Derby Week NYT Special: Reverting to Form

After a couple of interesting columns about other issues, New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip returns to No Child Left Behind bashing profiling an elementary school in Florida. Not only does he apparently not understand the NCLB law, much less federalism, his most recent column misleads readers about the school he is profiling.

Under NCLB different states have different accountability plans, different standards, and different rules. Winerip makes easy sport of the differences between states. But what is his solution? A national accountability system applying to all the states? A single national test or national standards? Or maybe we just shouldn’t worry about those pesky subgroups and disaggregated accountability for at-risk kids? He doesn’t say.

But in this column he does say that Lake Alfred Elementary School in Florida is not making “adequate yearly progress” because poor and learning disabled students are not meeting achievement goals. Based on this he bemoans the unfairness of labeling a school as needing improvement just because of low achievement by subgroups. Ignore for a moment that parents of disabled and poor students probably do see this as an issue (especially because Florida’s standards for what constitutes adequate yearly progress are pretty low — schools need to have about one-third of students at grade level to make adequate yearly progress or “AYP” in 2003).

What’s more important is what Winerip does not mention. For instance, black students at Lake Alfred are also far behind. Less than one in three black students is proficient in reading and fewer than one in four in math. Oh, and there is also a 27 percent gap in proficiency between white and black students in both reading and math. That’s a problem! They didn’t make AYP either.

In addition, only white students at the school made AYP in writing which the state chose to include in its NCLB accountability system. And, in any event, white kids at the school aren’t doing all that great either, only 56 percent are proficient in reading and 50 percent in math.

So, rather than the storyline of an unfairly maligned school caught up the unfair rules of an ill-conceived law, instead we have a school where about only half the kids are proficient in reading and math overall, few can write at grade level, and special education and black students are doing very poorly. Though the school does appear to slowly be making progress, a lot of children are being shortchanged right now. NCLB was designed precisely to ferret out these inequities which are easily obscured by overall averages.

Though Eduwonk has never visited this school, we are not pulling this data out of thin air. Go to schoolresults.org and see for yourself — facts are stubborn things.

By the way, that this particular school had earned, according to Winerip, a “B” or “C” on Florida’s previous accountability system is powerful evidence of why NCLB’s emphasis on disaggregated accountability is so important. It is not, however, evidence that Winerip’s pseudo-states’ rights argument makes any sense. If he is going to defend states for doing the right thing without NCLB — and some were — he ought to at least find one where more than about half the students are reading and doing math at grade level.

Not too long ago wouldn’t Timesmen have been outraged by inequities like these visited on the most vulnerable in our society? Today, apparently, they are outraged by efforts to remedy them.

Afterthought: Winerip is right when he implies that there are some accountability shenanigans going on in Texas. So how about writing on those! Quips about moving Florida schools to Texas may sound very erudite in Manhattan but sure don’t help kids in Florida!

Bonus Afterthought: Before you buy into the notion that special education students can’t read at grade level, read this.

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