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Cerf-ing the Web

By Eduwonkette — July 13, 2008 2 min read

Over at eduwonk, the New York City Department of Education is putting its best foot forward by displaying its two strongest (and most becoming!) skills: a remarkable willingness to spin the naked facts and to personally attack anyone who questions their miracle. But Chris Cerf can’t manage to slip past Sol Stern’s first-rate BS detector, which is on full display in his original post and his drop-kick comment on Cerf’s post, which are both must-reads.

Here’s what I don’t get. If you’re a believer in Truth, why spin checkable facts when you’re no doubt going to get busted? It’s just not good government. But it doesn’t strike me as a smart PR strategy either, because it gives us good reason to wonder what else is going on behind that curtain.

My concern is not so much with any individual assertion of Cerf. A much larger problem is the New York City Department of Education’s willingness to swap facts in and out as they see convenient.

Here’s one example: Cerf insists on taking credit for the gains in the 2002-2003 school year, though Klein’s Children First reforms were announced for the first time in January 2003 at the same time that students were taking state tests. Did his words fall upon NYC kids’ brains like pixie dust, and so inspire them that they produced huge gains in reading and math? The timing just doesn’t add up. Yet Cerf wrote, “You frequently argue that the Mayor and Chancellor should not be given credit for the growth in achievement in their first year. To the contrary, they instituted important changes during that year. Obviously what happened in the past affected the results, just as our work will affect the results of the next chancellor, but that first year was on our watch.”

But back in 2003, Joel Klein didn’t want to draw attention to or take credit for the large gains that were posted that year. Klein was attempting to overhaul the entire system, and when the ELA and Math results were released in both May and September, his reaction was described as “muted.” In fact, he even threw a few sentences in questioning the validity of the math scores because “it is hard to tell the true significance of any one set of results in isolation.” Here’s a clip from the NY Times article on the reading scores that year:

The city's positive results come at a time when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, are trying to overhaul the public school system and impose a uniform reading and math curriculum at all but the highest performing schools. City officials, who might otherwise have been jubilant about yesterday's results, offered a muted reaction, saying that the gains were not broad enough and that the school system as a whole was still failing at least half the city's children.

Klein’s reaction in this NY Times article on the 2003 math scores was also less than ecstatic:

But not everyone greeted the news so enthusiastically. The suggestion that city schools are on the upswing put Chancellor Joel I. Klein, who is overhauling them, in a tricky position. While the chancellor's critics pounced upon the higher scores as evidence that the school system did not need such an overhaul, some of his allies acknowledged that he would now be under even more pressure to show gains next spring. Mr. Klein's reaction to the good news was muted, as it was to news of higher reading scores in the spring. ''While I am gratified by the test results released today for fourth and eighth graders in New York City, I must emphasize that it is hard to tell the true significance of any one set of results in isolation,'' the chancellor said in a statement. ''We must always look at results in comparison over a number of years. Only through comparison can we truly measure the progress we're making.''

Truth Squad! (Press officer Andy Jacob is eduwonkette’s designated truth guru): Of course I’ve got all this wrong, so do enlighten us wayward philistines.

PS - Have you guys considered tee-shirts? I won’t demand any royalties from the image above, which should obviously go on the front (with your last names emblazoned on the back). You can thank me later.

The opinions expressed in eduwonkette are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.