Opt Out So White: The Self-Reflection Edition

In Which A Couple of Teachers Argue That Parents Shouldn’t Question Whether Their Children’s Needs Are Being Met

Once upon a time, meaning back when I went to journalism school, reporters were told not to think about what readers wanted. We were the vaunted “gatekeepers” who decided what was important and therefore merited space in the newspaper.

If readers couldn’t muddle their way through our expert, if hideously turgid, explanation of what happened last night at the public works subcommittee meeting? Why, they were dullards! Secretly, we hoped they never got called for jury duty.

This assholish contempt for readers persisted well into the age of the internet, when it became possible to measure traffic. Not only could we see what people clicked on, we could discern how long they spent on a webpage, which told us whether they actually read the story.

Ah, when that worm turned? You shoulda heard the howling. Suddenly no one wanted to write about regulatory reform on Wall Street, just Britney and Paris. And for a moment—with Craigslist decimating the classifieds and digital advertising slashing display ad revenue–newspaper editors lost their collective minds and assigned rivers of clickbait.

At first we were all freaked out about all of this data being used to inform news judgment and personnel decisions. I mean, is it fair to use the same traffic expectations to evaluate the reporter who covers Michele Bachmann, the subject of Google searches in Khazakstan, and the Labor Department reporter?

In some corners of the news industry, a few of the lemmings took detours, and discovered some interesting things. Turns out people are hungry for news. And contrary to popular journalistic wisdom, they want voice and context and analysis. They just want public affairs journalism to be more like “The Big Short” and less like a turgid regurgitation of, well, anything.

And of course we learned that it is possible to make decisions—about news and about people—using a variety of measurements. Who is reading a low-traffic story? Policymakers? Thought leaders? Is there value in having a watchdog report on a public entity? And most important: Is the public being made smarter?

Why am I on about Khazakstan and public works? The other night I made the mistake of joining a Facebook thread in a local parents’ forum. A mother wondered why a parent might or might not opt their kids out of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

I gave some reasons why I value the exams. As a parent, not as the egghead reporter who covers education policy. I think the only thing I succeeded in doing was to unleash the Digital Krakens.

A handful of anti-test activists swarmed the forum, tossed around some insults and attempted to get me kicked out of the group. One of them—without a drop of irony—put up a link to a Breitbart story and insisted it proves my journalism is #FakeNews.

Breitbart… Before we move on to the point of this post, can we take a moment to observe that the Bernie-Bro Left isn’t any more interested in self-reflection or actual discussion than the far right?

God forbid the parent who started the thread considers a range of viewpoints and makes her own decision. Because I can see a scenario where a person opts their kids out of the tests to avoid becoming a target.

Here’s what went unacknowledged in the back and forth: Two of my hecklers are Minneapolis Public Schools teachers who were bold as brass in telling a forum of parents that they did not want to be evaluated based in part on whether their students showed academic growth.

We can have an honest discussion about making assessments better—and lots of people are. And we should continue to refine the way we evaluate teachers. And yes, there are some of us—myself and at least one of the parents on the thread—who have moved our children into schools with low test scores that are doing particularly well with specific groups of students.

(Which might be at least partly the result of a lack of complacency? Just a thought.)

But to berate parents who might want information on how well a school is meeting their child’s needs, and whether another school might have a promising innovation? This strikes me as the equivalent of tsk tsk-ing the public’s failure to see how technically perfect your coverage of the Sewer Board meeting is.

There’s more they didn’t note. These two teach at two of the wealthiest, whitest schools in Minneapolis. One of them, Lake Harriet, has a student body that’s 86 percent white—and 2 percent black. Only 6 percent of its students are impoverished, 5 percent qualify for special education services, and 2 percent are learning English.

(This is, by the way, in keeping with the self-reported wealthy, white, educator-driven nature of the Opt-Out Movement nationwide.)

They observed—correctly—that standardized test results are tightly correlated to socio-economic status. One went so far as to explain that the point of the campaign to push parents to opt their kids out of the tests is to eliminate data used to make policy decisions.

One of those policy decisions might be to move the teachers who are most effective out of schools like the ones where they teach, where scores will likely remain high because of demographics, and into the schools with the biggest challenges and the neediest students.

They were joined by a couple of parents who have kids in MPS’ wealthy, predominately white schools. I would suggest that we could stand to make school more interesting, relevant and engaging for all students, but with all due respect, their kids aren’t enrolled in schools where few students can read and do math at their grade level.

If I were punching back I would have pointed out all of this. Instead I noted that the results highlight schools hereabouts where virtually all kids are impoverished, many also have disabilities and speak another language at home. That’s when the invective came out.

I get it. I toiled away for 25 years in a feedback vacuum, unsure whether anyone made it past paragraph three of my shiniest stories. The arrival of the measurements was a massive disruption, but I am a much better journalist for having leaned in.

Remember my allusion to “The Big Short?” How many policy reporters quailed in fear at the thought that someone made the mechanics of the housing bubble and the collapse riveting? I’ll bet Michael Lewis was the most hated man in public affairs writing for some time.

But I daresay whatever’s on your coffee table as I type–today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, heck, the Star Tribune—is doing better storytelling as a result of the arrival of data. And making readers smarter in the process.


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