Where great PR and bad journalism collide: the Denver Post strikes again
Once upon a time the Denver Post was a pretty good newspaper. These days? Well, it’s pretty much like every other newspaper. And that isn’t a compliment. On Sunday last (the 21st) we were presented with a front-page, above-the-fold case study in what happens when budget cuts drive too many professionals out of the newsroom and talent that might once have served the public interest in a journalistic role turns to public relations.
Short version: one the Denver area’s more challenged school districts, Adams 50 in suburban Westminster, is abandoning traditional grade levels and implementing a new “standards-based” system that will teach and promote students according to their proficiencies in individual subjects. That is, your child’s 6th-grade English class might include students ranging from ages 10-16, and a student might be 4th-grade level in Science and 8th-grade level in Math.
While this isn’t an indefensible concept on its face, what’s happening in fact is in dire need of critical examination. Unfortunately, instead of sending a reporter to do the story, the Post assigned a typist, apparently with explicit instructions to write down and treat as gospel every word the consultant said. (You knew there had to be a consultant in here, right?)
Let me preface my criticism with a couple points. First, I have been a consultant and and worked in PR on and off for a couple decades now, so my reaction to this story is a little conflicted. The citizen in me is distressed to no end, but the professional practitioner in me is overawed by how beautifully the Post was played. I assure you, the PR hacks behind the article nearly wet themselves with glee at how pliant the “reporter” was. This effort will win some PR awards, as long as it’s submitted.
Second, while I’m going to be brutally critical of the transcriptionist reporter here – Jeremy P. Meyer, whom I’ve never read before – the fault is hardly all his. My colleague, Dr. Denny, has written at length about the plight of the print daily reporter, who is routinely asked to do more and more with less and less, so Meyer may well be doing the best that he can do. For all I know, he may have had misgivings about the disservice he was perpetrating on his readers, but decided that he had to do what he was instructed to do. It’s impossible to say. Further, the story got past the editors and made it to the front page of the Sunday edition, so at the very least he had accomplices.
All this being said, the story is right there in black and white, with Meyer’s name on it, so that makes it his responsibility.
Finally, I’m assuming that there’s a very good PR firm behind this story. If there isn’t, then the consultants are doing their own promotion and they’re definitely in the wrong line of work. They’re significantly better than some well-paid PR folks I know personally and professionally.
Cue the Marching Band
So, what’s wrong with the story? Let’s start with the headline:
“Adams 50 skips grades, lets kids be pacesetters”
The truth on this program is that it’s controversial, to say the very least. But the header makes clear that the program is a winner – the kids get to be the pacesetters. “Pacesetter” is a good thing – it’s like pioneer and trailblazer and innovator, powerful memes that Americans especially treasure. The tone of the header privileges “kids” – we love and cherish kids – and apparently the editor writing the headline never pauses to ask whether or not kids, especially kids in a failing school, might not be qualified to, you know, paceset. Children are smart. It’s those darned adults who need to shut up and get the heck out of the way of all the learning that will naturally take place when kids are put in charge.
Or am I making too much of this? Well, let’s read on and see what happens. The subhead (which doesn’t appear in the online version, but is in the print edition) reads:
In the innovative standards-based learning program the 10,000-student district will use, age doesn’t matter, but performance does.
The lead carries on:
A school district in Westminster struggling with declining enrollment and falling test scores will try something revolutionary next year that many say never has been accomplished in the Lower 48.
It’s “Revolutionary®.” Ask yourself how often you encounter that word – revolutionary – in a context that sells it as a bad thing. If you’re like me, probably never. So, are you excited yet? Are you convinced? The reporter PR agency certainly is, and they want you to be, too.
“If they can pull this off, it will be a lighthouse for America’s challenged school districts,” said Richard DeLorenzo, the consultant who implemented a standards-based model in Alaska and is working with Adams 50. “It will change the face of American education.”
Wow. “Lighthouse”? Are you kidding me? “Challenged” is nice, too – they’re down, but not out, so long as we can innovate them a whole new way of doing things. And the last line – “change the face of American education” – it’s a shame that basic text can’t communicate the epic orchestral soundtrack that’s no doubt swelling in the background as DeLorenzo speaks.
