The following was originally published at the Urban Times on January 25th, 2013. It is republished here for archival purposes.

How an uncritical media have helped distort the American education debate.

The current American debate over education reform has centered, for the most part, on several major themes; that American schools are, in some broad sense, “failing”, that American students are vastly outperformed on international tests of assessment by ‘lesser’ nations, and that teachers and their obstinate unions are the main reason for this failure.

This June 2011 piece in the prominent American magazine The Atlantic by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein is an excellent example of every one of those above elements distilled into one article, down to its title, “The Failure of American Schools”. While the piece was written by a former public official intimately involved with the “education reform” movement, it is only slightly more ‘biased’ on the subject than treatments of the issue by  most journalists.

Before continuing, it should be said that one of the main underpinnings of this standard “failure” narrative—lukewarm American scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—is in many ways flawed. For one, the jurisdictions tested don’t lead to apples to apples comparisons. Scores for the entire Chinese school system, for example, are not available; rather the cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, both highly unrepresentative of the “average” Chinese student, participate in the test. Even for the places where true country to country comparisons are being made, a closer look at the test scores shows that the source of America’s middling international ranking is more  ineffective education of chronically disadvantaged ethnic groups, rather than a fundamental problem with all of American pedagogy.

That American schools are “failing”, in the sense that they are not adequately preparing their students to compete in the global economy, has become an article of faith of not just education reformers, but of the media itself. A study looking at media coverage of the subject from October 2010 to October 2011 found that 10 percent of all education news coverage was framed through a crisis frame, portraying the system as irreparably broken and incapable of fully educating its students. 20 percent of these pieces did not even engage in a discussion of solutions.

Melinda Gates (of the Gates Foundation) visiting a Chicago school in 2007. The Gates Foundation has been a big proponent of the current education 'reform' movement.  (image: Gates Foundation / Flickr)

Melinda Gates visiting a Chicago school in 2007. The Gates Foundation has been a big proponent of the current education ‘reform’ movement, and has received largely positive media attention as a result. (image: Gates Foundation / Flickr)

In terms of solutions, another major flaw of American education coverage is that it has by and large bought the claim of education reformers that most blame for the supposed ‘failure’ of American schools falls with teachers, as opposed to external social problems in impoverished school districts. This teacher-centric understanding has prompted media outlets in both Los Angeles and New York to publish—with teacher names attached—reports prepared by the respective school districts on teacher effectiveness based on a “value added” score, or a measurement that purports to measure the year-over-year improvement on standardized test scores a teacher provides to a student, accounting for socioeconomic differences. However, these statistics are highly flawed,often failing to adequately control for socioeconomic status and fluctuating wildly from year to year. Still, these evaluations were made public, with the predictable backlash towards teachers who scored poorly on this dubious metric.

However, the biggest problem with the media’s coverage of education is an aggravating tendency to cast any and all signs of improvement in near-messianic terms. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the generally positive, if not effusive, coverage charter schools have received from the media, even including a blockbuster 2010 documentary,Waiting for “Superman”, which focused on the lengths families went through to get their children into charters. The film, which portrayed charter schools as the be-all and end-all of education reform, reflected many of the problems with regular media coverage of charters and reforms in general; an inability to recognize the variation in quality among charters—there are some that are as bad as the worst public schools in their states—an overreliance on anecdotal storytelling, and a lack of context on education trends in the US independent of what the ‘reformers’ are saying, likely a product of many media outlets no longer staffing education beat reporters.

It would be unfair to characterize the entire media as having failed in reporting on education reform; even the media outlets that released the “value added” data in New York and Los Angeles followed up with reports exploring the flawed nature of the data, for example. However, what is clear is that public misconceptions like the widespread publicbelief in the effectiveness of charter schools, can be largely blamed on inadequate media coverage.

Moussako, Abraham. “The Media and Education Reform: The Triumph of Neat Narratives.” The Urban Times, , sec. Critical Conversations, January 25, 2013.


(in which I discuss how a university administration should relate to students)

“McGill University, like all universities, has an administrative superstructure and an academic structure overlaid one on the other. As with many universities, this superstructure is generally ignored by much of the student body. The spate of recent controversies over the administration and student input, from the recent course cuts to the Provisional Protocol regarding Demonstrations makes this a good time as ever to talk about how our university should be run.”

