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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

McIlheran Watch: Patrick McIlheran's Irrelevant Burst of Distraction

by folkbum

All day yesterday I waited for Patrick McIlheran's response to the news that students in Milwaukee's voucher schools didn't perform better on the state assessment in 2010 than students in the MIlwaukee Public Schools generally, or even than MPS's economically disadvantaged students--the ones who, based on income, would qualify for the voucher program.

The reason I was waiting is that McIlheran is a voucher dead-ender. Whatever the news about vouchers, he has an excuse ready to go if vouchers seem to be losing or a snide remark about the public schools if vouchers seeming to be winning. He regularly stammers out that voucher schools are of course teaching special ed students (They can't turn them away!, he blubbers) without ever acknowledging that MPS has seventwelve times as many--and qualitatively more challenging--special ed students (or that the voucher schools that do really well with special ed students seek out extra funding). And, most gallingly, McIlheran was a pioneer of the "half-price" myth--a bar-lowering of epic proportions that I'm sure embarrasses the hell out of all the people who honestly believed that Milwaukee's voucher schools would be the shining stars in a galaxy of school-choice programs around the country. That galaxy never materialized, and the sad "they do just as sucky but at half the price" I'm sure spins Milt Friedman's corpse like a top.

Now I know what the wait was about. McIlheran blogs today and implies a conspiracy that Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction timed its release to pre-empt the release of another annual installment of results from the School Choice Demonstration Project, which was revealed today. As far as I know, there was no conspiracy, and schools like mine--a public school (whose results were uniformly up over 2009, thankyouverymuch--had been looking forward to yesterday for months as the day that the figures would become public and go live on DPI's website.

As I was saying, McIlheran implies--no, wait, he doesn't imply. He comes right out and says it's a conspiracy:
On Wednesday, results come out from the fourth year of the long-term study comparing children in choice schools to those in Milwaukee Public Schools. If the results are similar to what’s happened in the past, they’ll probably show that there’s not a great deal of difference between the two groups as a whole, at least on the basic reading and math scores.

Which doesn’t quite do the trick for the anti-choice lobby, which is most likely why state schools superintendent Tony Evers, long an opponent of choice, released figures Tuesday that he claimed were an “apples to apples” comparison of choice and MPS, ones that he said showed MPS outperformed choice schools.
McIlheran goes on to complain that a release of test data, like DPI's yesterday, is worthless: "[T]he numbers simply compare how children in choice schools and those in MPS as a whole did at one particular moment. It’s a snapshot of where the children are, no matter where they started." Welcome to the anti-testing movement, Pat! We're glad to have you aboard. But then he gets absurd: "This [i.e., where they started] is, broadly, not the same place for choice schools and MPS." His reasoning? That the parents who choose voucher schools know their children are already way far behind. He claims. His evidence for that is nowhere.

But it's an insult to suggest that the students I teach in MPS aren't way far behind, and that somehow I'm lucky to get to teach such smart kids. That my colleagues whose students start out far behind, whose class sizes are swelling, who don't have the ability to expel the troublemakers (as Brother Bob Smith, a voucher stalwart, put it, “make the right decisions, or make them somewhere else"), whose very rights are being assaulted in front of their eyes, are on easy street. That MPS doesn't have to take all comers, even those whose voucher schools closed mid-year because the teachers quit when they stopped getting paid, or whose voucher school lied to them about what special education services would be available and had to leave, and educate them.

But the biggest kicker of all is that McIlheran is completely wrong about what the two sets of results show. The Demonstration Project's report (available here, see report 26) shows that, as McIlheran predicted, matched samples of voucher and MPS students achieve about the same. But the fact is that the report there uses fall 2009 test data. DPI's results from yesterday, which include a low-income (i.e., voucher-eligible) student sample from MPS to compare, uses fall 2010 data. The Demonstration Project's data are a year old already. MPS, under new leadership and with a new literacy plan (and in the thick of a successful new math plan) made gains. Period. And voucher schools did not. Period.

So McIlheran's anti-DPI screed is worthless. It's distracting. It fails to address the facts at hand. Kind of the way you might expect from a dead-ender.

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