There are two words in there that ought to set off your alarm bells, though: “consultant” and “Alaska.” Having been a consultant I’m certainly not here to tell you that they’re/we’re all necessarily evil. But many of them do make their money by repackaging old ideas, slapping some fresh buzzwords on them, and reselling them as something that’s brand spanking new. And in the ed world there’s a shiny new package being pitched every eight seconds or so. More on all this later.
Next, a brief, but critically important blurb about the district:
A district of 10,000 students and 21 schools, Adams 50 serves a working-class suburb north of Denver. Seventy-two percent of its students are poor enough for federal meal benefits, two-thirds are Latino, and 38 percent still are learning English.
Two years ago the district was put on academic watch because of achievement troubles; fewer than 60 percent of students graduate on time.
The Real Issues, Unexamined
This is key information, mainly because it provides us with some solid footing for a reality check. As we get deeper into the “solution,” keep the dynamics in those three sentences firmly in mind, because we’re going to need to question whether the deal we’re being sold seems to address the core causes of failure in the district: poverty and crippling language barriers.
I need to add a bit more texture here. I have a small bit of insight into Adams 50 because my sister-in-law taught in the district for five or six years, and the problems it faces are far more complex and confounding than even the haunting statistics above indicate. For instance, in addition to the fact that many of these students speak no English, understand that they’re not all Latino – there may be students from multiple Asian and European cultures in the room. In fact, as many as 45 different languages, including such rarely encountered tongues as Lao, Farsi, Vietnamese and Romanian, are spoken by Adams 50 students.
So even a teacher who’s conversant (or fluent) in Spanish, as a some are, have a daunting task bridging the gap with a good number of their students. Worse, class sizes can approach 40 (at the middle school level a teacher can have six of these a day), a number that’s unmanageable even if they’re all English-speaking honors students.
Finally, a good number of the Latin students are from migrant farm worker families and they will be moving on in a few months. Odds are that they will never speak English, nor will anything meaningful ever happen to them in any classroom.
Meyer seems not to have asked the questions needed to elicit this information, although pretty much any teacher or administrator in the system could have provided it.
“What we are doing right now is not working,” said Superintendent Roberta Selleck, who was hired in 2006 to reform the district. “We think this will be huge.”
Einstein was certainly right. Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the very definition of madness. But … the way the story is constructed, it’s almost as though there are only two options: the old way or DeLorenzo’s program. “Well, shooting ourselves in the foot wasn’t working, so we decided to try stabbing ourselves in the balls instead. We think this is going to be huge.”
Not to belabor the point, but neither students, parents, teachers, administrators or taxpayers are well served by a reporter who’s too busy cheerleading to ask some basic (and almost painfully obvious) questions.
The next section of the story provides a few details on how the program works, and again, the critical reader is advised to question whether the proposed technique offers some hope against poverty and crippling language barriers. The section is capped by a sequence that’s so brilliantly crafted that the PR weasel in me leaps to its feet in wild applause:
“In a standards-based system, time becomes the variable and learning is the constant,” Selleck said. “When a kid can demonstrate proficiency of a standard, they move on. There is nothing magical about a quarter, semester or the end of school. That becomes blurred. Learning becomes much more 24-7.”
This is a coup of persuasive language – and let’s be clear, the goal of this story is to sell, not inform – because it so deftly integrates an intelligent observation with a marvelously worded selling point. In doing so, it makes them seem like the same thing. The idea that there’s “nothing magical about a quarter, semester or the end of school is not only accurate and insightful, it’s one I share myself (I’ve long been a proponent of year-round schooling, for instance, and believe that the most effective education takes place in comprehensive cultures of learning where there’s a strong emphasis on learning in the home – so “school” never really ends).
But this is paired with “[i]n a standards-based system, time becomes the variable and learning is the constant.” That’s sales lingo, and very well-crafted sales lingo, to boot. “Standards-based” is a weasel term masquerading as something so scientific as to be unquestionable, and that is in fact its purpose – to deter opposition. How would it be possible to question the premise that education should be held to standards?