Read more at:

(In which I look at a set of twin cuts; one to the provincial education budget, and one to McGill’s class catalog)

“At the beginning of last term, I wrote that this year would—hopefully—be free of the sort of acrimonious student politics that characterized 2011-2012 at McGill. Recent events have put the lie to that hope. While much of the attention on campus is currently centered around The Daily’s fee referendum, a more important set of controversies goes directly to what sort of education we will have as this university moves forward.”

You can read further here:

The piece triggered yet another angry letter to the paper from a campus columnist who does not need to be named in this forum. However, you can read what he had to say here:

The further controversy the piece triggered led to an interview with TVMcGill, which you can see in the second portion of this video:

(Another look at differing perceptions of the university)

“Over the past few years, there has been an intensifying debate over the role of university education—whether universities are institutions of pure learning, or simply a place to acquire a credential after completing a certain amount of coursework. Though the topic has generated a fair amount of discussion about what universities should do to motivate learning, most of the talk about it actually misses the point. Because higher education allows—and requires—more individual choice than primary or secondary education, what really matters to this debate over learning and motivation is the individual student.

Read more here:

Something less controversial for the second piece:

“While private American universities certainly represent the highest end of the tuition spectrum, universities overall in the United States are expensive compared to other developed nations. However, it bears noting that the astronomical figures often quoted in the public debate can be misleading; unlike in Canada, the sticker price of tuition is not paid by most students in the U.S. Indeed, while the list price has risen well past the rate of inflation nationwide, the average actual price paid by students—across all types of universities—has actually stayed steady over the past 10 years, growing from $12,650 in 2001-2002 to $12,950 this past year.

However the discrepancy between this supposed sticker price and the actual price paid by students by no means signifies that the American university system is working. Rather, the extremely inefficient scaling of tuition is merely a manifestation of the system’s dysfunction. This price discrimination is examined under the Bennett Hypothesis, named after the Reagan-era Education Secretary William Bennett.”

Read more here:

The Bronx Science campus, as photographed to the right of the main entrance on 205th street

The Bronx High School of Science.

In which I add to the barrels of ink spilled on the controversy.

A version of this post was republished on the Gotham Schools blog. There you also will find the Administration’s response to the points made here. 

The high school I attended for the past 4 years was The Bronx High School of Science. On paper, it is one of the best high schools in New York City, and, indeed, the United States. As is usual with these sorts of things, in reality the place was a bit below such expectations, mostly because of its administration. Here’s the story on that.

How We Got Here

Near the turn of the new millennium, in fall of 1999, former principal Stanley Blumenstein announced his retirement and was replaced by acting Principal William Stark, a longtime fixture at the school. After an exhaustive search conducted by a committee, Stark was recommended to take over as full time principal. Instead, the city’s Schools Chancellor rejected his appointment, despite the support of key stakeholders; students, parents, teachers, and, as would become most controversial in the years ahead, union officials. Instead, then Chancellor Harold O. Levy directed the search committee to search further afield, putting an emphasis on finding a Nobel Laureate. Several committees were set up to assess the school, and before long, acting Principal Stark decamped to a Long Island school in early 2001. In an apparent effort to save face, the city offered him the job just as he tendered his resignation.

Morale sagged at the school among teachers and some retired ahead of schedule. Columnists slammed the DOE’s mishandling of the situation, and a former principal was reinstalled for another interim stint.

And then, it seemed as if the controversy should have ended. At the end of 2000-01 school year, the principal search came full circle and promoted Valerie Reidy, head of the biology department, to run the school. Both students and teachers were skeptical of the choice, and the new principal’s leadership did not go down too well with the student body, as a student who witnessed the transition describes.

Trouble in the Math Department (I)

A host of controversies occurred over the intervening years between her appointment and my own arrival in the fall of 2007. For the purposes of this not becoming an e-book, look to the links at the bottom of this post for articles covering that. When I arrived at the school, I noticed quickly the almost reflexive dislike the older students had towards the administration. At first, I thought this was just an expression of typical teenage anti-authority bullshit, but then I noticed our school had popped up on the news. A student walkout occurred in the second half of my freshman year, and in 2009, our sophomore year, nearly the entire math department filed a complaint through the city union against the assistant principal of the department, Rosemarie Jahoda, alleging intimidation and improper administrative conduct (full text). Meanwhile, teachers fled the department in droves; both of the math department teachers I had freshman year were gone by my junior year.

Treatment of Students

weekly reports on our cutting from the school

In an effort to go green, the school began sending these weekly emails reminding us how bad we were.

