Summer 2010

Summer 2010

Shrinking coverage

Massachusetts news outlets, with the exception of the Globe, have pulled out of Washington

In the last five years, Massachusetts newspapers have dramatically altered the way they cover—or don’t cover—the state’s congressional delegation in Washington.

Every Bay State newspaper except the Boston Globe has pulled out of Washington. The Globe, which is owned by the New York Times, has closed its foreign bureaus and demanded financial give-backs from its employees, but it continues to employ seven journalists in the nation’s capital because it believes that Washington coverage is of interest to readers in Massachusetts.

“The shuttles from Logan to National are packed all the time with lobbyists and officials and people from Harvard and scholars and scientists and biotech executives and lawyers, so there’s this gigantic nexus between Boston and Washington,” says Christopher Rowland, the paper’s Washing­ton bureau chief.

Other newspapers in Massachusetts are focusing closer to home on local news rather than covering Washington. The Springfield Republican was the last Massachusetts paper besides the Globe to have a Washington correspondent. It lost her when its corporate owner, Advance Publications, closed its Newhouse News Service in Washington in late 2008.

The Globe’s chief competitor in the Boston market, the Boston Herald, closed its two-person DC shop in 2005. Lead reporter Andrew Miga now covers politics in the northeastern states, including Massachusetts, for the Associated Press, and the Herald occasionally sends reporters south to cover top stories. Other papers, like the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and the Cape Cod Times, left Washington long ago, with few regrets.

“In an ideal world, I’d rather have three more people covering town government than one in Washington,” says Chazy Dowaliby, editor of the Ledger and the Enterprise of Brockton.

In her view, as well as that of many of her fellow editors, small and mid-sized papers must now focus on the news that’s closest to home. “We have to do what nobody else is doing,” she says. “We need a spotlight on Washington, but lots of people are providing that.”
The Worcester Telegram, which is also owned by the New York Times, relied for years on graduate students in Boston University’s journalism program —who would spend a semester in Washington—to cover Worcester’s congressman, Jim McGovern, but BU shuttered its program this year. That’s regrettable, says the paper’s editor, Leah Lamson, but it’s not the end of the world in her view. “Our raison d’être is local news,” she says. “It’s who we are. We’re a local paper for central Massachu­setts.”

Lamson’s city editor keeps in regular touch with McGovern’s press secretary and she’ll assign a re­porter to cover McGovern when he is holding events in the district. State House reporter John Monahan also jumps in when McGovern is in the news.

Editors at smaller papers say they can usually get the information they need on what’s going on in Washington without a reporter on the ground there. “Even in Washington, the reporters aren’t in the cloak­rooms and you can develop sources in Hyannis just as well as you can in Washington,” says Cape Cod Times editor Paul Pronovost. “If I had additional resources, it’s not the first place I’d put them.”
Like other Massachusetts editors, Pronovost will send a reporter to Washington when something is going on with a big local impact. He did that, for example, when a senator from Alaska tried to insert language in legislation a few years ago that would have killed the Cape Wind project.

But most of the editors outside the Boston area say they pay more attention to the congressional delegation when they come home to campaign than when they are developing policy in Washington. The Patriot Ledger and the Cape Cod Times, for instance, are both devoting extra resources this year to the race to replace William Delahunt, the 10th District representative who is retiring after seven terms.

James Campanini, editor of the Sun in Lowell, who closed the paper’s one-person Washington bureau in mid-2008, does miss having a reporter in the capital. “When you have someone in Wash­ing­ton, you pick up more,” he says. “For a long time, we were one of the smallest papers with a full time reporter in Washington. We fought like hell to keep him, but we had to downsize.”

The Globe has downsized its bureau but continues to believe it can be a player on the national scene. The paper’s strong Washington coverage dates to the 1970s tenure of editor Tom Winship, who first envisioned the Globe as having a national scope. Combine that with Massachu­setts’ reputation as a training ground for politicians with national ambitions and it’s no wonder the paper has stuck with Washington.  

“Massachusetts is a big-league town when it comes to political talent and influence in Washington,” says Mark Jurkowitz, a former Globe ombudsman who’s now associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.

The Globe bureau has something of a split personality. It doesn’t have the resources to cover most day-to-day events in Washington or the routine work of the congressional delegation, yet it tries to provide coverage with high relevance to Massachusetts readers while at the same time competing for major national scoops with the New York Times and Washington Post.