“What is a standard?” Meyer should have asked. He should have insisted that the people selling this program explain why their standards-based program was bound to be successful where the current standards-based programs aren’t, because in fact the programs that are failing us across America every day are standards-based.
Want some proof? Scroll back to the sentence we saw earlier: “Two years ago the district was put on academic watch because of achievement troubles…” Now, how do you suppose they concluded that the district was having “achievement troubles”? I bet there are some standards dictating the use of that term and defining where the cutoff is. And unless I’m mistaken, the people who built the old system, who reported up through a zillion layers of hierarchy to the state’s governing authorities, those people would tell you that they were doing standards-based programs. Need more?
Students will still take the state’s standardized test — the Colorado Student Assessment Program — to monitor both individual and schoolwide progress. The district has spent the year defining the standards for each level, training teachers and working with state officials to create assessments.
But what about the rest of the formulation?
…time becomes the variable and learning is the constant.
So, learning will be the constant among those students who do not and never will speak English? It will be the constant for students from homes that see schools as warehouses? For kids who have to work significant hours at jobs to help pay the bills in poverty-stricken homes?
This misdirection asks us to accept, without questioning, the premise that time-focus is the real culprit here, not poverty and crippling language barriers. Now that you think about it, does that make even a little bit of sense to you?
I imagine Denny doing this story instead of Jeremy. He’d probably tee up something like “So, Ms. Selleck, your program creates extra hours in the day?” Well, maybe not – I doubt Denny would resort to snark. But I imagine all the winking between DeLorenzo and Selleck would come to an abrupt halt as it became clear that they were dealing with a reporter who was going to do more than simply cut-and-paste from the press release.
“It’s been working so well,” said Kim Carver, who teaches first-grade math in the standards-based model at Tennyson Knolls Elementary School. “The kids are in control.”
It’s good to hear that things are going well in Carver’s classroom, but if things are better now that the kids are in control, doesn’t that suggest a follow-up question or two about her capabilities? More to the point, does this suggest another hypothesis about why the school was failing in the first place? (Or maybe I should be careful here – Carver’s actual opinions may not be reflected at all by this quote – these could be the only marginally positive words she said in a five-minute rant; the slant of the “reporting” makes it impossible to trust.)
Then there’s this, which I’m asked to accept as something like conclusive evidence, I suppose:
Six-year-old Dominic Herrera showed one of them on the subject of counting pennies. On the chart were four categories: “I need help,” “I think I can,” “I know I can” and, finally, “I can teach it.”
Dominic had reached the “I know I can” level and was onto the next category, telling time in five-minute intervals. He was at the “I think I can” level.
“It’s neat that they have ownership, and they know what proficiency means,” Carver said. “It’s not arbitrary anymore.”
Again, there’s good news and bad news here. A program that excites kids and gets them to buy into learning is about as good as it gets. So let’s file that as “potentially quite good.” But if we’re smart, we’re aware of a couple things. First, Dominic might be a perfect case study, but there’s one of him, and there’s only so much you can know about a system from looking at a sample size of one. Second, do you think they put their worst example in front of the reporter or their best? What conclusions can you legitimately draw about a large program from a cursory look at its single best result?
Did Meyer ask these kinds of questions? If he did, we have no evidence of it.
Next we get some commentary from another consultant who thinks it’s all a great idea – Bob Marzano, who’s one of the better-known ed consultants out there – and he notes, probably correctly, that “[t]he moment a district the size of Adams 50 pulls this off, you will see a lot of districts on their doorstep.” There’s a lot of “if” in that equation, of course, and Meyer chooses to reproduce the assertion without reservation.
But then a curious bit from state Deputy Education Commissioner Ken Turner.
“This is a departure from one-size-fits-all…It’s more customized learning. If we want a path to better results, we should be willing to try different things. . . . We applaud their efforts.”
On its face this makes perfect sense. Customized is good (albeit pricy). One-size-fits-all might be okay for certain kinds of things, but I’d agree that it’s not your optimal model for an entire system. So far so good.
