Friday, February 23, 2018

Corrupt black school in Washington graduates students who have done no work

African culture comes to America

Brian Butcher, a history teacher at Ballou High School, sat in the bleachers of the school's brand-new football field last June watching 164 seniors receive diplomas. It was a clear, warm night and he was surrounded by screaming family and friends snapping photos and cheering.

It was a triumphant moment for the students: For the first time, every graduate had applied and been accepted to college. The school is located in one of Washington, D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods and has struggled academically for years with a low graduation rate. For months, the school received national media attention, including from NPR, celebrating the achievement.

But all the excitement and accomplishment couldn't shake one question from Butcher's mind:

How did all these students graduate from high school?

"You saw kids walking across the stage, who, they're nice young people, but they don't deserve to be walking across the stage," Butcher says.

About This Investigation

This project is a collaboration between NPR's Ed Team and WAMU's Kate McGee, an education reporter covering education in our nation's capital. Six months ago, we reported that for the first time, 100 percent of seniors who graduated from Ballou High School had applied and were accepted to college. We spoke with 11 current and recent Ballou teachers and four recent Ballou graduates, and we reviewed hundreds of attendance documents, class rosters and emails that show many students graduated despite chronic absenteeism. Records show half the graduates missed more than three months of school, or 60 days.

An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School's administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou's attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.

According to district policy, if a student misses a class 30 times, he should fail that course. Research shows that missing 10 percent of school, about two days per month, can negatively affect test scores, reduce academic growth and increase the chances a student will drop out.

Teachers say when many of these students did attend school, they struggled academically, often needing intense remediation.

"I've never seen kids in the 12th grade that couldn't read and write," says Butcher about his two decades teaching in low-performing schools from New York City to Florida. But he saw this at Ballou, and it wasn't just one or two students.

An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.

"It was smoke and mirrors. That is what it was," says Butcher.

Pressure to pass students

WAMU and NPR talked to nearly a dozen current and recent Ballou teachers — as well as four recent graduates — who tell the same story: Teachers felt pressure from administration to pass chronically absent students, and students knew the school administration would do as much as possible to get them to graduation.

"It's oppressive to the kids because you're giving them a false sense of success," says one current Ballou teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job.

"To not prepare them is not ethical," says another current Ballou teacher who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"They're not prepared to succeed," says Morgan Williams, who taught health and physical education at Ballou last year. Williams says the lack of expectations set up students for future failure: "If I knew I could skip the whole semester and still pass, why would I try?"

Williams taught physical education and health at Ballou for two years. She says her students were often chronically absent, but the gym was always full. Students skipping other classes would congregate there, she says, and her requests for help from administrators and behavioral staff to manage these students were often ignored.

Williams, and other teachers we spoke to for this story, say they often had students on their rosters whom they barely knew because they almost never attended class.

Near the end of a term, Williams says, students would appear, asking for makeup work like worksheets or a project. She would refuse: There are policies, and if students did not meet the attendance policy, there was nothing she could do to help them. Then, she says, an administrator would also ask how she could help students pass.

At one point, while she was out on maternity leave, she says, she received a call from a school official asking her to change a grade for a student she had previously failed. "[They said] 'Just give him a D,' because they were trying to get him out of there and they knew he wouldn't do the makeup packet."

Williams says she tried to push back, but she often had 20 to 30 kids in one class. Repeatedly having the same conversation about dozens of students was exhausting. And the school required extensive improvement plans if teachers did fail students, which was an additional burden for a lot of already strained teachers.

Many teachers we spoke to say they were encouraged to also follow another policy: give absent or struggling students a 50 percent on assignments they missed or didn't complete, instead of a zero. The argument was, if the student tried to make up the missed work or failed, it would most likely be impossible to pass with a zero on the books. Teachers say that even if students earn less than a 50 percent on an assignment, 50 percent is still the lowest grade a student can receive.

During the last term of senior year, some seniors who weren't on track to graduate were placed in an accelerated version of the classes they were failing. Those classes, known as credit recovery, were held after school for a few weeks. School district policy says students should only take credit recovery once they receive a final failing grade for a course. At Ballou, though, students who were on track to fail were placed in these classes before they should have been allowed. On paper, these students were taking the same class twice. Sometimes, with two different teachers. Teachers say this was done to graduate kids.

