Friday, February 26, 2010

Don't Start Believin'

If memory serves, when Campbell Brown began her show on CNN, the (unofficial?) slogan was "no bull".  So much for that . . .

Tonight's show included a segment on the Rhode Island school (Central Falls) that recently fired all of its teachers.  While that action carries all sorts of ramifications (that I'm going to momentarily ignore), what caught my attention were education contributor Steve Perry's comments.

Ms. Brown first talked to a guidance counselor from the school, George McLaughlin, who argued that comparing Central Falls to other schools in wealthier neighborhoods was unfair because their school has a more transient population, more ESL students, and more special ed. students among other challenges.

Perry's response?  In the midst of an emotional segment in which he says that Mr. McLaughlin "has some nerve," he declares that Central Falls' teachers are failing solely based on the fact that 93% of its students failed the state math exam last year.  He continues on to say that "it's not a valid argument" and seems to argue that school achievement scores should be evaluated completely absent of any and all context

It's hard to debate Mr. Perry's points, because arguing that context doesn't matter in education is like arguing that height doesn't matter in basketball -- I'm not sure where to begin.

But I will address his other misstep -- using one snapshot figure.  Even if we imagine, for a second, a world where poverty, homelessness, non-native languages, and so forth don't hinder one's academic performance in the least, we still can't evaluate schools in that manner.  In this world, Central Falls teachers have the exact same kids in their classes as do those in Newport.  Except for one thing.  When they start high school, 100% of the kids in Newport are passing and 100% in Central Falls are failing (numbers are made up).  The following year, 10% of the Central Falls kids pass the test, while 50% of the Newport kids pass the test.  Which school has better teachers?  Obviously Newport, because they have more kids passing the test.  That's essentially Perry's argument.

Please don't start believing this kind of baloney . . . even when the host promises that there won't be any.

The clip is embedded below or available here, Mr. Perry's remarks begin at the 6:00 mark.

p.s. if you're thinking Mr. Perry should stick to his day job, please know that this is a different Steve Perry


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. This is a very delicate situation that is not uncommon across the United States. One thing we do know is that the outcome (firing the teachers) was not the answer. I want to ask the School Board this question: "Are the students going to be receptive to the new staff?" Are they going to teach these students under the same conditions as the just fired teachers?" What changes are you going to make to make sure this doesn't happen again?" If you make these changes now, why didn't you make these changes before firing the teachers?"

Roger Sweeny said...


The superintendent tried to make a number of changes. The union basically said no (e.g., it offered to work any extra time at $90 an hour).

This situation reminds me of GM and the UAW a few years. GM was about to lose fantastic amounts of money and the union was not willing to make concessions about loosening work rules or reducing compensation.

GM still is losing a lot money but the federal government has kicked in tens of billions to keep workers on the job, getting paid what they had come to believe they deserved to be paid.

Since Central Falls is poor and Rhode Island is in terrible economic shape, and the feds are already running big deficits, I don't see anything like that happening here. Firing the teachers isn't a good answer. There are no good answers here.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Whether or not the teachers should've been fired is a completely separate issue. This post only addresses Mr. Perry's nonsensical remarks.

Sasha M. Harris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sasha M. Harris said...

Steve Perry is principal and founder of, what he describes as a "Year round, grade 6-12, college preparatory school" in Hartford, Ct founded 4 years ago. The school boasts that 100% of its graduates move on to 4-year colleges. He also mentions that only 30 out of 2000 applicants are accepted each year - meaning each grade must also be that size.

There's a lengthy and involved application process to Mr. Perry's school and it would appear that more then winning the lottery is necessary for gaining final acceptance.

Based on these facts and Mr. Perry's background I'm just not sure how he's so confidently able to compare his accomplishments against the accomplishments of Central Falls. It strikes me as deck-stacking on the part of Campbell Brown and CNN to be calling on people like this to present "the other side." Mr. Perry is a paid CNN contributor and, to the extent that he has a strong anti-union bias to begin with as the founder of a charter-like school, its frustrating that he's presented as the educational expert, presenting "some perspective" on the issue. Who's perspective exactly?

Once again the press does a horrible job presenting information about a very important topic.

Robert Pondiscio said...

Good post, Corey, but I want to tip my hat to you for the pop culture reference. For those who missed it, Don't Stop Believin' is (alas) a ubiquitous radio staple. The lead singer o Journey? Steve Perry.

Bravo, pal. Very clever.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

RP: Thanks. I wish I could take credit for that. A colleague first made the observation re: the name, and I kind of ran with it from there.