But… the ideal path to customization, in most cases I can think of, involves more favorable student:teacher ratios. It’s great to hear that he’s willing to try different things, but not too long ago the teachers in Adams 50 negotiated a pay raise intended to foster a higher rate of professionalism and better teaching – in essence, a tactic aimed at improving customization, etc.
The district’s response: it slashed staff and increased class sizes beginning in academic year 2006-7.
It would have been enlightening if Post readers had been given an opportunity to hear Turner explain his thinking in light of this larger context.
What About Alaska?
As noted earlier, DeLorenzo’s plan has been tested.
DeLorenzo helped implement a nationally recognized standards-based system in the Chugach School District — a district of about 200 students scattered throughout 22,000 square miles of mostly isolated areas in south-central Alaska.
The model transformed the district, where 90 percent of students couldn’t read at grade level.
The results are noteworthy, assuming they’re accurate. But in a piece so thoroughly absent even the most rudimentary critical awareness, we’d be foolish to take these kinds of success claims at face value.
Further, the venue of the test was anomalous, at best, and as far removed from the conditions facing Adams 50 educators as it’s possible to imagine. For comparison purposes, we’re talking about a district that’s significantly larger in area than Rhode Island, and only slightly smaller than Delaware. The district certainly faced challenges, but nothing I can find makes clear that it’s a sensible model for systems like the one in Westminster.
Chugach’s 214 students are scattered throughout 22,000 square miles of mostly isolated and remote areas of South Central Alaska. With 30 faculty and staff, CSD is the smallest organization to ever win a Baldrige Award. CSD delivers instruction in education from preschool up to age 21 in a comprehensive, standards-based system. Education occurs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Instruction is delivered in the work place, in the community, in the home and in school. Half (50%) of the students in the Chugach School District are minorities (Alaska Natives). (Source)
How many ways can you find where Chugach is very, very unlike Adams 50? For starters, I think I see a 7:1 student:teacher ratio and while I can’t find anything that tells me about languages spoken, I’d be stunned to learn that Chugach teachers are facing the cultural diversity we see in Adams County. It looks like you have two basic cultural groups there, and I suspect that’s more manageable than what I know exists in many Adams 50 classrooms (remember that 45 different languages bit from above). Additionally, note that between state funding and private grants the Chugach district was receiving nearly $17,000 per child. In Adams 50 the figure is slightly over $10,000.
So, to sum up:
- $7,000 more per student
- 7:1 vs. 35+:1
- only about 5% of Alaskans speak native languages (pardon my Wiki here – feel free to dig deeper in the footnotes and here; I can’t find any more specific data on what languages are spoken in the Chugash district and whether these pupils also speak English, but it seems like the very worst-case scenario is substantially better than what’s going on in Adams 50)
Then Meyer, perhaps accidentally, brushes up against some potentially critical information. Let’s go line by line, because he refused to.
The Gates Foundation gave the Chugach district $5 million to replicate the model across Alaska. About a dozen Alaska districts have tried to implement the model — some with success. Others abandoned it.
How hard would it have been to tell us more specifically how many had luck and how many gave up? The way it’s put here could probably apply to a 75%-25% split in either direction, and that’s not an insignificant gap. Given how hard the story is trying to get me to buy the program, I can’t helping leaning toward the skeptical side. That’s a sure mark of bad reporting – it forces the reader into unevidenced speculation.
The ones that abandoned the program – why did they do so? Well, here we get the reporter reading directly from the talking points of every anti-teacher’s union spokesnozzle in America:
Denali Borough School District removed the system from two of its three schools when teachers complained that tracking student progress was becoming too burdensome.
Teachers “complained” that doing their jobs was “burdensome.”
This isn’t just slanted language, it’s an appalling hit job by the reporter typist. Where did this information come from, I wonder? Well, it isn’t attributed to anyone with the Denali Borough District, and we’ve seen nothing else in this story to suggest that Meyer is the type to pick up the phone and ask a lot of difficult questions. But – it’s a “fact” that serves the interests of someone we know he’s talked to quite a bit, isn’t it?
