Saturday, January 17, 2009

What the Reporter Left Out When She Phoned It In

Any improvement in reading scores is good news. But the local paper's report on the topic should make readers wonder if the reporter or the copy desk editor (who writes the heds) learned to read very well. Starting at the top, the headline screams:
Districts ace reading list

No; one district came in at about the middle and the other came in dead last on a list made up of districts that scored between the 75th and the 99th percentiles, a comparative ranking of participants. (We used to call it "grading on a curve." And, doesn't one "ace a test?" But why let the language as we all know it get in the way of the appearance of a snappy headline.)

DeSoto, Charlotte Counties at top of state program

No, they're not. Among counties that have been in the program six years, Dixie and Bradford were the two districts "at the top" of the fourth quartile. DeSoto ranked third and Charlotte ranked eighth, last in the top quartile.

The reporter writes: "According to the state education Web site, Reading First is a federal grant program that allows districts and schools to use scientifically based reading instruction in classrooms to allows all children to learn to read well by the end of third grade." (my emphases)

No. According to the state education Web site, the grant program requires districts to use scientifically based reading instruction. The reporter's use of "allows" -- twice -- invites readers to wonder if other reading classes are not allowed to use scientifically proven methods. The idea is silly, of course, and the silliness is rooted in the reporter's careless writing without benefit of a skilled copy editor.

And -- just an observation here, based on a decade of covering schools -- we also wonder what "scientifically based" means. Sure, it's a phrase tossed around (a lot) on the DOE Web page, but that doesn't mean it's English. (Educationese is a lot like copspeak, except it has a graduate degree.) The reporter never gets around to explaining the term or making an effort to show readers what it means for those who count -- the students, teachers, and taxpayers.

"Ultimately, the program hopes to increase the percentage of students reading at or above grade level, while reducing the percentage of students with serious reading difficulties. " The program doesn't hope. Teachers and parents hope. The program's goal is to increase the number of students reading at grade level. Be precise.

"According to the DOE, these schools increased grade-level reading by 14.72 percent since last year ..." No. The number of students reading at grade level increased 14.72 percent over last year. Be accurate.

Amid all the glowing, chest puffing, self-serving comments collected from the superintendents, the reporter needs to tell readers how the schools qualified for Reading First grants: They were designated as failures at reading preparation in the No Child Left Behind initiative and needed extra help to do the job.

A good education reporter would also have told readers, taxpayers, and parents:

--How much money has flowed into the school district in these grants (a figure not readily available on the school budget report -- there is no line-item for the federal "Reading First" funds, either as income or outgo.)
--If the program requires specially purchased books (remember the 2007 texbook scandal and congressional hearings surrounding this very program?)
--How many instructional folks have been added to achieve these goals.
--Whether the grant affects any grade other than third grade.
--Who, in the district, is in charge of the federal reading program.
--In what way the program is related to "No Child Left Behind."
--Whether Reading First instructional folks are counted as part of the state-mandated student-teacher ratio.
--How "scientifcally based" reading instruction is implemented.

-- How many children are represented by the 14.72 percent figure?

-- How much money per child is being spent for that increase?

And oh, so much more. As it is, everything Pam Staik says -- except for the local self-congratulations -- can be read in the press release. There has been no "value added" for the reader, no enlightenment for the taxpayer, and certainly no real journalism.

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