The short version is that the first step in spinning a story is to ignore any information that undermines your position; the second step is to include information that supports your biases, and throughout use every trick in the book to evoke sympathy for your cause. This is to be expected from Public Relations flacks and political spokespeople. It is more problematic when spin of this sort comes from one of the leading educational columnists in the United States, Jay Mathews of the Washington Post. In a recent post that pretends to explore problems at Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools — including physical and emotional abuse, questionable financial management and insecure testing protocols —, Mathews does all of the above, with the twist of appearing to include and address the negative information.
It is no secret that Mathews is a charter cheerleader and champion of KIPP schools. His columns and recent book have made that much clear. Opinions and a viewpoint are to be expected from columnists. However, I think an ethical line is crossed when – as in Mathews “Turmoil at Two KIPP Schools” — that biased columnist leaves out crucial information while giving the appearance of examining developments contrary to his or her well-established positions. It is a line of trust that is broken and line between journalist and flack that is crossed.
You can read the piece yourself for the rhetorical tricks like the introductory characterization of KIPP as the “most educationally successful group of public schools in the country” (note that in the case discussed below, the Board of Education — the public school authority – was powerless to remove the principal or require training by a psychologist and that the local Charter Board was told by the KIPP national office that if they acted on their desire to remove the principal as they desired, KIPP would have the school closed, so “public” should probably be in quotes), and closing invocation of the “unrelenting stress” on KIPP “school leaders.” I want to concentrate on what Mathews does and does not include in his treatment of the disturbing events at KIPP Academy Fresno in California.
Mathews can assume most of his readers are not familiar with the disturbing doings in Fresno and this allows him to pretend that he is giving and objective overview. The national media has barely touched the story, but the Fresno Bee has been very thorough and Jim Horn at Schools Matter has been posting news and opinion on the case (Schools Matter is how I learned of the situation).
The basic story is that after extensive allegations of abusive discipline, punishments and practices by the principal, Chi Tschang, and staff dating back to 2004; requests for help by the local Charter Board; the resignation of four of six Charter Board members, an investigation by the Board of Education that documented many undisputed incidents of what read like psychotic abuses of power by an unstable control freak (the principal has disputed some of the allegations and given a blanket denial of all since the report gives indisputable documentation for many things the blanket denial lacks credibility), uncredentialed teachers, massive violations of mandated testing procedures including open access to tests by students. extra time given and teachers telling students to correct answers, not following rules for student suspensions, and violations of student and family legal privacy rights; the principal resigned and under a new KIPP appointed principal the school and KIPP are fighting to avoid closure.
I’m going to skip over most of the gory details (some will be included to document what Jay Mathews left out and you can read rest yourself by clicking the links above), but I do want to echo Jim Horn in noting that much of the abuse and deliberate humiliation reported at the Fresno KIPP school is only an extreme manifestation of the authoritarian KIPP philosphy and add that humiliation as an educational strategy is at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Early in the Mathews piece (before any details of the titular “turmoil”) we are treated to this report about academic achievement:
At the end of 2007, 80 percent of KIPP Fresno’s seventh-graders scored proficient or advanced in algebra, compared to only 17 percent of students in regular Fresno public schools. In English Language Arts, 81 percent of KIPP seventh-graders scored proficient or advanced while the regular students were at 29 percent.
Nowhere does Mathews even allude to the testing problems found by the Board of Education investigation. These included (all quotes from the Notice to Cure and Correct issued by the Board of Education).
- “They stated that tests were not placed in a secure environment.”
- “Robin Sosa, a teacher at the Charter School, stated in an interview that in the first couple of years, tests may have been left out during the day and the tests were stored in Mr. Tschang’s office, but that they have since corrected this.”
- “Kim Kutzner and Marcella Mayfield stated that the school adopted a policy that students were required to check their answers again and again after they had finished their tests and were not allowed to do other activities.”
- “Ms. Kutzner also witnessed teachers record students’ answers during testing, review students’ tests, and tell students which page to correct.”
- “Mr. Tschang stated that he possibly gave students extra time on more than one day on a test that was to be completed in a single sitting.”
- “In a staff meeting in May of 2006, Ms. Kutzner, who had five years of experience as a test-site coordinator, reviewed with the entire staff the violations that she had witnessed during testing and presented the written testing protocol materials to Mr. Tschang. The staff actively opposed any changes in procedures which would potentially lower lest scores, and Mr. Tschang and Mr. Hawke slated that the legal and ethical requirements for testing were, in fact, only guidelines that could be ignored”(emphasis added).
- “The violations were knowingly in disregard of state testing procedures in that Mr. Tschang signed the STAR Test Security Agreement and the Charter School’s teachers signed the STAR Test Security Affidavit in which they agreed to the conditions designed to ensure test security. Mr. Tschang also failed to report the testing irregularities to the District STAR Coordinator.”
Much of the case for KIPP, as made by Mathews and others, rests on standardized test scores (at one point in this piece Mathews writes: “All they have to do is show, with test scores, that their students are showing significant achievement gains that will put them on a path to college”). If the Fresno KIPP “actively opposed” following the required protocols because of the potential to lower scores then I believe it is inappropriate to use these tests results in defense of that school and unethical to boast of the test scores without giving this context, as Mathews does. I’ll also add that when the policy — be it KIPP’s or California’s or the NCLB’s – is all about test scores and not education, that some unscrupulous people would willfully disregard procedures in pursuit of higher scores is to be expected.