Up next, a spokesman who believes in the program:
“One of the toughest issues is not giving grades anymore,” said Roger Sampson, head of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States who was the superintendent at the Chugach district when the standards-based system was introduced.
Sampson has been a advocate for the model, which he says works “tremendously” if leadership and stakeholders are behind it.
I actually don’t doubt this – as I said earlier, I have no evidence to reject this kind of model outright. It may be a very good idea, properly executed. But I think Sampson says something very important in that last sentence. There isn’t just one way to teach, nor is there only one way to teach well. But at the system level, my guess is that most of the effective techniques have something in common – the support of leadership and stakeholders. That’s not everything, but without it nothing is going to work.
Fair and Balanced
In the waning moments of the sales presentation article, Meyer remembers that he needs to introduce some “balance,” so he turns to Van Schoales, an “education expert at the Denver-based Piton Foundation.” He is “skeptical about Adams 50’s chances.”
“There is a reason why school districts have a hard time implementing this, because they don’t replace their old systems,” said Schoales, who added that his only understanding of Adams 50’s plan is from its website.
You’re kidding me, right? We know of at least two places in Alaska where they shut the program down, and instead of talking with an informed source there Meyer hunts down an “expert” who’s never encountered the program? This means our lone voice of dissent comes up a little short on the credibility meter, huh?
So, what’s really going on here in the Skeptics Gallery? Allow me to speculate.
A good PR flak knows that a reporter is going to have to pretend to tell the “other side,” and will therefore “help” the typist reporter find a suitable source. In my own work as a PR guy, I have put reporters onto my client’s competitors – I’ve even written competitors into my pitches. This puts the PR flak not only in command of the story, but it lets him/her control the response to it. If I can guarantee a lame rebuttal, I pretty much own the whole “debate,” don’t I?
Or maybe I’m being too paranoid here – I don’t know that this is what happened, do I? I do admire the professional savvy of whoever is behind the story, though, and have seen it played just this way myself. In any case, it works out in favor of the folks selling the bridge, doesn’t it?
Then we have the big finish – the compelling anecdote that seals the deal and sticks with the reader.
Richard Rodriguez thinks it will work. He pulled his children from Adams 14 to attend Adams 50’s Metz Elementary, the pilot school, because of the new model.
His kids, who are in kindergarten to fourth grade, now are more engaged in school, he said.
“They are excited about going to school,” he said. “We don’t have to get them up. They are excited about the program. They have their own goals, and they know what they are learning and why they are learning it. I have seen the transformation.”
I don’t know who Rodriguez is, and I certainly don’t doubt his concern for his children. But I would call everybody’s attention to the scorecard, where on the one side we have:
- a reporter who’s giddy as a schoolgirl,
- rhetorically gushing anecdotal pom-pomming, and
- data from an anomalous trial district.
On the other side, we have
- a hobbled “expert” who’s technically never seen the program he’s asked to talk about in a
- “skeptics” section with 92 words (out of more than 1,100 in the entire article) and
- a reporter who’s avoiding legitimate critical voices like he would a skunk with rabies.
Wow – they can’t even get false balance right.
Real Reporting, Please?
There may come a time when the Adams 50 model is indeed the lighthouse for every child in America. We may one day celebrate the consultants and administrators pushing it as heroes in our nation’s fight against ignorance. But if we do, it will be because we have asked tough questions of those selling their ideas. The most fundamental of those questions will need to address the issues noted above: how does your approach overcome poverty, crippling language barriers and cultural contexts that are largely antithetical to learning when other “standards-based” programs have failed?
In the meantime, the best we can hope for – as faint as that hope may be – are journalists who can tell the difference between reporting and shilling. Jeremy Meyer and the Denver Post should be ashamed of themselves for the damage they’ve done to the truth in this story.
If this is to be the state of local journalism in Denver from here on out, then maybe outsourcing the whole shooting match to Bangalore isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Thanks to Rob Spencer, who helped me find some of the information used in this post.