Drill and Kill Kerfuffle

December 16, 2010

The reaction of New York Times reporter, Sam Dillon, and LA Times reporter, Jason Felch,  to my post on Monday about erroneous claims in their coverage of a new Gates report could not have been more different.  Felch said he would look into the issue, discovered that the claimed negative relationship between test prep and value-added was inaccurate, and is now working on a correction with his editors.

Sam Dillon took a very different tack.  His reaction was to believe that the blog post was “suggesting on the internet that I had misinterpreted an interview, and then you repeated the same thing about the Los Angeles Times. That was just a sloppy and irresponsible error.”  I’m not sure how Dillon jumps to this thin-skinned defensiveness when I clearly said I did not know where the error was made: “I don’t know whether something got lost in the translation between the researchers and Gates education chief, Vicki Phillips, or between her and Sam Dillon at the New York Times, but the article contains a false claim that needs to be corrected before it is used to push changes in education policy and practice.

But more importantly, Dillon failed to check the accuracy of the disputed claim with independent experts.  Instead, he simply reconfirmed the claim with Gates officials: “For your information, I contacted the Gates Foundation after our correspondence and asked them if I had misquoted or in any way misinterpreted either Vicki Phillips, or their report on their research. They said, ‘absolutely not, you got it exactly right.'”

He went on to call my efforts to correct the claim “pathetic, sloppy, and lazy, and by the way an insult.”  I guess Dillon thinks that being a reporter for the New York Times means never having to say you’re sorry — or consult independent experts to resolve a disputed claim.

If Dillon wasn’t going to check with independent experts, I decided that I should — just to make sure that I was right in saying that the claims in the NYT and LAT coverage were unsupported by the findings in the Gates report.

Just to review, here is what Dillon wrote in the New York Times: “One notable early finding, Ms. Phillips said, is that teachers who incessantly drill their students to prepare for standardized tests tend to have lower value-added learning gains than those who simply work their way methodically through the key concepts of literacy and mathematics.”  And here is what Jason Felch wrote in the LA Times: ““But the study found that teachers whose students said they ‘taught to the test’ were, on average, lower performers on value-added measures than their peers, not higher.”  And the correlations in the Gates report between test student reports of test prep and value-added on standardized tests were all positive: “We spend a lot of time in this class practicing for the state test.” (ρ=0.195), “I have learned a lot this year about the state test.” (ρ=0.143), “Getting ready for the state test takes a lot of time in our class.” ( ρ=0.103).  The report does not actually contain items that specifically mention “drill,”work their way methodically through the key concepts of literacy and mathematics,” or “taught to the test,” but I believe the reporters (and perhaps Gates officials) are referencing the test prep items with these phrases.

I sent links to the coverage and the Gates report to a half-dozen leading economists to ask if the claims mentioned above were supported by the findings.  The following reply from Jacob Vigdor, an economist at Duke, was fairly representative of what they said even if it was a bit more direct than most:

I looked carefully at the report and come to the same conclusion as you: these correlations are positive, not negative.  The NYT and LAT reports are both plainly inconsistent with what is written in the report.  A more accurate statement would be along the lines of “test preparation activities appear to be less important determinants of value added than [caring teachers, teacher control in the classroom, etc].”  But even this statement is subject to the caveat that pairwise correlations don’t definitively prove the importance of one factor over another.  Maybe the reporters are describing some other analysis that was not in the report (e.g., regression results that the investigators know about but do not appear in print), but even in that case they aren’t really getting the story right.  Even in that scenario, the best conclusion (given positive pairwise correlations and a hypothetically negative regression coefficient) would be that teachers who possess all these positive characteristics tend to emphasize test preparation as well.

Put another way, it’s alway good to have a caring teacher who is in control of the classroom, makes learning fun, and demands a lot of her students.  Among the teachers who share these characteristics, the best ones (in terms of value added) appear to also emphasize preparation for standardized tets.  I say “appear” because one would need a full-fledged multivariate regression analysis, and not pairwise correlations, to determine this definitively.

Another leading economist, who preferred not to be named, wrote: “I looked back over the report and I think you are absolutely right!”  I’m working on getting permission to quote others, but you get the idea.

In addition to confirming that a positive correlation for test prep items means that it contributes to value-added, not detracts from it, several of these leading economists emphasized the inappropriateness of comparing correlations to draw conclusions about whether test prep contributes to value-added any more or less than other teacher practices observed by students.  They noted that any such comparison would require a multivariate analysis and not just a series of pairwise correlations.  And they also noted that any causal claim about the relative effectiveness of test prep would require some effort to address the endogeneity of which teachers engage in more test prep.

As David Figlio, an economist at Northwestern University, put it:

You’re certainly correct here.  A positive pairwise correlation means that these behaviors are associated with higher performance on standardized tests, not lower performance.  The only way that it could be an accurate statement that test prep is causing worse outcomes would be if there was a negative coefficient on test prep in a head-to-head competition in a regression model — though even then, one would have to worry about endogeneity: maybe teachers with worse-performing students focus more on test prep, or maybe lower-performing students perceive test prep to be more oppressive (of course, this could go the other way as well.)  But that was not the purpose or intent of the report.  The report does not present this as a head-to-head comparison, but rather to take a first look at the correlates between practice measures and classroom performance.

There was no reason for this issue to have developed into the controversy that it has. The coverage contains obvious errors that should have been corrected quickly and clearly, just as Jason Felch is doing.   Tom Kane, Vicki Phillips, and other folks at Gates should have immediately issued a clarification as soon as they were alerted to the error, which was on Monday.

And while I did not know where the error occurred when I wrote the blog post on Monday, the indications now are that there was a miscommunication between the technical people who wrote the report and non-technical folks at Gates, like Vicki Phillips and the pr staff.  In other words, Sam Dillon can relax since the mistake appears to have originated within Gates (although Dillon’s subsequent defensiveness, name-calling, and failure to check with independent experts hardly bring credit to the profession of journalism).

The sooner Gates issues a public correction, the sooner we can move beyond this dispute over what is actually a sidebar in their report and focus instead on the enormously interesting project on which they’ve embarked to improve measures of teacher effectiveness.  An apology from Sam Dillon would be also nice but I’m not holding my breath.



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