Sunday, March 23, 2008

George Schmidt on Alexander Russo and Social Promotion

March 21, 2008

Norm and friends:

Consider the following a quick and dirty draft. More to come if you need it. Feel free to share, as usual...

Russo quote:

Student retention, one of several lightning rod issues that bring parents, union leaders, politicians, and academics together—to fight—is not a task for the faint of heart.

It’s thus fitting that the city of broad shoulders, guided by a mayor named Daley, should lead the way. Chicago’s pioneering program is now in its eighth year, having withstood its share of icy gusts from multiple directions. For those who have been paying close attention, the brawl that broke out last spring was just the latest in a rolling clamor to control one of education’s linchpin topics. The stakes are high; the questions, many and complicated.

This whole thing is typical Russo bullshit, and the quote above is typical of the way his brand of journalism does the propaganda for the ruling class.

More metaphors ("brawl")than facts. As usual.

Here are some facts.

At the time Chicago declared that dictatorship was the way to run an urban school system, the verdict was in about "ending social promotion." The New York Gates program had proved it didn't work, and nothing Chicago has done since has nullified that verdict. But there were tremendous pressures (and millions of dollars) behind the Chicago push, so it continued despite the facts (and ethics; and bona fide research).

Contrary to Russo's latest apologetic for Chicago style corporate "school reform", the issues were not as "complicated" as he tries to make them out to be (before simultaneously oversimplifying his version of reality to land squarely on the side of the lucrative status quo).

From the beginning, the "ending social promotion" mantra was a carefully crafted talking point, not a factual statement of history or policy.

Chicago at various times had "promoted" students who went overage in elementary school, and at other times didn't. The underlying triage of the school system, based initially on economic class, then (by the 1950s) on racial segregation had always resulted in a large number of "failing" students at the "bottom."

Each time Chicago didn't promote kids based on age, there grew a backlog of students in the elementary schools who either dropped out before high school or who eventually became too big for their desks in elementary school.

They were then eventually put into high school. Remember: by 1995, when Mayor Daley took over, Chicago had more than 300 segregated all-black public schools (out of 600). No other place in the Northern Hemisphere was nearly as segregated as Chicago, and most people from outside Chicago couldn't believe the extent of the segregation (or the viciousness with which the all-black schools were generally deprived of the resources to educate some of the most challenging children in the USA). Note, as this discussion evolves, how segregation is left out of the facts that are rendered. It was massively important to shift the discussion from white supremacy to "standards and accountability" and the times demanded guys like Alexander Russo to do the job on behalf of Mayor Daley and Chicago's corporate rulers.

Russo ignores this history, because his version of the histories (and Catalyst's for which he works) depends on ignoring many facts.

I'll leave aside the massive social contexts (especially racial segregation) and just deal with the actual versions (that's plural) of "standards and accountability". Just for starters, CPS announced it was "ending social promotion" in 1996 (not 1997, as Russo reports). By 1997, Mayor Daley was speking before the National Press Club in Washington D.C. that he had "successully" "ended social promotion" and repeating all of those right wing talking points about how all we need is firm "standards and accountability". This is long before No Child Left Behind. Chicago's children were the guinea pigs in all this.

By 1997, most educational researchers were warning Chicago that the retention policy would hurt the kids who were most at risk. The studies were conclusive. Many, as you know in New York, were based on the New York "gates" experiences. By 1998, Chicago was replicating the same dismal realities. In 1998, the Consortium (Melissa Roderick, ten years ago) admitted that the Chicago ban on "social promotion" had failed to improve things for the kids who were being held back (the more times they were held back, the more likely they were to drop out, which is what the pre-1990s research had already shown). But, Roderick wrote at the time, there was a possibility that keeping the "failing kids" back (even at the expense of their futures) had a salutory effect on the rest of the kids. The argument, which many people here challenged Roderick on at the time, was sort of like the one for torture -- or public executions. Even if they aren't good for the victim, they have a "good" social effect.

By 2000, even Roderick was no longer claiming the public execution version of why ending "social promotion" was OK. All of the data were showing that the policies of "ending social promotion" had failed by any reasonable statistical or educational measure. But the political insistence that the policies be in place were stronger than ever, because No Child Left Behind was about to launch the same series of lies across the USA, with Chicago as one of the supposed models for "success."

For two years in the early 00s, Roderick's work was compromised (and the work of the Consortium, perhaps fatally). In 2001 and 2002, she and John Easton (the other main person at the Consortium) went to work for the Chicago Board of Education and their neighbor Arne Duncan, a former professional basketball player and son of a University of Chicago professor who had been named "Chief Executive Officer" of Chicago's public schools (following Mayor Daley's ouster of Paul Vallas, who was sent to Philadelphia with the blessings of then Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge).

Roderick became, for a year, Arne Duncan's chief of strategic planning. John Easton became a chief research type (actual title and powers, unclear).

Ironically, this interregnum (Duncan had gotten rid of both of them by late 2002) was the last time Chicago actually had people at the top who understood the complex data and statistical realities that were underlying the CPS policies and praxis. Since then, CPS has settled for "research" chiefs whose degrees are in "public policy" and who know less about statistics and research than the average high school student who passes Advanced Placement Statistics.

What Russo is doing is recycling conservative talking points, then dressing them up with some twists as "fact." Note that he never actually talks about numbers, but froths into metaphor and some quips. The reason is that at every point, the numbers are nasty. The kids who are kept back are screwed -- just as the data showed from as far back as the New York Gates programs -- for life. The schools don't improve, either. What happens is a massive triage, with the minority of better scoring children (usually, middle class) slowly being siphoned off into magnet, charter and selective enrollment schools, while the remaining public schools receive the "leftover kids" (as they have been called in New Orleans, and in some schools here).