In reality, that’s nothing new, says Walter Robinson, who led the Globe bureau in the 1980s and is now a professor at Northeastern University. “Even in the days when we had 11 or 12 reporters, the congressional delegation received scant coverage,” he says.
Rowland only has one reporter assigned, specifically, to delegation coverage—former State House and Boston City Hall reporter Matt Viser, who arrived in Washington earlier this year. Rowland makes no apologies for how he’s divvied up his resources. “We’re not going to cover the delegation like the State House bureau covers Deval Patrick,” he says. “There are too many things of national interest.”
Many of the stories Rowland cites with pride are pieces with little or no local angle that might well have run in big national papers. The stories range from coverage of development work in Afghanistan to nuclear proliferation to the fight against AIDS in Africa. Others have zeroed in on Massachusetts business sectors, including stories on Washington lobbying by biotech companies and by financial institutions.

When the bureau has targeted the congressional delegation, the stories tend to point out a big shift in attitude, as when Rep. Stephen Lynch—who’d been accused in the past of hostility to gay rights—won over gay and lesbian activists by opposing efforts to repeal a gay marriage law in the District of Columbia. Or they take note of a principled stand, as when loyal Democrat Jim McGovern opposed President Obama’s troop build-up in Afghanistan earlier this year. Others are broad and sweeping, such as a story last year that examined how Massachusetts lawmakers had provided earmarked federal funding for Bay State companies that gave money to their campaigns.

Rowland has dedicated a lot of ink to Scott Brown since the new senator arrived in the capital, assigning a big first-100-days story and a follow-up soon thereafter about how Brown joined Democrats in passing a major financial regulation bill. Rowland makes sure that John Kerry and Ed Markey—who are leading the push for climate change legislation, and Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee—get plenty of coverage.

The Globe plays Washington stories prominently. Row­land says he wants every story written by the bureau to compete for the front page and, for the most part, he’s succeeded. Since he took over last summer, the bureau has produced more than 450 stories, with 260 of them on page 1.

Tara McGuiness, a former Markey press secretary who now works for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, says Massachusetts news consumers are better off than their counterparts in other parts of the country. “There are entire states now with no one on the ground in Washington,” she says. “Massachu­setts is a rich media market and there’s a huge amount of legislation driven by the Massachusetts delegation, so it gets covered.”

But Thomas Burr, a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune and president of the Regional Reporters Association, worries about his organization’s shrinking size. The group, which represents Washington bureaus of regional papers, once boasted more than 200 members; it now has about 70.

“I fear in some ways that our watchdog role—that of pressing senators over controversial votes or digging through documents tucked away in Washington file cabinets or tracking a federal agency decision—is becoming a casualty,” he says.

The Brown effect

The Brown effect

in washington

He said he wanted to be “a Brown Republican,” but what does that mean? Judging from his voting record from the time he took office in February until June 15, Scott Brown is difficult to pigeon-hole. He is as likely to throw his lot in with Democrats as with Republicans, but most often he seems to be a voting soul mate of the other two moderate Republican US senators from New England—Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Of the 169 rollcall votes he has cast between taking office in February and June 15, Brown was recorded as yes 95 times and no 74 times. He sided with the Senate’s top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, 38 percent of the time. He voted with his political mentor, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, 81 percent of the time. It was Sen. Collins whom he sided with most often, voting with her 87 percent of the time.

A closer look, though, shows when Brown votes yes, he’s more likely to position himself with the Democrats than party-line Republicans. While he still teamed with Collins the most, with both voting yes on the same bills 94 percent of the time, he votes yes with Reid 56 percent of the time while only 31 percent with McCain. Among the key votes where he sided with Democrats were the jobs bill in March, the bill to regulate Wall Street, and the nominations of a Treasury undersecretary, a District of Columbia associate justice, and  an assistant attorney general, all of which were opposed by McCain and the Rep­ublican leadership.

When it came to just saying no, Brown was more in tune with his GOP colleagues. Brown and McCain agreed to say nay 92 percent of the time while the Bay State junior senator voted no in concert with Collins 78 percent of the time. Only 16 percent of the time did Brown and Reid see nay to nay.

And for those who thought they sent the 41st GOP senator to Washington to regularly uphold Republican filibusters and derail the Democratic agenda, you’re in for some disappointment. Brown took part in 13 cloture votes, the parliamentary term to close off debate and end a filibuster. Of those roll calls, Brown cast his lot with the Democrats eight times while voting to block bills or appointments by filibuster five times.

what can brown do for you?

