NY Times’ Daniel Bergner Gives Diane Ravitch the Dirty F-cking Hippie Treatment

When I first read Daniel Bergner’s puff piece about Eva Moskowitz’s charter chain Success Academies, I just figured it was another garbage piece by a reporter who doesn’t know statistics. This was the part that made me roll my eyes (boldface mine):

On the topic of scores, the U.F.T. and Ravitch insist that Moskowitz’s numbers don’t hold up under scrutiny. Success Academy (like all charters), they say, possesses a demographic advantage over regular public schools, by serving somewhat fewer students with special needs, by teaching fewer students from the city’s most severely dysfunctional families and by using suspensions to push out underperforming students (an accusation that Success Academy vehemently denies). These are a few of the myriad factors that Mulgrew and Ravitch stress. But even taking these differences into account probably doesn’t come close to explaining away Success Academy’s results.

Probably? Bergner could have committed some journalism here, and tried to determine what the scores of the students who left were. If year after year, the worst-performing students were ‘disappeared’, that might answer the question Since each student’s increases are known, one could even estimate what Success Academies might look like with no or limited attrition. One could go further and compare the distribution of the ‘lost’ students to those in other charters or public schools. If Success Academies were expelling their worst students–and they don’t replace them–then this is cheating. I’ve made this point before, both about Moskowitz’s schools and charter schools in general, so I was going to ignore the article (I’m attending ICAAC by day, and had an evening off). But then I read what happened to Ravitch during and after the interview–it’s hacktacular! (boldface mine):

When he asked why I was critical of Moskowitz, I said that what she does to get high test scores is not a model for public education or even for other charters. The high scores of her students is due to intensive test prep and attrition. She gets her initial group of students by holding a lottery, which in itself is a selection process because the least functional families don’t apply. She enrolls small proportions of students with disabilities and English language learners as compared to the neighborhood public school. And as time goes by, many students leave.

The only Success Academy school that has fully grown to grades 3-8 tested 116 3rd graders but only 32 8th graders. Three other Success Academy schools have grown to 6th grade. One tested 121 3rd graders but only 55 6th graders, another 106 3rd graders but only 68 6th graders, and the last 83 3rd graders but only 54 6th graders. Why the shrinking student body? When students left the school, they were not replaced by other incoming students. When the eighth grade students who scored well on the state test took the admissions test for the specialized high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, not one of them passed the test….

Bergner argued every issue with me. He reiterated Success Academy’s talking points. He said that public schools lose as many students every year as SA charters; I replied that public schools don’t close their enrollment to new students. Again, defending SA, he said that closing new enrollments made sense because Moskowitz was “trying to build a culture,” and the culture would be disrupted by accepting new students after a certain grade. I responded that public schools might want to “build a culture” too, but they are not allowed to refuse new students who want to enroll in fourth grade or fifth grade or sixth grade or even in the middle of the year.

He did not think it mattered that none of her successful eighth grade students was able to pass the test for the specialized high schools, and he didn’t mention it in the article. Nor was he interested in teacher turnover or anything else that might reflect negatively on SA charters.

Can I get an editor up in here?

Subsequently I heard from his editor, who called to check the accuracy of the quotes by me. I had to change some of the language he attributed to me; for example, he quoted me defending “large government-run institutions,” when what I said was “public schools.” He was using SA’s framing of my views. I asked whether Bergner had included my main point about attrition, and the editor said no. I explained it to her and sent her supporting documentation.

Let’s be clear here: Bergner made up a quote about Ravitch. For one’s brain to translate the words “public school” into “large government-run institutions”, one hasn’t just drank the Kool-Aid, but undergone full immersion baptism in it. At best, this reveals an incredible ideologically-based blindness. At worst, you get to join the Jonah Lehrer club.

Moreover, he didn’t even include Ravitch’s key point, and in the final article, as noted above, Bergner didn’t even try to assess the validity of her claim. Imagine if he had tried, maybe even filed some FOIA-type stuff. You know, journalism.

It’s absolutely clear that Bergner went into this story wanting to cast Ravitch et alia as irrational, data-free idiots. Apparently, data-free is the new Dirty Fucking Hippie. Sure, Ravitch has an agenda (one of sort of share, but I differ in some areas), though the idea that someone who served in the first Bush Administration and then spent ten years at the Brookings Institution is a radical messes with the story arc. But Bergner wants to tell a story, even though that story under scrutiny, falls apart, so Ravitch is cast as the soft-minded hippie.

I’ll give the last word to Ravitch:

Why did Bergner insist on obscuring this crucial difference between SA charter schools and public schools? Public schools can’t remove students with low scores. They can’t refuse to enroll students with severe disabilities and students who can’t read English. They can’t close their enrollment after a certain grade. Unless they have a stated policy of selective admissions, they must accept everyone who seeks to enroll, even if they arrive in February or March. Their doors must be open to all, without a lottery. It is not honest to pretend that public schools can imitate Moskowitz’s practice of selective attrition. And it is not honest to overlook that difference.

Not honest is one way to put it. Lying is another way. Though opinions may differ.

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1 Response to NY Times’ Daniel Bergner Gives Diane Ravitch the Dirty F-cking Hippie Treatment

  1. Rich S. says:

    Every day, I get closer to cancelling my NYT subscription.

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