Credit recovery is increasingly used to prevent students from dropping out, but critics argue credit recovery courses rarely have the same educational value as the original course and are often less rigorous. According to class rosters, 13 percent of Ballou graduates were enrolled in the same class twice during the last term before graduation. Often, teachers were not alerted their students were taking credit recovery. Many we spoke with say they didn't realize what was happening until they saw students whom they had flunked graduate. They say the credit recovery content was not intensive and that students rarely showed up for credit recovery.

If teachers pushed back against these practices, they say, administration retaliated against them by giving them poor teacher evaluations. Last year, the district put school administrators entirely in control of teacher evaluations, including classroom observations, instead of including a third party. Many teachers we spoke to say they believe this gives too much power to administrators. A low evaluation rating two years in a row is grounds for dismissal. Just one bad rating can make it tough to find another job. Teachers we spoke with say if they questioned administration, they were painted as "haters" who don't care about students.

"If they don't like you, they'll just let you go," says Monica Brokenborough, who taught music at Ballou last year. She also served as the teachers union building representative, responsible for handling teacher grievances and ensuring the school follows the district's teacher contract, among other duties. Last year, 26 grievances were filed by teachers at Ballou.

"Either you want your professional career on paper to look like you don't know what you're doing," says one teacher who asked for anonymity to protect her job. "Or you just skate by, play by the game."

Playing by the game can have financial benefits. If an evaluation score is high enough to reach the "highly effective" status, teachers and administrators can receive $15,000 to $30,000 in bonuses. D.C. Public Schools wouldn't tell us who gets a bonus, but teachers we spoke with did say the possibility of such a large bonus increases the pressure on teachers to improve student numbers.

Butcher, Brokenborough and Williams no longer work at Ballou. They received low teacher evaluations after the 2016-17 school year ended and were let go for various reasons. They believe they were unfairly targeted and have filed complaints through the local teachers union. Butcher and Williams found new teaching jobs outside D.C.; Brokenborough is waiting to resolve her grievance.


Are We Free to Discuss America’s Real Problems?

Amy Wax, University of Pennsylvania Law School

There is a lot of abstract talk these days on American college campuses about free speech and the values of free inquiry, with plenty of lip service being paid to expansive notions of free expression and the marketplace of ideas. What I’ve learned through my recent experience of writing a controversial op-ed is that most of this talk is not worth much. It is only when people are confronted with speech they don’t like that we see whether these abstractions are real to them.

The op-ed, which I co-authored with Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego Law School, appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 9 under the title, “Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture.” It began by listing some of the ills afflicting American society:

Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.

We then discussed the “cultural script”—a list of behavioral norms—that was almost universally endorsed between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s:

Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

These norms defined a concept of adult responsibility that was, we wrote, “a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.” The fact that the “bourgeois culture” these norms embodied has broken down since the 1960s, we argued, largely explains today’s social pathologies—and re-embracing that culture would go a long way toward addressing those pathologies.

In what became perhaps the most controversial passage, we pointed out that cultures are not equal in terms of preparing people to be productive citizens in a modern technological society, and we gave some examples of cultures less suited to achieve this:

The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.

The reactions to this piece raise the question of how unorthodox opinions should be dealt with in academia—and in American society at large.

It is well documented that American universities today, more than ever before, are dominated by academics on the left end of the political spectrum. How should these academics handle opinions that depart, even quite sharply, from their “politically correct” views? The proper response would be to engage in reasoned debate—to attempt to explain, using logic, evidence, facts, and substantive arguments, why those opinions are wrong. This kind of civil discourse is obviously important at law schools like mine, because law schools are dedicated to teaching students how to think about and argue all sides of a question. But academic institutions in general should also be places where people are free to think and reason about important questions that affect our society and our way of life—something not possible in today’s atmosphere of enforced orthodoxy.

What those of us in academia should certainly not do is engage in unreasoned speech: hurling slurs and epithets, name-calling, vilification, and mindless labeling. Likewise we should not reject the views of others without providing reasoned arguments. Yet these once common standards of practice have been violated repeatedly at my own and at other academic institutions in recent years—and we increasingly see this trend in society as well. 