The Massachusetts senator has stayed close to Washington in his first few months in office, but he’s done some campaigning for fellow Republicans around the nation. He’s also taken one official government business trip abroad to Pakistan, Dubai, and Afghan­istan, where he met with President Hamid Karzai.

at home

In 2008, Massachusetts had the dubious distinction of being the state with the lowest percentage of contested legislative races in the nation. But Scott Brown’s victory in the special election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy seems to have reenergized the Grand Old Party in Massachusetts. Republicans have nearly tripled the number of races where they are running for state Senate and more than doubled the number in the House. There are even contested races in the GOP primaries themselves. In 2008, there was just one contested Republican primary for the 160 seats in the House and none in the Senate. This year, there are 15 contested Republican primaries in the House and six in the Senate.

 

Saying sorry

Michigan project’s response when medical procedures go awry is resulting in lower malpractice insurance costs and better communication between doctors and patients

Rick Boothman still thinks about a malpractice case he won 30 years ago. Fresh out of law school, Boothman represented a surgeon who had been sued by a former patient. “As the jury was filing out, the lady who sued my client leaned around the podium and I learned this was the first time she’d talked to him in three or four years,” he recalls. “She said, ‘If I’d known everything you said in the courtroom, I never would have sued you.’”

Boothman remembers being surprised by the woman’s reaction—and intrigued by the idea that a simple conversation might have prevented an expensive, multi-year court procedure. “I was still wet behind the ears, right out of law school, but I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, that’s a long way to go to have a conversation,’” he says.

Boothman, now the chief risk officer at the Univ­ersity of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, has since put his idea to the test by changing the way his health system responds to threatened and actual lawsuits. The results of the new approach, which was launched in 2001, are striking and may have implications for Massachusetts, where some physicians hope to see state law changed to facilitate more open doctor-patient communication when allegations of possible malpractice are raised.

The University of Michigan Health System operates three hospitals, a medical school, and dozens of health centers. Prior to 2001, the system typically cut off communication between doctors and patients while parties prepared to go to trial. Now, the system conducts an internal review of each case and shares the findings with the patient —including whether the physician acted in error. It also facilitates conversations about what happened among patients, physicians, and their lawyers.

Boothman says many doctors initially feared that more openness would invite more lawsuits. In fact, the opposite is true. In 2001, 121 lawsuits were filed against the university. In 2002, the first full year under the new system, there were only 88 new claims, a number that has held steady in subsequent years. Boothman doesn’t take full credit for the drop, noting that malpractice lawsuits have declined nationally during the same time period. But he says a culture of frankness has led to quicker resolutions and settlements for patients, and to doctors being more willing to discuss, and learn from, their mistakes.

“If we’ve proven anything, I hope we’ve shown that being open and honest doesn’t cause the litigation sky to fall in, doesn’t invite litigation, doesn’t increase settlement costs or anything else,” says Boothman. “Given a chance, our patients are far more forgiving than we previously believed. I can say that once we made our staff safe by expertly working hard to resolve the claims that needed to be resolved through a principled approach, our doctors both embraced this approach and have in a palpable way turned their attention to patient safety like never before.”

The system has more quantifiable benefits: Patients who do file claims don’t wait as long for closure since the average case now lasts 10 months instead of 20. Malpractice insurance costs have stayed level in the university’s system over the last 10 years even as the system got larger. By comparison, in Massachusetts, average malpractice insurance costs rose 132 percent between 1992 and 2005. A typical malpractice case in Massachusetts lasts for over five years.

The university medical system’s approach depends upon two key aspects of Michigan law, which underwent significant tort reform in 1994: Physicians know they can apologize, or express regret and sympathy for what happened to a patient, without having their words used in court as an admission of negligence. The state also requires that a plaintiff’s lawyer file a notice-of-intent to sue 182 days before doing so, allowing for a cooling-off period in which, at least some of the time, patient and doctor and their lawyers can talk about what happened.  

And conversation is key, as Boothman discovered in court and according to some individuals who have experienced medical errors first-hand. Doug Wojcieszak lost his oldest brother in 1998 at an Ohio hospital. “It was typical cover-up,” says Wojcieszak. “He died in a hospital where they misdiagnosed a heart attack and mixed up his charts. No one talked. We sued, and the judge forced a settlement. We got money, but we never got an apology or emotional closure or were told what the hospital would do to make sure it would never happen again.”

