Challenging Clickbait

Last week the education RSS feed from the Washington Post was spammed with at least seven stories about Jay Mathews’ “challenge” index. Of course, they were all written by Mathews, who never misses an opportunity to tell you how he created this annual list of the “most challenging” high schools in the US.

So, these posts were not so much news as general clickbait.

In one of the articles, Mathews lets us know that this year is the 30 anniversary of the day this idea first popped into his head. Next year will be the 20th year since the Post and a then paper-based Newsweek magazine first published his list.

And I’ve been ranting about it in this space for almost three-quarters of that time. So I’m not sure what’s left to be said about this simplistic, headline-grabbing, mess. But I’ll say it anyway.

For those not familiar with the “challenge” index, here’s how it works: for each high school that will send him the stats,1 Mathews adds up the number of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests taken and divides it by the number of seniors who graduate. Any school with a score of 1 or higher goes on the list.

What? You were expecting more? Maybe like incorporating the number of students who actually passed the exams? Or other factors that go into making a successful high school beyond pushing kids to take more tests?

Mathews seems to think that his index has improved American education by pushing more schools into adopting the AP curriculum (after complaints a few years back, he grudingly included the IB program). Which assumes that those very limited programs, largely dictated by colleges and framed around the idea that college is the only goal of learning in K12, are appropriate for every student. It also ties nicely into Mathews’ love of charter schools, especially KIPP, many of which tightly embrace AP.

Then there’s the general idea in the public mind that this is a ranked list of the “best” high schools. I know, both Mathews and the Post will say that’s not the intent. They simply want to spotlight the schools that are “working hardest to challenge students from all backgrounds”.

However, that’s not how it works in the real world. Since the start, schools, especially those in the upper levels of the list, local media, public school critics, and others have trumpeted this “challenge” index as THE list of top US high schools.

For the Post, that also helps sell newspapers and magazines, and in the internet age, generates clicks.

The False Promise of Charters

When it comes to charter schools, you would be hard pressed to find a bigger cheerleader in the press than Jay Mathews. Especially if the school has the letters KIPP on the front door.

After all, Mathews has visited “more than 50 great charters” (out of about 7,000 in the US), and, based on his observations, declares the concept to be good.

Ignoring, of course, the financial and management problems, not to mention outright fraud, found in many of the companies running charters (especially the online variety), along with study after study showing that most charter schools provide no better learning outcomes than the public schools in the same area. 

In his Post column today, Mathews tries to find common ground on the topic with education writer, historian, and vocal charter critic Diane Ravitch. Someone who actually understands that very few charters have lived up to their glowing promises and should be reigned in.

“I would call a moratorium for all new charters,” Ravitch said. “All charters would be required to be financially and academically transparent.” She would ban for-profit charters. Charters would have to fill all empty seats each year, she said, so average test scores would not rise just because low-performing students had left. Charters would have to have the same demographics as regular schools in their neighborhoods, she said, with the same portion of students with disabilities and students learning English.

Ravitch also would require characteristics that the best charters already have: collaboration with public schools, charter boards made of local community members and racially diverse student bodies.

Imagine that. Charter schools, which use public money, should be required to serve all of their communities and students first, rather than simply providing profits for their investors.

Mathews, condescending as always, deems Ravitch’s ideas “worth discussing”. He’s worried that those “great charters” (aka KIPP) will also have to fall under the same requirements.

Although the theory of charter schools – innovative educators finding new and better ways to help students independent of state and district bureaucracy – is a compelling one. Here in the real world, it just hasn’t worked.

Going beyond the incompetence and corruptions most often in the news, there is little new about the vast majority of charters. Most use very traditional curriculum and standard teacher-directed pedagogy – adding “innovations” like extended class time, “personalized” learning systems, and student regimentation. And being very selective about which students they will accept and retain.

Unfortunately, too many people leading this country are anxious to privatize public education, and make some money on the deal. As a result, Mathews will likely get his way and charters will continue to expand, likely in the same current ratio of “great” to poor. And continuing to exclude those children most in need of a great public education.

Bad Questions

I don’t often agree with Jay Mathews.

Mathews was the long time education reporter for the Washington Post and now writes a weekly column for the paper. I’ve written many posts about his adoration of KIPP charter schools, the unrequited love of the Advanced Placement program, and especially his Challenge Index, his annual ranking of high schools based solely on the number of AP tests taken by students.

However, his post from last week, which is not really about education, is one I can get behind. In it, he highlights two popular questions used by polling companies that produce little to no useful information, calling them dumb and deserving of ridicule.

