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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

October Surprise, Part II:
“Dr. Spin” Flips the Rand Report

By Nicholas Stix
November 3, 2000

George W. Bush's “Texas Miracle” in education is a “myth.” We know that, because Dr. Stephen P. Klein said so. Dr. Klein is the lead researcher of the report, “What Do Test Scores in Texas Tell Us?,” released on October 24 by the prestigious, "nonpartisan" Rand Corporation.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, ABC News, and a host of other prestigious, "nonpartisan" news organizations, have repeated Klein's charges.

Stephen Klein's Rand report examines dramatic claims made by Texas education officials and Gov. George W. Bush. The Texans had reported that on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), public school children showed gains in reading and math that were triple the gains made by their peers nationally. During the period in question, 1994-98, nationally the racial gap, whereby black and Hispanic children lagged far behind their white peers, widened. According to Texas officials, however, their state's gap was narrower to begin with, and black and Hispanic Texas children had come close to erasing it altogether.

In the October 25 Los Angeles Times, reporter Duke Helfand quoted Stephen Klein as charging that, “The soaring test scores in Texas do not reflect real improvement in students' ability to read and do math. Texas is doing better than the rest of the country in some areas, but nowhere near the miracle. It's a myth.”

Duke Helfand wrote further, that “The findings [from the National Assessment of Educational Progress] led the analysts to suggest that the widely ballyhooed gains on Texas' own tests may have been the result of extensive test preparation, a low standard for passing and some cheating prompted by pressure the system puts on teachers and administrators.”

Based on the press accounts and my own experience as an educator, I was tempted to believe Klein. But then I read and re-read his report, which made a disbeliever out of me.

Many education reporters don't seem to read the reports they write about. Apparently, they read only the press releases, and talk to the reports' authors and PR flacks. In other words, they consent to being used by spin campaigns. I've found that the actual reports often fail to prove, and at times even contradict the claims made by the press releases, “spokespersons,” and even the authors themselves. The Klein report is no exception.

Keep in mind, that while the Klein report never uses the phrase “test fraud,” the report has no point, except as an extended (if unfounded) allegation of massive test fraud in Texas.

For a point of reference, let's consider another recent case in which test fraud was alleged. Last December, New York City Board of Education Special Commissioner Edward Stancik published a report, “Cheating the Children: Educator Misconduct on Standardized Tests,” charging that conspiracies of teachers, administrators, and staffers in 32 public schools all over the city had been engaging in massive test fraud.

The tests in question were high-stakes, standardized exams, just like the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). The phrase “high-stakes” means that students' promotions and graduation, and educators' careers depend on the results.

The most popular method was for teachers to have children write their answers on scrap paper. The teachers would then correct the children, before having them write their "final" answers in their test booklets. Some teachers and administrators would “prompt” pupils, telling them, “That's wrong.” Others would “explain” questions, while some would simply tell the children the proper answers, or distribute typed “cheat sheets.” One teacher wrote the conclusion to a student's essay. An ambitious Manhattan teacher, Dennis Rej, made wholesale erasures on his students' examination “bubble sheets,” and entered the correct answers. Some enterprising educators managed to procure the actual exams in advance, which they then used to prep their students.

One teacher from Queens, Robin Smith, told investigators, “everyone does this and I never had a problem with it before.”

The investigation resulted in fifty-two New York City teachers and administrators being suspended for test fraud.

The 66-page Stancik report was full of smoking guns. Enjoying the cooperation of outraged teachers in the affected schools, the investigators had gotten eyewitness testimony, and gathered (and published photographs of) physical evidence such as “bubble sheets” full of erasures, essays in which a child's handwriting gave way to an adult's, and “cheat sheets.”

I searched Stephen Klein's report for smoking guns, but found only smoke and mirrors. No cheat sheets, no sheets full of erasures, no advance copies of exams, no eyewitness testimony, no cooperating educators.

Dr. Stephen Klein turns out to be a spin-doctor.

What he engaged in, was a textbook, three-step spin-doctoring campaign. What he didn't engage in, was research.

Klein sought to create an atmosphere of doubt about the Texas Miracle; exploit that atmosphere to rationalize undertaking what was not a research report at all, but in the words of Bush campaign communications director Karen Hughes, a “14-page opinion paper … [that] directly contradicts every credible, nonpartisan scientific evaluation, including Rand's own official study”; and then, confident that few prominent reporters would read his “report,” go in for the kill, as if his claims had actually been proven.

Step one: In a major Washington Post story in April, Klein suggested that the TAAS was fraudulent. He claimed that this was based on his research, but according to Rand's current story, Klein had just begun his research on TAAS in the spring.

Since Washington Post reporter John Mintz was writing an anti-Bush story, he didn't demand any proof of Klein's insinuations. And in getting a lengthy story published in one of the most influential newspapers in America, Klein could rest assured that most major media outlets would assimilate his claims.

Step two: In Klein's “report,” he observes that, “For example, the media have reported concerns about excessive teaching to the test,” as justification for his study. He neglected to reveal to the reader that HE WAS THE SOURCE of the media reports. (Disguising one's own previous statements as independent corroboration is a basic form of scholarly and journalistic fraud.)

As John Mintz reported in the April 21 Washington Post, six months before the Klein report's release, “‘We knew something strange was going on,’ Klein said. He believes that, without meaning to, Texas officials design TAAS tests so they're vulnerable to Texas teachers' coaching.”

Step three: The moment the “report” was released, Klein again spoke to reporters at major news organizations. Playing off the momentum he had built up in steps one and two, he denounced the Texas Miracle as a “myth.”

We cannot discount the help that mainstream media organizations gave Stephen Klein.
In July, the Rand Corporation had published a major, 250-page study, by a team led by David W. Grissmer, Improving Student Achievement: What NAEP State Scores Tell Us, that supported Texas officials' claims.

As thorough and well-documented as the Grissmer study was, Rand released it four months before the election, but somehow it didn't get much coverage. Conversely, Rand released the Klein paper exactly two weeks before the election, and it got tremendous play.

As we'll see tomorrow, the structure of the Klein “report” is much like that of the Klein spin campaign. In lieu of evidence, Stephen Klein uses suggestion and innuendo, and then, acting as if he had proved that which he only insinuated, he piles on ever more dramatic suggestions and innuendoes. Another favored technique has him equivocate in his use of terms such as “coaching,” “cramming,” and “test preparation,” so that they mutate from innocent, even positive words into euphemisms for “cheating.”

Sandra Stotsky, a veteran researcher at the Harvard School of Education (but don't hold that against her!), is the Deputy Commissioner of Academic Affairs and Planning of the Massachusetts Department of Education. She is the author of, among other works, Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction is Undermining Our Children's Ability to Read, Write, and Reason.

Arguably the foremost scholar of “K-12” reading curricula, Dr. Stotsky had earlier been commissioned to perform her own study of TAAS' reading component, and found it wanting. Stotsky said that since her study, the TAAS reading component had reportedly been reformed.

Of Klein's Rand study, Sandra Stotsky remarked, “There are various groups attacking Bush, because it's Bush. It's a political thing. … [The Klein report] destroyed their academic reputation. They shot their own person [David W. Grissmer]. It made Rand look terrible.”

Unfortunately, Stephen Klein is more interested in manipulating reality, than in discovering and describing it. That's why I call him, “Dr. Spin.”
Originally published in Toogood Reports.

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