Wojcieszak, who works in public relations, has since made changing the often adversarial relationship between patient and doctor both a personal and professional crusade. He runs Sorry Works, a company that consults with doctors and hospital officials who want to imitate the results in Michigan. He says he’s worked with medical providers all over the country, and many of them have gone on to adopt new policies for disclosing medical errors to patients. Not all are patterned after the Michigan approach, but many are, including one at the medical center at the University of Illinois.

“When I started doing this work five years ago, every time I went to give a speech, I’d be ready for a fight,” Wojcies­zak says. “Now, when I give presentations, there’s none of that. Hospitals, doctors, insurance companies are all interested. The debate isn’t whether we should do it, it’s how: How to say sorry.”

He says some medical providers imagine that sorry will be a magic bullet—and patients won’t also want compensation. His experience suggests otherwise; in cases of real injury, particularly the sort that lead to lost wages and ongoing new medical expenses, he says an apology usually needs to be part of a larger financial package. What he believes can be prevented are patients seeking huge damages specifically to punish physicians. “When you trust a doctor with your care or the care of a loved one, and something goes wrong, and they shut down conversation, it drives people crazy. And the only way we have to punish them is with money,” he says.
More open communication can lessen the anger. “When doctors talk to patients, we become altruistic,” Wojcieszak says. “We want to know medicine is going to improve. Just the act of hearing someone say sorry, it takes the wind out of your sails. Hearing them say they screwed up is a game-changer.”

Even as some Massachusetts hospitals are working to improve communication in cases of adverse medical outcomes, many doctors in Massachusetts say they need better legal protections if they and their employers are going to adopt a Michigan-like approach. “Every sweet little old lady who walks into my office, I wonder if she’s the one who is out for money,” says Stephen Metz, a Springfield gynecologist who specializes in geriatric patients. Metz is also one of many Massachusetts physicians who says fear of lawsuits has fundamentally changed what it means to practice medicine—and, to his dismay, changed the way he looks at his patients.

“You start backing up, you start saying, this person looks like a problem, so I’ll distance myself,” says Metz, who has been sued five times since 1992. (Two cases were dropped, two were decided in his favor, and one is pending.) “You can’t talk to the patient once they’ve alleged something’s your fault,” he says, adding that his malpractice insurer bars him from talking to patients who have threatened—or even hinted—that they might sue him.

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Sean Curran, now in the Judiciary Committee, would allow doctors to apologize without it being treated as a legal admission of negligence. The bill would also build in a six month cooling-off period similar to Michigan’s. Curran, a Springfield Democrat, says his bill is intended to help hospitals in Massachusetts implement programs to achieve the kind of lawsuit reductions that the University of Michigan’s system has experienced.  

“We’ve got the best doctors in the country and the best lawyers, and there’s a friction between the two,” he says. “I think, in the end, the patient often loses out. We end up paying higher insurance rates and it’s making it more difficult for doctors to practice here.”
Curran believes that by allowing apologies, and requiring the six-month wait, patients can learn the specifics of their care and what might or might not have gone wrong. “A lot of times, if the victim were to hear, ‘I’m sorry,’ and parse out an agreement, this would avoid litigation,” says Curran. An attorney, he says his interest in the topic stems from having a large hospital, Baystate Medical Center, in his district, where, he says, “there’s tremendous fiction bet­ween hospitals and the bar. Doctors are terrified of lawsuits. We need to change that dynamic and let doctors practice medicine.”

Curran’s words speak to another potential benefit of adopting the Michigan approach: a decrease in the use of “defensive medicine,” which the Massachusetts Medical Society defines as “tests, procedures, referrals, hospitalizations, or prescriptions ordered by physicians out of the fear of being sued.” According to a 2008 report by the society, an advocacy group for physicians, defensive medicine adds an annual $1.4 billion to the state’s total health care bill.

Alan Woodward, an emergency room doctor who serves as vice chairman of the medical society’s committee on professional liability, says that, in his 30 years as a physician, medicine has become more test-obsessed because colleagues are so worried about lawsuits. “The mentality in the ER is you’re not going to see this person again. You can’t afford to miss anything,” he says. “I’ve never been sued, but I ran a couple of emergency departments and every time you see a physician sued, not only does that physician get more defensive but everyone does. It’s a shifting standard of care to the most conservative approach.”