One might respond, of course, that unreasoned slurs and outright condemnations are also speech and must be defended. My recent experience has caused me to rethink this position. In debating others, we should have higher standards. Of course one has the right to hurl labels like “racist,” “sexist,” and “xenophobic” without good reason—but that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Hurling such labels doesn’t enlighten, inform, edify, or educate. Indeed, it undermines these goals by discouraging or stifling dissent.

So what happened after our op-ed was published last August? A raft of letters, statements, and petitions from students and professors at my university and elsewhere condemned the piece as racist, white supremacist, hate speech, heteropatriarchial, xenophobic, etc. There were demands that I be removed from the classroom and from academic committees. None of these demands even purported to address our arguments in any serious or systematic way.

A response published in the Daily Pennsylvanian, our school newspaper, and signed by five of my Penn Law School colleagues, charged us with the sin of praising the 1950s—a decade when racial discrimination was openly practiced and opportunities for women were limited. I do not agree with the contention that because a past era is marked by benighted attitudes and practices—attitudes and practices we had acknowledged in our op-ed!—it has nothing to teach us. But at least this response attempted to make an argument.

Not so an open letter published in the Daily Pennsylvanian and signed by 33 of my colleagues. This letter quoted random passages from the op-ed and from a subsequent interview I gave to the school newspaper, condemned both, and categorically rejected all of my views. It then invited students, in effect, to monitor me and to report any “stereotyping and bias” they might experience or perceive. This letter contained no argument, no substance, no reasoning, no explanation whatsoever as to how our op-ed was in error.

We hear a lot of talk about role models—people to be emulated, who set a positive example for students and others. In my view, the 33 professors who signed this letter are anti-role models. To students and citizens alike I say: don’t emulate them in condemning people for their views without providing a reasoned argument. Reject their example. Not only are they failing to teach you the practice of civil discourse—the sine qua non of liberal education and of democracy—they are sending the message that civil discourse is unnecessary. As Jonathan Haidt of NYU wrote on September 2 on his website Heterodox Academy: “Every open letter you sign to condemn a colleague for his or her words brings us closer to a world in which academic disagreements are resolved by social force and political power, not by argumentation and persuasion.”

It is gratifying to note that the reader comments on the open letter were overwhelmingly critical. The letter has “no counterevidence,” one reader wrote, “no rebuttal to [Wax’s] arguments, just an assertion that she’s wrong. . . . This is embarrassing.” Another wrote: “This letter is an exercise in self-righteous virtue-signaling that utterly fails to deal with the argument so cogently presented by Wax and Alexander. . . . Note to parents, if you want your daughter or son to learn to address an argument, do not send them to Penn Law.”

Shortly after the op-ed appeared, I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen for a while and asked how his summer was going. He said he’d had a terrible summer, and in saying it he looked so serious I thought someone had died. He then explained that the reason his summer had been ruined was my op-ed, and he accused me of attacking and causing damage to the university, the students, and the faculty. One of my left-leaning friends at Yale Law School found this story funny—who would have guessed an op-ed could ruin someone’s summer? But beyond the absurdity, note the choice of words: “attack” and “damage” are words one uses with one’s enemies, not colleagues or fellow citizens. At the very least, they are not words that encourage the expression of unpopular ideas. They reflect a spirit hostile to such ideas—indeed, a spirit that might seek to punish the expression of such ideas.

I had a similar conversation with a deputy dean. She had been unable to sign the open letter because of her official position, but she defended it as having been necessary. It needed to be written to get my attention, she told me, so that I would rethink what I had written and understand the hurt I had inflicted and the damage I had done, so that I wouldn’t do it again. The message was clear: cease the heresy.

Only half of my colleagues in the law school signed the open letter. One who didn’t sent me a thoughtful and lawyerly email explaining how and why she disagreed with particular points in the op-ed. We had an amicable email exchange, from which I learned a lot—some of her points stick with me—and we remain cordial colleagues. That is how things should work.

Of the 33 who signed the letter, only one came to talk to me about it—and I am grateful for that. About three minutes into our conversation, he admitted that he didn’t categorically reject everything in the op-ed. Bourgeois values aren’t really so bad, he conceded, nor are all cultures equally worthy. Given that those were the main points of the op-ed, I asked him why he had signed the letter. His answer was that he didn’t like my saying, in my interview with the Daily Pennsylvanian, that the tendency of global migrants to flock to white European countries indicates the superiority of some cultures. This struck him as “code,” he said, for Nazism.