I’m going to give Mathews full paragraph on the “turmoil” in Fresno and follow it with some more quotes from the “Notice to Cure and Correct.”
At KIPP Fresno, school leader Chi Tschang, who founded the school in 2004, resigned in January in order, he said, to remove himself as a barrier to the school’s continued operation. Shortly after the Fresno school district released a report based on interviews with current and former parents, students and KIPP board members accusing Tschang—among other things– of making a student crawl on his hands and knees while barking, keeping students outside in the rain as a disciplinary measure and yelling “all day” at students caught shoplifting near the campus. Tschang told me these accusations were either false or ripped out of context. Many of KIPP teachers and parents have backed him up. But national KIPP leaders have not criticized the district’s report and instead have supported the school’s new leader, William Lin. The school district has the power to close the school by refusing to release a letter KIPP Fresno needs to access a state charter school facility grant. As of yesterday, the district had not issued the letter. [Editors Note: The letter has been issued, but it contained “qualifications” that the KIPPsters are not happy with].
Mathews makes it look like the accusations are serious but also raises doubts in numerous ways. He also does not touch on the actions of the Charter Board (including mass resignation), the questionable financial practices, the interactions with the Board of Education prior to the report, the problems of authority among KIPP, the local Board and the school district or any other of the facts that would reflect badly on KIPP or the idea of charter schools. He also glosses over much of the abusive behavior. Here are some allegations Mathews left out (names of students and parents deleted).
- “In her interview, Kia Spenhoff stated that she witnessed Mr. Tschang put his hands on students. She witnessed Mr. Tschang pick a student up off the ground, hold the student by the neck against a wall, and then drop the student. When asked about this incident Mr. Tschang stated, “I don’t remember picking up and dropping a student, I do remember shaking a kid.”‘
- “_____ mother of student _____ witnessed Mr. Tschang push her son’s face against a wall.”
- “_____ also reported witnessing Tschang push another student’s face against the wall and saying, “Put your ugly face against the wall, I don’t want to see your face.”‘
- “Student reported witnessing Mr. Tschang draw a circle on the ground and force a student to stand in the circle for two hours in the sun during the summertime.”
- “____ reported that Mr. Ammon admitted to intentionally humiliating her son and that in a meeting between Mr. Ammon, Mr. Tschang, and _____ Mr Ammon said, “I thought he needed to be humiliated, that it is my job to do this.” and “I just really think he needs to be humbled, he reminds me of me at that age, and I know he has no dad at home.” When asked about the incident, Mr. Tschang stated, “No, I don’t remember this. What I do remember is that _____ was repeatedly acting in a defiant and disrespect way [sic] to Mr. Ammon and other teachers.’”
- “Parent reported that Mr. Tschang took student glasses away from him because _____-was constantly adjusting his glasses. _____-is totally dependent on his glasses and cannot see without them. Mr. Tschang admitted to taking _____-glasses away.”
- “Vincent Montgomery, former Chief Operating Officer for the school, reported that he observed several incidents in which he felt Chi Tschang was emotionally abusive toward students, such as requiring students to stand outside in the rain. Mr. Montgomery also stated he felt that any gains made by kids were offset by the emotional abuse they experienced.”
- Student reported witnessing Mr. Tschang draw a circle on the ground and force a student to stand in the circle for two hours in the sun during the summertime.
- “_____ of _____ stated that _____began to get physically sick from the abusive discipline and a counselor told her to get out of KIPP.”
- “When asked about his yelling at students Mr. Tschang stated, “If parents are not happy with the school program, it is a school of choice.’”
Mr Tschang is correct that it is “school of choice,” but it is also a school paid for by taxpayers. These excerpts are just the tip of the iceberg of the allegations in the report. I don’t know if the allegations are true, but I do know that the School Board thought the evidence was sufficient to demand Mr. Tschang’s removal or that he attend very extensive training in child and adolescent development, psychology, anger management and unlawful harassment before having any further role in discipline at the school and the Board also required extensive changes in and monitoring of school operations. You wouldn’t know any of this or the extent of the allegations from Mathews’ spin job.
Instead, Mathews vaguely notes that the Fresno superintendent “has praised KIPP’s achievements” and later falsely asserts that “all sides appear to support what KIPP has been doing to raise student achievement to rare heights” (no one who has read the district report can possibly believe that this is a true statement).
It took almost four years to his rein in the excesses while Tschang resisted the efforts of local Charter authorities and the local school board to exert control and find remedies. Part of the “public” in public education is public accountability; with Fresno KIPP the only accountability for principals was to the corporate office and all they apparently cared about was test scores (however they were “achieved’).
The press is also part of the system of accountability. I respect Mr Mathews freedom to make the case for what he believes in (as I make the case for what I believe in here), but I also expect something more than unrelenting spin from a major newspaper columnist. I guess my expectations are too high.
For the response from the flacks who are actually on KIPP’s payroll, see here (scroll down). Although basically “no comment,” it is more honest than what Mathews wrote.
Thomas J. Mertz