Another Sunday brings us yet another biased article by the Columbus Dispatch written with no attempt at being factually honest while trying to focus blame on the public education system instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue around questions that the two researchers cited within would pose in an attempt to improve student learning. Click on the link in the opening sentence if you haven’t read their take on the story yet — we’re not republishing it here.

Jennifer Smith Richards’ slanted viewpoint causes her to overlook key information from the two “experts” that she thinks she is using to back up her assertions of corruption surrounding attendance reporting.  Instead, she misses the points offered by Michael Gottfried, a young economics professor from California with no education experience who performed a study on schools in Philadelphia.  Gottfried is quoted as saying,

“If the numbers are real, if the kids are actually going to school, those kids should be doing better in reading and math.”

The operative word being should.  Indeed, what a great research question Gottfried reveals with such a statement instead of Richards’ assertion that the numbers CAN’T be real and let’s condemn the district (again) and claim that the obvious solution is corruption in the schools!  But if she would have read Gottfried’s 2007 study, Richards would have learned that he fully admits that other, less readily identifiable factors must exist surrounding student attendance that should merit further discussion.  Additionally, Gottfried’s stated in his conclusions,

“It is possible that different results and interpretations may be found in other school districts of varying urbanicity.”

Shocking, right?  But why would an academic scholar make such statements while a journalist would only jump to conclusions based on personal opinion?

Another important and ignored fact from the Dispatch’s expert, Gottfried, is that his dataset was from the late 1990’s and included tests that were less stringent than today’s Ohio tests (many more recent studies are also revealing significant changes in practices since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001).

Richard’s second expert, Douglas Roby, conducted his 2004 study on this topic based in Ohio, and in his study he explained that while his results had significance, they were anything but conclusive and merit more study, especially in urban districts that did not have statistically significant results (again, late 1990s). From Roby’s study:

“Even though there are many variables (some uncontrollable by school officials) affecting student attendance throughout all school buildings in Ohio, positive and exceptional student attendance efforts should be revealed and considered for school buildings with attendance concerns and problems….There are other variables that could be the focus of continued analysis, such as student socioeconomic status, aptitude and their relationship to school attendance patterns and student achievement.  Student age, perceived relationships with teachers, and perceived value of attending school are other variables to consider for student attendance/student achievement research.”

In the end, instead of doing some actual journalistic research to verify their assertion that “there’s no good explanation” for what has allegedly occurred (she’s never actually stated the specifics), Richards simply wants to lob accusations at the local school district instead of contributing to the more intellectual discussion of determining why there might be a disconnect in the lives of these children.  With these lazy shortcuts that only serve throw our school districts under the bus, we have to wonder if Richards won’t soon have a Republican seat in the Ohio Legislature.

Because if the Dispatch was truly interested in answering the question of wrongdoing instead of slandering the local public school district, the author could have conducted some simple research on all Ohio schools and uncovered the following details that were NOT a part of her article.

First, a graph comparing a school’s attendance rates and Performance Index score (composite of student achievement test results):

First, 92% of Ohio’s schools report an attendance rate over the state standard of 93% (shown by the vertical bar on the graph).  While it is easy to see the upward trend of scores, it is even more apparent that not only do many of the state’s schools have scores below the top 10%, there appears to be a threshold of attendance around 95-96% at which top student achievement can and is attained.

Statewide, 74% of the schools that have Performance Index scores below the state’s benchmark of 90 reported an attendance rate of over 93%.  Based on the Dispatch’s accusations, this would imply that Ohio has over 640 schools across the state that simply MUST be falsifying their attendance numbers, including 146 charter schools!

But if the Dispatch ran this information and obtained this chart, they would be faced with the dilemma of having to report negatively about some of Ohio’s charter schools, including two located right under their noses in Columbus.  See those red dots at the lower right of the graph?  Those data points represent the following charter schools who reported 100% attendance for the 2010-11 school year along with low student achievement scores.

  • East Columbus Drop Back In – Columbus
  • Striving to Engage Potential – Kenton
  • Massillon Digital Academy, Inc – Massillon
  • Arts Academy West, The – Cleveland
  • Zenith Academy East – Columbus
  • Imani Learning Academy – Toledo
  • Groveport Community School – Groveport
  • Graham Digital Academy – Saint Paris
  • Fairborn Digital Academy – Fairborn

So where’s the article about these schools?  Where’s the call for an audit by the state?  Where’s the outrage?

To be honest, I really don’t care about these charter schools, their abysmal performance results, or whether there is some in-depth audit by the state about their attendance practices, but it’s absolutely wrong to pin accusations on them about cheating or inappropriate maneuvers without conducting any form of legitimate inquiry to discover what has actually occurred.

Now, the Dispatch has continued their course of trying to cause irreparable harm by claiming fraud by the public schools without releasing a single shred of specific evidence of improper behavior.  Instead, hearsay again rules the day as they continually seek to defame the schools by claiming to have “experts” that back up their position.

As we’ve shown above, the Dispatch’s “experts” do not provide this support and neither does Ohio’s own data.  Ohio either has a systemic problem that exists in the majority of schools across the state, or the connection between attendance and student achievement isn’t as strong for Ohio’s standardized tests.  Or….perhaps the Ohio Department of Education’s rules for reporting attendance are flawed, resulting in numbers that confound the researchers yet follow every legal guideline as provided by the state.

The Dispatch could have used this information in the way that the educational researchers would have, to help ask questions about what could lead to lower achievement scores for students with relatively high attendance rates, especially in the state’s Big 8 urban districts — 260 of the schools with “high attendance, low achievement” come from these high poverty areas.  Well over 100 charter schools that would be considered “high attendance, low achievement” are also located within these cities.  Again, are they all engaged in systematic cheating or does this highlight a different problem in education connecting poverty and performance?

But we also know that the Dispatch doesn’t care about that pesky thing called “data” when they can display a complete lack of professional journalism and sell sensationalist conspiracy theories in an effort to damage the reputation of the public schools and the community they serve.

Shame on you once again, Columbus Dispatch.