Well, let me state for the record that I don’t endorse Nazism!

Furthermore, the charge that a statement is “code” for something else, or a “dog whistle” of some kind—we frequently hear this charge leveled, even against people who are stating demonstrable facts—is unanswerable. It is like accusing a speaker of causing emotional injury or feelings of marginalization. Using this kind of language, which students have learned to do all too well, is intended to bring discussion and debate to a stop—to silence speech deemed unacceptable.

As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, we can make words mean whatever we want them to mean. And who decides what is code for something else or what qualifies as a dog whistle? Those in power, of course—which in academia means the Left.

My 33 colleagues might have believed they were protecting students from being injured by harmful opinions, but they were doing those students no favors. Students need the opposite of protection from diverse arguments and points of view. They need exposure to them. This exposure will teach them how to think. As John Stuart Mill said, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

I have received more than 1,000 emails from around the country in the months since the op-ed was published—mostly supportive, some critical, and for the most part thoughtful and respectful. Many expressed the thought, “You said what we are thinking but are afraid to say”—a sad commentary on the state of civil discourse in our society. Many urged me not to back down, cower, or apologize. And I agree with them that dissenters apologize far too often.


Peer Review: the Publication Game and “the Natural Selection of Bad Science”

John Staddon

Professor Brian Wansink is head of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. The lab has had problems, some described in an article called “Spoiled Science” in the Chronicle of Higher Education early in 2017:

Four papers on which he is a co-author were found to contain statistical discrepancies. Not one or two, but roughly 150. That revelation led to further scrutiny of Wansink’s work and to the discovery of other eyebrow-raising results, questionable research practices, and apparent recycling of data in at least a dozen other papers. All of which has put the usually ebullient researcher and his influential lab on the defensive.

More recently, Wansink’s lab published data purporting to come from 8- to 11-year-old children that were in fact obtained from 3- to 5-year-olds.

Compared to these gaffes the lab’s next problem looks like a very minor one:

Wansink and his fellow researchers had spent a month gathering information about the feelings and behavior of diners at an Italian buffet restaurant. Unfortunately their results didn’t support the original hypothesis. ‘This cost us a lot of time and our own money to collect,’ Wansink recalled telling the graduate student. ‘There’s got to be something here we can salvage.’ [my italics]

Four publications emerged from the “salvaged” buffet study. The topic is no doubt of interest to restaurateurs but unlikely to shed light on the nature of human feeding behavior. It’s entertaining. The study is correlational, not causal—no experiments were done. These are all characteristics typical of most of the “science” you will read about in the media: a distraction and a waste of resources, perhaps, but not too harmful.

The real problem, the probable source of all of Wansink’s other problems, is hinted at by the bit in italics. It’s pretty clear that Professor Wansink’s aim is not the advancement of understanding, but the production of publications. By this measure, his research group is exceedingly successful: 178 peer-reviewed journal articles, 10 books, and 44 book chapters in 2014 alone. Pretty good for 10 faculty, 11 postdocs, and eight graduate students.

The drive to publish is not restricted to Professor Wansink. It is universal in academic science, especially among young researchers seeking promotion and research grants. The concept of the LPU (“least publishable unit,” i.e., the least amount of data that will get you a publication so your total can be as large as possible. The analogy is to physical units such as BTU=British Thermal Unit.) has been a joke among researchers for many years. I described the new industry of “pop-up” journals that have arisen to meet this demand in Part I.

The positive feedbacks I described earlier—popularity allows a journal to be selective, which makes it more popular and more able to select and so on—has nevertheless produced a handful of elite journals. The two most popular general-science journals are Nature, published in the U.K., and the U.S.-based Science.

But the emphasis in academia on publishing is misplaced. The number of publications, even publications in elite journals, is not a reliable proxy for scientific productivity. Great scientists rarely have long publication lists, and a paper in an “elite” journal isn’t necessarily a great paper. I will give just two examples. W. D. “Bill” Hamilton (1936-2000) was probably the most important evolutionary biologist since Charles Darwin. He published his first paper in 1963 and by 1983 had published a total of 22, a rate of just over one paper a year. Several of these papers were groundbreaking, his discovery of the importance of what evolutionists call inclusive fitness being perhaps the most important. But the number of papers he published is modest—compare them with Professor Wansink’s prodigious output or Brian Nosek’s promotion package below. One paper a year would now be considered inadequate in most research institutions.

