ISTEP results are a non-story

It’s a lousy week to be an education reporter in Indiana. ISTEP-Plus test results were released Wednesday by the State Board of Education, so editors are assigning – and readers are expecting – the usual stories. Which schools did best? Which did worst? Which improved, and which didn’t?

Reporters who spend their work lives visiting schools and talking to educators and experts know this is the epitome of a non-news story. They know that years of experience and research tell us that affluent schools will have higher test scores than schools serving mostly poor students. But the stories have to be written.

It’s no surprise that low-poverty schools in the suburbs have the highest passing rates in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. They do every year. And it’s disturbing but not really shocking that barely 5 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools 10th-graders passed their tests. Three of their high schools were about to close; the tests had no consequences for the schools or their students.

That’s not to say test scores or meaningless, or that they should be ignored altogether.

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The problem with ‘public charter school’

Can we please banish the term “public charter school” from the education-writing lexicon? The language implies a value judgment about charter schools. To use it is to take sides. Journalists shouldn’t do that.

The obvious problem is that “public charter school” is either redundant or false. If charter schools are public schools, you don’t need to call them public. If they aren’t, calling them that won’t make it so.

The question is open to debate. Advocates insist charter schools are public schools, but critics argue otherwise, sometimes casting them as part of a movement to privatize education. Yet news media, from The New York Times on down, refer to “public charter schools” as if the question were settled.

The argument used to be that charter schools were public because they were publicly funded. But with the rise of tuition voucher programs, that’s also true of many private schools. In Indiana, some private religious schools rely almost exclusively on public funding via vouchers.

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Just say no to the term ‘education reform’

Years ago, editors and reporters at a mid-sized Indiana newspaper sat around a conference table and talked about what to do about two words that had entered the political lexicon: pro-life and pro-choice.

We decided not to use them, except in direct quotes or if they were part of the names of organizations. Instead we would refer to “abortion opponents” and “supporters of abortion rights,” or something like that – an approach that now aligns with Associated Press style used by most newspapers.

Our rationale was straightforward. Both pro-life and pro-choice were simplistic, inaccurate and designed to demonize the opposition. People who opposed abortion didn’t have a monopoly on supporting “life,” whatever that meant. And people who opposed abortion did so because they believed it ended a life that was precious to God, not because they opposed anyone’s “right to choose.”

Both terms were, at best, misleading. Politicians can mislead. Advocates can mislead. Journalists should just tell the truth.

The issue comes to mind with the current use of the word reform for a menu of approaches to education policy – typically including giving parents more choices through charter schools and/or vouchers; using student test results to evaluate teachers and make decisions about compensating, promoting and firing them; and limiting the power of teachers’ unions and the authority of elected school boards.

The problem is that reform isn’t a neutral word. It doesn’t just mean change; it means change for the better. According to Merriam-Webster, it can mean “a) to put or change into an improved form or condition; b) to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.”

So people who oppose, or are skeptical of, the policies characterized as education reform are by implication the champions of faults and abuses. Or they are “defenders of the (abusive) status quote.” Even if, for example, they rage against the educational status quo, with its segregated schools, savage inequalities and inattention to poverty. Continue reading