While it’s difficult to measure directly whether reducing malpractice costs and opening up conversation—as Michi­gan has done—will reduce defensive medicine, many doctors think it could. “It’s hard for an individual to truly know whether she behaves differently because of fear of liability, but there’s literature suggesting it’s pervasive,” says Erin Tracy, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Massa­chusetts General Hospital in Boston. “We all feel vulnerable.”

Boothman, who designed the University of Michigan’s system, is quick to say that apology-protections and waiting periods alone are unlikely to change doctors’ behavior —either as far as reducing defensive medicine or fostering more open communication. Another key element to his program is harder to replicate statewide or through legislation: The university’s health system is self-insuring, meaning it sets its own malpractice policies. It also promises to protect its health care providers financially, making them more amenable to conversation than a doctor in a small practice might be.

“I have the luxury of telling our staff that we’ll protect them financially,” Boothman says. “You have to protect the people who go into the trenches and do inherently dangerous work with no guarantee. Everything is risky. If a doctor prescribes an antibiotic, they don’t know if you’ll be dead in an hour.”

He speculates that the self-insurance piece is one reason the program hasn’t spread on a grand scale, even in Michi­gan. He knows of one other medical system in Michigan that has adopted a similar program—Allegiance Hospital, in Jackson, Michigan—but says, “In general, there’s a lot of talk and a lot of interest, but not a lot of movement as far as I can see.”

Still, physician advocates like the Massachusetts Medical Society believe if the Bay State puts apology protections and a waiting period in place, hospitals will be more likely to adopt similar reforms.

But there’s opposition to the bill from the Massa­chu­setts legal community. Jeffrey Catalano is a lawyer who represents patients in malpractice cases and serves as vice president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. He notes that the state already has some apology protections in place —typically applied in auto-accident cases, to ensure that a driver who says “sorry” isn’t assumed to be at fault—but says he supports explicitly protecting doctors who want to apologize. Still, he fears language in Curran’s bill may make it harder for patients to make their case and get compensation. “It’s often a case that a patient has no idea what has happened to him or her, for example, if they were under anesthesia,” says Catalano. “It’s very frequent that medical records don’t tell you what happened. The doctor is the sole source of information. If a doctor can tell a patient what happened but not have that used in court, that’s unfair.”
Catalano also cites a report from the Administrative Office of the Trial Court showing the number of malpractice lawsuits in Massachusetts declined by 34 percent bet­ween 2000 and 2008—mirroring both the Univer­sity of Michigan and national trends. But Catalano doesn’t see that statistic as good news; he thinks patients with legitimate claims may not be seeking justice or compensation. “The problem is the obstacles to pursuing a lawsuit, which is largely that there is a lot of hostility toward patients who sue,” says Catalano.

Boothman says that he encountered significant opposition from attorneys in Michigan, but thinks that the years he spent in courtrooms—before working at the hospital—helped ease the tension between the legal and medical worlds in Ann Arbor. “I knew everyone and when I first got here, I told people on the plaintiff side, ‘Call me, we’ll do the right thing,’” he says. In a 2009 article for the Journal of Health & Life Sciences Law, Boothman reports the findings of a survey of local doctors and attorneys suggesting that both sides largely support the new approach. Some 98 percent of the system’s physicians “fully approved” of it, and while there was no identical question included of attorneys, 86 percent of lawyers “agreed that transparency allowed them to make better decisions about the claims they chose to pursue.”

Curran says his bill makes clear the difference between an expression of regret and an admission of wrongdoing. The latter would still be allowed in court. He says he is not optimistic about the bill’s chances this year. “Eventually, you’ll see some form of this bill passed in Massachusetts,” says Curran. “It makes a lot of sense.”

Probation location

Probation location

the battle rages over which branch of government will control probation—and its $150 million budget—in Massa­chusetts. But looking for help to see how other states do it offers little in the way of guidance.

According to the American Probation and Parole Asso­ciation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach or best-practices template to overseeing the people who oversee the criminals. Massachusetts is one of 11 states where the courts oversee probation. The majority have it under various agencies in the executive branch, while eight states place the burden on county government. Alabama, oddly, gives its legislature control of probation.

