A “Punitive” Look At The NYT’s Latest Education Coverage

A handful of bitter folks took to Twitter on Thursday to complain about a recent New York Times education story, claiming that it inaccurately linked No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to school closings and used inflammatory language (“punitive” and “high-stakes testing”) to describe federal education policy.

Chief among them was DFER’s Charles Barone, who wrote ‘NYT story today says that under #NCLB schools w/ low test scores were subject to closure. False.” (See the original above).

Bylined by Jennifer Steinhauer and Motoko Rich, the piece (Lawmakers Move to Limit Government’s Role in Education) focuses on the possible changes to federal education being debated in the House and Senate this week.

Let’s take a look at this and other complaints.

HIGH-STAKES TESTING

“Congress on Wednesday moved to substantially scale back the federal government’s role in education, particularly the use of high-stakes standardized testing to punish schools, in the first significant proposed revisions since the No Child Left Behind law was passed 14 years ago.”

NCLB itself doesn’t really include high-stakes tests or punish schools in the original version, which was generally much milder than it has been portrayed. But Obama administration efforts layered on top of NCLB such as Race to the Top and SIG have ratcheted up pressures on low-performing schools and teachers, led to some restaffing of schools that could be considered punitive (if you default to the perspective of educators over students), and has led, however indirectly, to more state and local tests layered on top of the annual reading and math tests required under NCLB.

I have complained in the past about the over-use of “high-stakes” as a descriptor for NCLB’s annual standardized testing in the past, and am tempted to do so again here.  But I’m prepared to go along with the descriptor at this point — though it’s arguable on the substance and perhaps lazy/sloppy writing from a journalistic perspective. On the ground, it doesn’t really matter whether the stakes come from NCLB in the original, or the steroid version of accountability implemented by the Obama administration via Race to the Top and SIG.

SCHOOL CLOSINGS

“Under No Child Left Behind, test scores were primary, and schools that failed to raise scores could be subject to a series of escalating punishments ranging from mandatory tutoring to school closures.”

On the issue of closures, I’m not so sure I can go along. There’s been much speculation and worry about school closures, and a handful of turnaround efforts in which schools are restaffed with mostly new teachers and a few veterans. Schools in Chicago have been closed due to a combination of performance and low enrollment. Outright school closings directly attributable to NCLB in the original? I have yet to learn of such a situation.

NYT education reporter Rich responded via email that she’s checked this before and written about it in the past. School closings were rare under NCLB, but “a possible end result of years of missing AYP.”

So there you have it – a mixed bag. The Times piece doesn’t seem to be inaccurate in a narrow technical sense, and its loaded language is defensible if not ideal. The attribution of real-world actions on the ground to the 2001 NCLB law is complicated by the Obama-era changes.However, I’ve asked some others to weigh in on this and will report back whatever responses I get. Feel free to weigh in with your own take on the story in comments. 

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.