The one aspect of the Bronx Science administration that, for various reasons, has been ignored in media coverage is how it affected students. The Reidy administration managed the school in a rather autocratic fashion, with a somewhat obsessive focus on security and control of students. In the first years of her management, a cut policy was instituted at the school, with every unexcused absence from a class resulting in a detention. Students with more than 5 detentions were considered to have their “privileges suspended”, here meaning they could not be on sports teams, attend clubs, were put at the bottom of the pile for applications to all-important Advanced Placement and Honors classes, and could not buy tickets for prom. Even worse, cuts were carried over from year to year, so skipping a freshman elective could still count against a junior angling for an AP class. The cutting policy was one of the many factors in the 2008 walkout.  The administration attempted to institute a “zero tolerance” policy for cuts before my senior year—a single cut would result in all of the above penalties, but that was eventually shelved after uproar.

sign indicating video surveillance

Part of the administration’s relentless focus on our safety. And control.

A “state of the art” security camera system was installed in 2003, which fed both to a security desk of NYPD school safety officers in the lobby and a flat screen television in the principal’s well appointed office. During my junior year, the school installed alarms on all but two of the exits around the school, with the penalty for exiting out one of these doors a principal’s suspension from school. At the same time, carrying the school ID card at all times was made mandatory on pain of a comparatively lenient 5 detentions. At the time, I spoke to school administrators for a piece for the school newspaper on the policy, and they cited incidents in which security was uncertain as to the identity of students in the school. No specific incidents were cited, nor was the frequency of such occurrences noted. What can be said is that almost all forms of crime in the area around the school had decreased prior to the enactment of the policies, according to NYPD data.

Trouble in the Math Department (II)

By the end of junior year, I had since adopted the default attitude of vague disdain for the principal and administration. At the end of April, the union complaint the math teachers had filed was resolved by judgment from an arbitrator. The report (which, for the interested, is at the bottom of the linked article) more or less corroborated the complaints of the teachers and recommended that both the offending administrator and the union chapter leader, the well liked math teacher Peter Lamphere, be removed from the school. The city’s education department took Reidy’s side anyway and essentially told the arbitrator to shove it.

At the time, the newspaper, the Science Survey, had just selected its editors for the last issue and the coming year, and Seán Toomey and I were slotted as heads of the editorial section. As the situation in the math department had again hit the headlines (articles on the arbitrator’s decision appeared in both city tabloids, the New York Post and Daily News as well as the Times’ website), we all agreed that it would be incredibly unusual if the school paper didn’t have anything to say on the matter. We (this here includes the editors in chief at the time and our faculty adviser) set about drafting an editorial addressing the issue.

Getting an article approved in your school newspaper covering an incident that garnered the institution bad publicity citywide is the sort of thing that probably would be a chore in any circumstance. But it was an even dicier situation at the Survey, where the administration took its power of prior review over the paper seriously. A pre-publication proof of the paper had to be sent to the principal and English department head about a week before publication. They would then take their time combing through our proof pages, ferreting out grammatical errors, but more importantly, criticism. Articles on rather banal school activities had sentences scrubbed because they could be interpreted as critical of the administration, or, god forbid, Department of Education policy.

So as we crafted the editorial, we decided right away to not even attempt to take a stand on the merits of the arbitration complaint—we were constrained to the point that we literally could not dare opine on the school’s wrongness. Instead, we went for a much softer message that school administrators should probably level with students in the event that a faculty dispute makes citywide news. We emailed the principal our intentions, and Seán and I had a cordial meeting in her office to get her side of the situation. I can say that she is more polite in person than press accounts have indicated. We even encouraged the principal to write her own response to our editorial, which we would run unedited, next to our already milquetoast piece.

A week of email correspondence ensued, when we tweaked and shifted the piece on advice of our faculty adviser, the outgoing editors, and rather terse responses from the principal. We were all pleasantly surprised and thought that we actually would be able to run the piece. By the end of the week, we were ready to publish and emailed her for approval. No dice, she replied.

And so our last issue of the year instead featured a short rant on chairs, the typical graduating editor reflection, and a rather large picture of a folding chair on the opinion page.

More troubles at the Survey

a candid photo of we the staff of the "Survey"

The Class of 2011 editing staff on the Survey. If you’re having trouble finding me in the picture, I’m the black guy. Seán is to my left in the blue windbreaker.

