine whether scores rose because student performance improved or because the tests got progressively easier and more predictable over time.

But the question I have is, where did these numbers come from?  I’ve reviewed the reporting of the two primary education beat reporters for the Daily News, Meredith Kolodner and Rachel Monahan, and have found no evidence of these figures in their published articles.  If the editorial board of the Daily News is going to write about education in New York City, shouldn’t they draw the evidence from the news side of their operation?  Surely that would be better than simply parroting a set of talking points provided by the New York City Department of Education. (The figures do appear in a DOE PowerPoint deck released last week.)

Reporters such as Kolodner and Monahan (and their predecessor at the Daily News, Erin Einhorn) strive to learn from different sources, not just their cronies.  Talking to people with disparate points of view yields a more balanced picture of the world.  For example, if the Daily News editorial board had reviewed the paper’s reporting on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, they would have known that the claims that New York City students improved by far more than kids in the rest of the state and across the country was an out-and-out lie.

Below, I summarize the evidence comparing gains from 2003 to 2009 on the fourth-grade and eighth-grade NAEP reading and math tests in New York City with gains observed in nine other large urban school districts.  Overall, scores did rise in New York City over this period, and this is an accomplishment that should not be ignored.  But did scores rise faster than in other large districts?  You be the judge.

In the chart below, a green arrow indicates that the gains from 2003 to 2009 in a particular subject at a particular grade level were significantly greater in New York City than in a comparison district.  A red arrow indicates that the gains in New York City were significantly smaller than in a comparison district. And a grey circle indicates that the gains in New York City were not significantly different from the gains in a comparison district.

naep-comparisons

Out of 36 comparisons—nine urban districts, two subjects (reading and math), and two grade levels (fourth and eighth)—New York City gained significantly more than a comparison district in only four instances.  Conversely, there are ten instances in which another district gained significantly more than New York City over the period 2003 to 2009.  The remaining 22 comparisons show no difference in the rate of growth of NAEP scores in New York City and the growth rate for other urban school districts. 

It is just not possible to read these results and to conclude that New York City’s fourth- and eighth-grade students improved on the NAEP by far more than kids across the country.

If the Daily News editorial board is going to ignore the careful and thorough reporting of its education beat reporters in favor of talking points provided by the New York City Department of Education, I have a suggestion:  Place a black border around the editorial, and in small type at the top, print “Paid Political Advertisement.”  That way, we’ll all know the score.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.