Russo has a way of dodging facts and ignoring data, except when he is cherry picking to fit his conservative biases. No mention is made, for example, of the fact that at every point CPS has been a moving target as far as its actual "standards" for promotion are concerned. The Board of Education has literally revised them every year for the past ten years. Until four years ago, the promotion "standards" were based on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (and the high school TAP tests), despite the clear warnings that these tests are not supposed to be used for such things. Prior to that, the Illinois tests (IGAP, for Illinois Goals Assessment Program) were used. Since CPS was finally forced to unload the ITBS and TAP, the ISAT (Illinois State Assessment Tests) have been used. But the ISAT have a funny kink in them. Two years ago, they were made easier (by extending the time kids had and changing some of the parts of the test) just in time for the Governor's election. Honest.

What's amazing about Russo's piece is that he can ignore what now amounts to more than ten years of history and information, then spin out the same lies about "ending social promotion" that were being served up by right wing pundits a decade ago, when Chicago was in the vanguard of test-based "standards and accountability" long before No Child Left Behind.

I could add more for you and friends, but I hope this gives you some flavor of what's taking place here. Anything published by Russo -- and not just stuff in obvious right wing venues -- should be carefully reviewed, because it's more likely than not propaganda for the "standards and accountability" corporate "school reform" crowd.

Thousands of children have been screwed by the policies Russo praises. The fact that most of them were poor and black just meant that they were easy to ignore while the dirty deeds were being done to them. We're working on making sure that the next ten years are not as easily lied about as the last ten years. And that "reporting" like the kind Russo does gets deconstructed as soon as possible with as many facts as possible.

George N. Schmidt
Editor, Susbtance

As some observers have noted, student retention policies are not really about the students who are retained as much as they are about the way the rest of the school system operates when it knows that there is no social promotion. Researchers like G. Alfred Hess, an education professor at Northwestern University, are quick to point out that the justifications for retaining students should not be based solely on their impact on retained students, but rather on the effect of the threat of retention on all students and their families. “This dual intent for ending the social promotion policy is frequently ignored by its opponents and is rarely considered in evaluating the effectiveness of the policy,” Hess writes in School Reform in Chicago (2004).


Norm (and colleagues):

I really wish we had been able to get to New York this week for AERA and to spend some time with y'all. But just to have the time to look over this stuff you forwarded makes part of it fun. (I wish we had a conference and I could dissect Russo during a panel that included Russo).

But here's the most interesting.

If you read the Russo paragraph above, would you know that "G. Alfred Hess" (Northwestern Univesity) has been dead for 26 months? Fred died January 27, 2006.

Or would you know that Hess's "research" at Northwestern was completely financed by money from the Daley administration (most, to the tune of three quarters of a million dollars a year at one point) from the Chicago Board of Education?

Or that Hess's doctorate was in anthropology (or divinity) and that he really didn't know much about complex research -- either through formal training or later experience?

I knew "Fred" Hess (the Chicago one) long before he became relatively wealthy for slanting his research in the direction of the people who were paying for it: CPS and the Daley administration.

For a time, we worked together and I liked him. As he became more the spokesman for the official version of "reform" (and a proponent of Chicago's "ending social promotion" among many other nasty things), we had fewer and fewer things in common.

In fact, after he authored a truly mendacious "study" praising Chicago for the Bookings Institution (one that was unveiled, by the way, at a private briefing in Chicago where press people like me were explicitly barred), I had some back and forth with him about his funding and his methods. By the end of our review of what he had published, he was backtracking on just about everything, especially that nonsense about the benefits of public executions (quoted approvingly by Russo, above). Interestingly, by the time I was done going back and forth with him privately (but with an intention of utilizing it for Substance, which he knew about), he was being publicly criticized by others for the same problems with his "research." As Richard Elmore noted in one critique (published for Brookings): "Hess has written a kind of teleological paper, communicating a sense of manifest destiny. Things are essentially getting better in Chicago and progress is based on a rational, straight-ahead model..." Despite its academic politeness, Elmore's critique is as applicable to what Hess was doing as I would suggest we need to be to what Russo is doing, in the tradition of Hess. I would just be a bit unprofessorial and call both Bullshit, because that's what they are.

Now, from the dead Hess, to Russo, to the living Hess (there are two "Fred Hess" guys in ed research, and it's important to distinguish between them, even though both are (were) cheerleaders for top down "standards and accountability" reform).

As I noted earlier to you, CPS long ago shifted from using the ITBS (and TAP) to using the ISAT (and Prairie State). For some reason, Russo misses that fact, too.

So whether it's quoting dead professors as if they are alive or citing dead data long after they've been replaced, Russo's work is truly a piece of work.

Typical of the kind of "reporting" we face every day.

Anyone want to discuss the other Fred Hess, while we're on fact versus other.

George Schmidt


Alexander Russo said...

please note that schmidt, ever a stickler for accuracy, somehow fails to realize throughout this entire post and his addendum that the article he's reading is from early 2005.

for all his length, he also fails to find any major substantive errors in the piece, and fails to note that the piece was critical of the student retention policy as a get-tough measure.

ed notes online said...

The date was pointed out by Leonie Haimson who comments on it and offers later studies on the link to Schmidt's comments on the ed notes blog.