When the editing staff returned from summer to run the paper full time, we had come to accept the content restrictions and work around them. We became rather good at the practice of self censorship, for example barely hinting at the teacher turmoil in a “The 2000s at Bronx Science” retrospective we had run the previous year. When the (actual) police were called to respond to an incident at the school during the traditional start-of-year senior event, we were not allowed to mention their intervention in our story; consequently, we ran nothing on the subject in the fall issue. Opinion pieces on “controversial” issues (the bulk of the disagreement came from the administration on these sorts of things) had to be run as “pro/con” pieces, with a student writing a piece parroting the administration’s position, to create the impression of disagreement among the student body. Examples of this at work include an opinion editorial one of our staff did criticizing the increased use of an online grading system. The system was widely disliked by students, but one wouldn’t get that impression from the equal billing we had to give both sides.

The biggest dispute over the paper, and the only one that became a big enough issue to leak out as a series of rumors to the rest of the student body, was the controversy last year over the annual April satire issue. In previous years, the administration had typically loosened the grip here, allowing us to run content that actually satirized the administration (one of my favorite covers from the year before I joined the paper stylized the school as a sort of Soviet totalitarian state) and toed the limit of propriety (the cover article on the joke issue our junior year, my first year on the paper, was on a certain well endowed graduate coming to speak at our graduation).

When a joke is funny, and then isn’t.

So no one batted an eye when some of the staff on the paper decided to run a mock “March Madness” bracket in the satire issue. The idea was that a bunch of teachers at the school were written as competing in a series of one-on-one basketball games. The piece seemed to have passed muster with the administrators, as we were allowed to publish.

Nay, how we were mistaken. In the piece, which was took up the whole bottom fold of the back page, several portions raised complaint. A male teacher was referred to have lost a game against a female teacher because he was “too focused” on her “body movement”. Later in the piece, two female teachers were noted to have “showed their exquisite ball handling skills, while riding all the way to the final four.” Another male teacher was then noted to have won the tournament, however, by “finishing on top.”

Two of the teachers mentioned—one of them the “focused” male teacher—complained to the administration about the content of the issue, and suddenly, it seemed as if there was an oversight in the content editing process. On our end, of course. The assistant principal of the English department sat in on our traditional end of issue debrief, and our faculty adviser seemed to continually hint at what sort of process “improvements” we could make in her moderating of the conversation. The next day, principal Reidy herself made an appearance at the Survey room to essentially lecture us on our lack of propriety. She made a concerted effort to tell us she was not visiting to “intimidate” us, which as you can imagine at the time rang particularly hollow. We didn’t hear much on the subject after that; rumors swirled that the principal had ordered all copies of the paper still in the school trashed, and our stacks of excess issues suddenly were missing the satire issue.

It is unclear what happened regarding that issue, but I can say that the Survey currently has a different faculty adviser. Whether or not this had anything to do with the above mentioned dispute is anyone’s guess. In my rather non-objective view, she was a capable manager of the paper and excellent teacher, but such is how things go.

Final Thoughts

I still talk to some people in the class about to graduate this year. Little has changed, except for media exposure. Just under half of the social studies department fled the school the year after we graduated, including some much beloved Advanced Placement teachers. Half of the social studies teachers I had in my time at the school were included in this exodus. In December New York magazine revisited the controversy in a feature piece, keeping it in the public eye. Earlier that fall, the group “Take Back Bronx Science” was formed, and successfully organized a January protest. The effort since has sputtered, and the group itself was criticized for its tactics by other students.

My guess is as good as yours as to whether this situation will ever improve. Some critics of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral control of schools have taken this situation as an instance of the negative consequences of the Department of Education’s methods. I’m not willing to go that far, and see this more as a rouge principal allowed to continue to lord over her fief because the school still produces enviable results on paper. While Science has consistently received an “A” overall grade on the citywide report card of school performance, one grade of “C” stands out. That one would be for “School Environment,” a grade based on the responses to an anonymous parent-teacher-student survey compiled every year. A link to the details of that survey is right below.

Even more on the story: Links

Learning Environment survey results for 2010-2011:

All New York Times coverage of the school for the past decade:

Some excellent coverage from the now online-only New York Sun paper on the school’s woes:

Full DOE statistics page on the school:

A New York teacher blog post detailing why would-be teachers should avoid the school:

(In which I wade into the student strike issue, against my better instincts)

“This week, students will decide whether an important fee will be raised, in the words of those who support this increase, to “maintain the current level” of service. The fee increase I refer to, of course, is the SSMU dental plan…From an economic standpoint, not raising tuition is folly because of inflation. Quebec’s tuition in real dollars is substantially less than it was in 1968. With inflation, the costs of running a university are significantly higher than in the past. “

Read more here:

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