While the judiciary technically oversees probation in Massachusetts, it’s not quite that simple. Under now-suspended Commissioner of Probation John O’Brien, the agen­cy enjoyed an unusual degree of autonomy. Thanks to his friends in the Legislature, O’Brien controlled his own budget and could hire and fire employees with little interference.

Back in January, Gov. Deval Patrick filed a bill that would move probation into the executive branch and place it under the same agency that oversees parole. When media stories blew the cover off the patronage-laden system at probation, the question of who should oversee the agency moved to the front burner. The Legislature responded by creating a commission to recommend a course of action, with a report due later this year.

Patrick has said he’d be open to keeping probation in the courts but he says both probation and parole should be under the same branch for continuity, whatever the outcome. But, again, there is no universal model to go by. There are 35 states plus the District of Columbia that have both probation and parole under one branch of government, including all 31 where probation falls under the executive branch. The 11 states that place probation under the courts, including Massachusetts, all have parole under the executive branch.


Source:  American Probation and Parole Association

Teachers are not to blame

Teachers are not to blame

Tools that help teachers, not firings, are the key to education success

in the past few months, President Obama, Gov. Deval Patrick, and the press have practically made “education reform” synonymous with “firing teachers.”

The president praised a Rhode Island school superintendent for firing high school teachers. Patrick proposed legislation to make it easier for superintendents to dismiss teachers in underperforming schools. The US Department of Educa­tion requires that many of the schools eligible for school-improvement money dismiss half their teachers. Along similar lines, prominent supporters of education “reform” are pushing charter schools, merit pay, and school choice.

What all these so-called reform initiatives have in common is the assumption that teachers in low-performing schools have the tools they need to turn their schools around but, for some reason, are refusing to use them. We therefore need to use the carrot (merit pay) or the stick (losing their students via choice or to charter schools, embarrassing them by publicizing their students’ low MCAS scores, or firing them).  

This view—that the right incentives (positive or negative) will produce the necessary changes in teaching—may be a very common one, but there is no data to back it up. Indeed, a close look at MCAS results shows there is surprisingly little difference between the quality of teaching in so-called “good” schools (wealthy, suburban schools with high MCAS scores)and “bad” schools (inner-city schools with low scores) when the results are averaged across all teachers in the district and disaggregated by student demographics, specifically race and poverty. Put another way, a low-income white student in a “good” suburban school tests essentially the same as a low-income white student in a “bad” inner-city school.

The implications of this finding are enormous: It suggests that the policies we are pursuing are un­likely to make much of a difference, because they don’t address the real problem.

What’s the point of getting rid of half the teachers at an inner-city school if the ones who replace them also lack the necessary tools? Similarly, replacing a public school with a charter school won’t by itself make any difference; either way, teachers need help, not blame.
They need help not because they do a poor job of teaching, but because they work with very needy children.

Stress Ratios

My analysis is based on MCAS results by type of district (wealthy suburban, low-income urban, etc.) and by type of student (non-poor whites and Asians, low-income blacks and Hispanics, etc.) The analysis was done separately for English lan­guage arts and for math. The results were similar so the charts presented here focus on English results.

The measure of MCAS success is the proficiency index, created by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). The index runs from 0 to 100 with a higher score indicating a higher degree of proficiency on the test.

To understand more about the differences in MCAS performance between wealthy suburban districts and low-income urban districts, I divided Massachusetts school districts into four groups —wealthiest, medium wealth, medium low, and poorest. The schools are grouped by their stress ratios, where the stress ratio is the combined percent of students who are low-income, minorities (blacks and His­panics), and of limited English ability. Since these are counted separately, the stress ratio can be as high as 300 percent. Each group has roughly the same number of students.

The largest districts in each group are shown in Table 1. The wealthiest group consists of districts with a stress ratio less than 12.5 percent and includes Wachusetts Regional, Billerica, and Andover. The medium wealth group includes districts with stress ratios between 12.5 percent and 27 percent and its largest members are Newton, Lex­ington, and Bridgewater-Raynham. In the grand scheme of things, the wealthiest and medium wealth groups are not very different from each other.

The medium-low group includes districts with a stress ratio between 27 percent and 90 percent and its largest members are Plymouth, Quincy, and Taunton. The range in this group is very large; Plymouth at 27.1 percent is at one end of the spectrum and Chicopee, at 83.1 percent, is at the other.

