One of the more problematic ideas in political philosophy is the ‘noble lie,’ the notion that it is permissible, perhaps even required, for leaders to lie to the people, so long as the lie is “necessary” for the advancement of a good cause. This is a profoundly anti-democratic idea, rooted in the belief that the people can not be trusted to know the truth, or to act on behalf of the right and the common good, once they know the truth. For all of its veneer of ‘political realism,’ it is also ultimately self-destructive. Lies in public life have a logic and trajectory of their own, and when one begins by lying to others, whatever the motivation, one variably ends up by lying to oneself. And there is nothing more dangerous to a good cause than a propagandist who believes his own propaganda.

In American education today, the practitioners of the ‘noble lie’ are many, and on all sides of all questions. The reigning political logic in the field seems to be that one figures out where one stands on a given issue, and then adopts a strategic conception of the truth, admitting only those propositions which confirm that stand. The very first victims of this approach are complexity and contradiction, nuance and distinction.

I was reminded of this reality when I read some of the responses to a powerful piece [registration required] in last Wednesday’s New York Times, in which Samuel Freedman described how the disaggregation of data required by No Child Left Behind had revealed a stunning racial achievement gap in the wealthy, high performing schools of Princeton, New Jersey. One would think that educational progressives would celebrate the fact that the failure to properly educate students of color was being exposed to public view, which would seem to be a pre-condition for the problem itself being addressed, but in some quarters opposition to NCLB carries with it the obligatory denial of even the slightest redeeming feature in the legislation. So on the EDDRA listserv widely read in educational policy circles [one must join the listserv to read the posts], Freedman’s essay came under attack on the grounds that there were a small number of students of color in the schools, and this meant that the gap could not be statistically significant. No one stopped to even play out the logic of their objections: given that the Princeton school district has plentiful human and material capital on the scale that urban school districts can only dream about, given that most of the Princeton students would thrive academically wherever they are and need no special attention, and given that the number of students of color were small in number, the existence of a gap was all the more inexcusable.

Yes, I know that there are those, with no real interest in the educational well-being of students of color, who will use the existence of the racial achievement gap to attack public education. But it seems to me that the appropriate response is not to deny the existence of the achievement gap, but to address it forthrightly, and to point out how those critics support policies, such as the inequitable distribution of education resources, which perpetuate the gap. And yes, there are parts of No Child Left Behind such as the Annual Yearly Progress benchmarks which were poorly conceived, are without probative value and function as an unrealistic standard of school-wide achievement. But if we issue unqualified broadsides against all of the law, including the valuable disaggregation of student achievement data by race and ethnicity, aren’t we undermining our own credibility as reasoned critics of the law’s shortcomings? And if we rush to ally ourselves with anyone and everyone who opposes NCLB, including those [such as the ultra-conservative Utah state legislature] who oppose it precisely because of features such as the disaggregation of student achievement data, what right do we then have to call ourselves progressive educators, concerned above all with the education of our students with the greatest need? How will we ever be able to address the ‘savage inequalities’ which continue to define American education, if we are not honest, as much with ourselves as with the public, about the existence of such inequalities?

Don’t think that EDDRA is somehow unique, and that the ‘noble lie’ is a disease of the far left in education alone. What is remarkable in the US today is the prevalence of ‘double standards’ in the discussion of educational matters, perhaps even more on the far right then on the far left. Arguments which would be dismissed in a nanno-second if they were applied to district public schools are used with great abandon by some of the fiercest right wing critics of public schools when these critics are advocating for charter schools. Take the September 18th NY Daily News editorial calling for an end to the cap on the number of charter schools in New York State, based on the proposition that their academic performance is much superior to that of district schools.  The editorial offers as evidence for the their position, the following proposition: “On last year’s English Language Arts exam, 62% of charter school students scored at or above grade level, compared with 55% of their peers at regular public schools. In math, the score was 61% versus 50%.”

There is only one problem. You can go to the web site of the New York State Education Department [see also here], or the web site of the New York City Department of Education, or even to the web site of the New York Center for Charter Excellence, the charter school arm of the DOE which is constantly promoting an end to the cap, but nowhere will you find the numbers touted by the Daily News. [These are the web pages for the results of the recently published Math exams; the results for the ELA exams also vary from the Daily News’ numbers, but most of the web pages with those results are no longer active.] What the Daily News apparently did was combine the results of two different ELA and two different Math exams given to different grade levels, the 4th and the 8th grades, to reach the numbers they gave as a single exam.

Why would the Daily News amalgamate two different exams into one? In order to spin charter school exam results which were less than sterling, and a great deal less than they claimed, into support for their position that the cap needed to be lifted because of the superior performance of the charter schools.

Here’s what really happened. In New York City, there are sixteen charter elementary schools giving the 4th grade test, and six charter secondary schools giving the 8th grade test. The average performance of students in the larger group of charter elementary schools fell slightly below the average performance of students in district public schools, while the average performance of students in the smaller group of charter secondary schools was above the average performance of students in district public schools. So rather than admit that there was a mixed record of performance even on this select comparison [more on this below], the Daily News pretended that there was one ELA exam and one Math exam.