One comes from the annual poll done by Gallup for Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association for educators. It asks people “What grade would you give your local public schools, the nation’s public schools and, if you have children at home, their schools?” The results are pretty much the same every year.

Since 1985, the results have been consistent. Respondents award their children’s specific schools the highest grades, with about three-quarters giving A’s and B’s. About half of them give their local schools A’s and B’s. About a fifth give A’s and B’s to the nation’s public schools.

My kid’s school is great. But those other schools, and the national education system, are crap. Of course PDK asks other questions about many aspects of education (in 2015, 64% of respondents said there was too much emphasis on standardized testing) but it’s that top number that is most widely reported by the headline driven media. And it’s too often used to perpetuate the “failing public schools” narrative. If people tell a survey taker something, it must be true.

The other poll question Mathews ridicules is even worse.

The right-track-wrong-track question is even more aggravating because it is so often extolled as a mark of voters’ desires. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll uses this question: “Do you think in this country things are generally going in the right direction or do you feel things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track?”

Over the 44 years that polling companies have asked that question “results have been on the negative side nearly 90 percent of the time”. Again, the surveys include other related questions but it’s the right-track-wrong-track number that gets put into the headlines and analyzed by pundits who probably haven’t bothered to read any of the supporting data or metrics used to select the sample.

Both of these examples are why K12 math instruction needs to include a whole lot more statistics. Maybe if more people reading these headlines actually understood something about polling methodology they might push back and question both the results and the reporting of them. Some of those better informed graduates might even become presenters on those talking heads channels and bring those questions to their jobs.

A Very Simplistic Challenge

In this morning’s paper, the Washington Post wasted valuable space in the Metro section on Jay Mathew’s annual promotion of the fraud known as his “challenge” index. If you’re not familiar with this artificial ranking of school quality, take a look at some of my regular rants on the subject.

His premise in the column is that schools need to be more transparent, mostly by giving him their data on how many students take AP tests each year. Mathews is pissed that many private schools still don’t want to play along with his index and this piece is little more than him explaining why they are evading the noble purpose of his list.

However, I do agree with Mathews’ overall idea: schools do need to be more transparent. But with more than just numbers. We need to open schools by involving our communities in some basic discussions around what school is and should be.

Is the basic assumption, made by Mathews and many others, that every student should attend college a valid one? If so, is the AP program, created and marketed by a non-profit organization run by the colleges themselves, the best way to prepare them for that goal?

Are AP courses the best way to challenge students in high school, which is the core concept of Mathews’ index? And is publishing a list based only on the number of students who take a standardized test, ignoring completely their scores, a valid way to judge school quality?2

There are many more questions that need to be asked, as well as including other people who are not currently part of the conversation. Like students, who are most impacted by the decisions made by politicians, administrators, and teachers.

Bottom line is that preparing students for their future after high school graduation is a very complex issue. One that requires more options for students than just college. An issue that is far more complex than the simplistic approach promoted by Mathews, a columnist who gave up being a journalist many years ago.

Looking for Some Journalistic Objectivity

Jay Mathews has been an education writer and columnist at the Washington Post for decades. But the degree of journalistic objectivity in his work has been on a steep downward slope for most of that time.

Take, for example, his column in today’s paper in which he reviews a new book about charter schools that focuses on the KIPP network.

Jim Horn is the most vocal critic of our nation’s (and the District’s) largest nonprofit charter school network, KIPP. Among journalists, I am KIPP’s most enthusiastic supporter.

Is someone calling themselves a “journalist” supposed to be an “enthusiastic supporter” of one side in a story they’re covering? Just askin’

Anyway, Mathews goes on to criticize the author for being one-sided, and then proceeds to take the other side, supporting KIPP management against the “research and personal accounts” in the “252-page book”. Personal accounts that includes “long excerpts from interviews with 23 former KIPP teachers”.

Now, I have not read this particular book (I’ve read other works about KIPP, both critical and favorable), and have no idea if the author’s material makes a compelling case against KIPP’s educational philosophy and how it’s executed in their schools. It’s very possible his book does belong to the “great tradition of American polemics” and is a total hatchet job.

However, Mathews’ “enthusiastic” support for KIPP’s program, based in part on visits to 42 of their schools and his observation of instruction as a non-educator who has never taught, does the reader of his Post column (in the Metro section and not labeled as opinion) a disservice.

He’s hardly in a position to call for another writer to be objective about his subject matter.