My second example is personal: my first publication, which was in Science. The basic idea was that pigeons (the standard subject for operant conditioning experiments) could follow the spacing of rewards: working hard for food when it came frequently, more slowly when it came less frequently. Here is what I found. Never mind the details, just notice that the output cycles (individual in the middle, the average of three subjects at the bottom) track the input cycle at the top beautifully. But, paradoxically, the pigeons worked harder when the reward was infrequent (low points of the cycle) than when it was frequent (the high points). An older colleague pointed out a possible artifact, but I could find no evidence for his suggestion at the time.

It turned out he was in fact right; I confirmed his idea much later with a better recording technique. Pigeons do track rewards but they track in terms of something called wait time, not in terms of response rate. By the time I found that out, this area of research was no longer fashionable enough for publication in Science.

So why did Science publish what was, in fact, a flawed article? I think there were three reasons: the data were beautiful, very orderly, and without any need for statistics. Second, feedback theory was then very much in fashion and I was trying to apply it to behavior. And third, the results were counter-intuitive, an appealing feature for journal editors wishing to appear on the cutting edge.

Do top journals such as Nature and Science really publish the best work? Are they a reliable guide to scientific quality? Or do they just favor fashion and a scientific establishment, as the two writers in this Times Higher Ed article claim? Nobel Prize winner Randy Shekman, in a Guardian article, along with the many authors whose work is described in a 2013 review article, co-authored by German researcher Björn Brembs, agree that fashion is a factor but point to more important problems. First, painstaking follow-up work by many researchers has failed to show that elite (or what Shekman calls “luxury”), high-rank journals reliably publish more important work than less-selective journals. Brembs et al. write:

In this review, we present the most recent and pertinent data on the consequences of our current scholarly communication system with respect to various measures of scientific quality…These data corroborate previous hypotheses: using journal rank as an assessment tool is bad scientific practice [my emphasis].

Acceptance criteria for elite journals do not provide, perhaps cannot provide, a perfect measure of scientific excellence. Impact factor (journal rank) is an unreliable measure of scientific quality, for reasons I described earlier. Elite journals favor big, surprising results, even though these are less likely than average to be repeatable. Neither where a scientist publishes (journal rank) nor how often he publishes (the length of his CV)—the standard yardsticks for promotion and the awarding of research grants—is a reliable measure of scientific productivity.

The top journals are in fierce competition. Newsworthiness and fashion are as important as rigor. As Shekman says:

These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research. Like fashion designers who create limited edition handbags or suits, they know scarcity stokes demand, so they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept. The exclusive brands are then marketed with a gimmick called “impact factor”…. Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of the bonus culture, which drives risk-taking that is rational for individuals but damaging to the financial system, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals. The result will be better research that better serves science and society.

The present system has additional costs: the peer-review process takes time and often several submissions and re-submissions may be necessary before an article can see the light of day. The powerful incentives for publication-at-any-price make for “natural selection of bad science,” in the words of one commentary.

Efforts to change the system are underway. Here is a quote from a thoughtful, if alarmingly titled, new book on the problems of science by Richard Harris, a science correspondent for National Public Radio: Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions:

Take, for instance, the fact that universities rely far too heavily on the number of journal publications to judge scientists for promotion and tenure. Brian Nosek [who is trying to reform the system] said that when he went up for promotion to full professor at the University of Virginia, the administration told him to print out all his publications and deliver them in a stack. Being ten years into his career, he’d published about a hundred papers. ‘So my response was, what are you going to do? Weigh them?’ He knew it was far too much effort for the review committee to read one hundred studies.

Clearly, change is needed. Science administrators can change right away: less emphasis on quantity and place of publication, and much more attention to what aspiring researchers’ papers actually say.

The way that science is published should also certainly change. But exactly how is difficult to discern: open publication (there are a few examples), substitute commentary for formal review, encourage longer, more conclusive—or shorter, but quicker to appear—papers…

New practices will certainly take time to evolve. What they might be is a topic for another time.


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