And that is only the beginning of the dishonesty here. A few weeks back, we took a look here at Edwize at the argument of the New York Center for Charter Excellence for the lifting of the cap on charter schools, based on the earlier reporting of the results of the ELA exams alone. [The ELA results were published a few months before the results of the Math exams.] Then, as in the more recent case of the Math exams, the charter secondary schools in New York City performed better than the charter elementary schools, so we took the stronger argument for charter school excellence, the secondary schools, and examined it in some detail. What we found there was that the separation of New York City schools from the rest of New York State – an artificial distinction, since schools are chartered on a statewide, not a city, basis – was designed to gain maximum benefit from a few charter secondary school statistical outliers in New York City, while conveniently ignoring the much greater mass of low-performing charter secondary schools throughout the state. We did a similar study of the secondary charter schools giving the 8th grade Math exam, and the results were virtually identical. If you examine the table at the end of this post, you will find that while three of the six secondary charter schools in New York City were above the state average, and five of the six in New York City were above the city average, only one of the other nine secondary charter schools in the state were above the state average. When the entire pool of secondary charter schools in New York are examined, therefore, the results were nothing approaching the superior performance claimed by the Daily News. It is essential to examine the state wide results because if the cap for charter school were lifted, it would be lifted for the entire state, and it would be lifted for the chartering agencies which chartered all of the secondary charter schools in New York State.

What is more, the three outlier secondary charter schools in New York City which performed exceptionally well – Beginning with Children, KIPP Academy, Renaissance – are all conversion charter schools, district public schools which chose to convert to charter status. That is significant for two reasons. First, there is no cap on the number of conversion charter schools. The very schools being used to argue for lifting the cap on start-up charter schools are not start-ups themselves; moreover, there is no limit on how many of those schools could be started tomorrow. Second, as a conversion charter school, they still operate under the collective bargaining agreement with the UFT. So the argument that charter schools perform so much better because they are free of the onerous burdens of unionization, an argument near and dear to the heart of Chancellor Klein, is actually disproved by the results of the state exams. We could use a great many more unionized charter schools like these three, one would think.

The editorial writers of the Daily News were never taught, it would appear, that old children’s rhyme, “what a tangled web we weave, when we first practice to deceive.”

The UFT is supportive of charter schools, I must reiterate here. We are starting two charter schools of our own, one elementary and one secondary, and I have been deeply involved in the planning for the secondary charter school. Al Shanker was an absolutely key figure in the development of charter schools, and we continue to believe in the importance of charter schools along the lines advocated by Shanker – community based and educator led and run schools, freed of the stifling bureaucracy and micro-management that emanates from Tweed and other district management. That is a far cry, of course, from the for profit, EMO charters that have proliferated as the right has seized a serious beachhead on the charter school front. But all the more reason for us to be in the charter school world fighting for what is best for kids and their teachers.

But like districts public schools, charter schools will only grow and thrive when the arguments made on their behalf are honest arguments, and when their shortcomings and failures are straightforwardly addressed, not denied or ignored.

EIGHTH GRADE MATH EXAM RESULTSFOR NY STATE CHARTER SCHOOLS
Charter
School
#
Students
Tested
Mean
Math
Score
Level
One:
Level
Two:
Level
Three:
Level
Four:
Above
NYC
Average
Above
NY State
Average
Lindsay
Wildcat
Academy
9696#: 1
11.1%
#: 8
88.9%
#: 0
0%
#: 0
0%
NONO
Harbor
Science
& Arts
27716#: 2
7.4%
#: 12
44.4%
#: 13
48.1%
#: 0
0%
YESNO
KIPP
Academy
48738#: 0
0%
#: 4
8.3%
#: 42
87.5%
#: 2
4.2%
YESYES
Bronx
Preparatory
53715#: 4
7.5%
#: 21
39.6%
#: 27
50.9%
#: 1
1.9%
YESNO
Beginning
with
Children
45746#: 0
0%
#: 8
17.8%
#: 23
51.1%
#: 14
31.1%
YESYES
Renaissance49719#: 4
8.2%
#: 16
32.7%
#: 27
55.1%
#: 2
4.1%
YESYES
Totals
for NYC
Charter
Schools
231 #: 11
4.7%
#: 69
29.9%
#: 132
57.1%
#: 19
8.2%
5 OF 63 OF 6
 
South
Buffalo
49713#: 4
8.2%
#: 18
36.7%
#: 27
55.1%
#: 0
0%
 NO
Stepping
Stone
44696#: 12
27.3%
#: 21
47.7%
#: 11
25%
#: 0
0%
 NO
Enterprise48681#: 24
50%
#: 20
41.7%
#: 4
8.3%
#: 0
0%
 NO
Buffalo
Academy
for
Sciences
61696#: 13
21.3%
#: 39
63.9%
#: 9
14.8%
#: 0
0%
 NO
Westminster53722#: 1
1.9%
#: 18
34%
#: 33
62.3%
#: 1
1.9%
 YES
School
for
Applied
Technology
103710#: 7
6.8%
#: 55
53.4%
#: 41
39.8%
#: 0
0%
 NO
Rochester
Leadership
44698#: 11
25%
#: 25
56.8%
#: 8
18.2%
#: 0
0%
 NO
School
of Science
and
Technology
94692#: 26
27.7%
#: 53
56.4%
#: 15
16%
#: 0
0%
 NO
Syracuse
Academy
79694#: 27
34.2%
#: 25
31.6%
#: 26
32.9%
#: 1
1.3%
 NO
Totals for
Non-NYC
Charter
Schools
575 #: 125
21.7%
#: 274
47.7%
#:174
30.3%
#: 2
.35%
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