The poorest group includes districts that have stress ratios greater than 90 percent. At 164 percent and 172 percent, respectively, Boston and Springfield are the largest two districts in this group. Almost all their students are either poor or minorities and half are both. The demographic challenge they face is far greater than any of the districts in the wealthiest two groups.

Chart 1 shows average scores for each group of districts; these are three-year averages of English scores in all grades. The chart appears to confirm (but only at first glance) the popular view that poor teaching in urban schools is a real problem. The wealthier districts score well—the proficiency index is around 90—and the poorest districts—at 74— do not.

To understand what’s really going on, we’ll need to look at the demographics of students in each group. Chart 2 shows statewide average scores for five demographic groups. Whites (and Asians) who are not poor and who speak English have the strongest results (89.2). Blacks and Hispanics with the same economic and language background—that is, who are similarly non-poor and speak English—score less well, by about 8 points (81.3). Blacks and Hispanics who speak English, but who are also poor, score lower still—by another 8 points (73.8). Finally, blacks and Hispanics who are low-income and do not speak fluent English have the lowest scores of all (52.8).

As Chart 2 makes clear, low-income, minority status, and limited English proficiency are each separate factors impacting student performance. That is why the stress ratio counts them each separately and why students are broken out into these five separate groups.
Students in these five groups are, of course, not distributed uniformly across the four groups of school districts. The demographic breakdown of the state as a whole and of each of the district groups is shown in Chart 3.

The first two columns of the chart show that the difference between the two wealthiest groups is relatively small. The demographic composition of the medium-low group is very close to that of the state as a whole. And, most important, the demographic make-up of the large urban districts is very different from the other three groups. Given the limited language skills, vocabulary, and general knowledge all too many youngsters from minority and low-income homes bring with them to school, the challenges the urban districts face are far, far greater than most people realize.

Chart 4 shows MCAS results broken down by student demographics and by the four groupings of districts. What it shows is that the differences across the four groupings of districts—the different colored bars within each section of the chart—are far smaller than the differences across student types—that is, from one group of bars to the next. Put simply, average student results depend much more on student demography than district type.

 
 
 

Consider low-income white students, the second section of the chart. There is almost no difference between the scores of these students in the wealthiest districts (82.8) and in the poorest districts (77.5). Put another way, teaching quality is pretty much the same in the suburbs as in the inner city.

The differences between district groups are somewhat greater with non-poor blacks and Hispanics (from a high of 88.0 in the wealthiest districts to 78.3 in the poorer districts). This isn’t surprising: For starters, there’s much more variation among non-poor students, who run from children of college professors to children of blue-collar workers. Also, the decision about where to live (or whether to send children to suburban districts via the METCO program) undoubtedly reflects differences in parent education and motivation that are not captured by income data alone but that nonetheless have a big impact on student performance. Finally, the difference in classroom peers (there are a lot more favorable role models in suburban than urban schools) must also influence student performance. Although the MCAS data alone don’t allow us to quantify and measure these factors, it seems fair to say that if they could be taken into account, there’d be basically no difference in average teaching quality across district types.

Another way to look at this data is that the scores of non-poor whites in the inner-city districts are higher than the scores of low-income students—white or black—in the wealthiest suburbs.

One way to summarize all this information is to calculate what the scores would be in each district group if the composition of their student body were the same as the state average. In this calculation, for example, the wealthiest districts are still credited with an average score of 82.8 for their low-income white (and Asian) students, but this is applied to 12 percent of the students (the state average for this group) instead of 4 percent (the actual percentage in the group).

This works in reverse for the urban districts. Their score of 77.6 for non-poor whites is applied to 66 percent of their students (the state average) and not 18 percent.

The results of these calculations are shown in Chart 5. The red bars are the same as in Chart 1, showing actual scores for each district type. The blue bars show what the overall average scores for each district type would be if they all had the same demography.

The overall proficiency index in English for the wealthiest two groups would have been 88.9 and 87.1, respectively, instead of the 92.6 and 89.8 they actually scored. And the index for the poorest districts would have been 82.3, not 73.4. Put another way, there’s a 19-point difference in actual scores, but this would have been only 6.5 points if they all had the same demographics. Essentially, two-thirds of the difference between average scores in the wealthiest districts and the poorest can be explained by demographics alone. As pointed out earlier, much of the rest could be the result of differences in parental motivation and education and also in classroom peer groups.

In both wealthy districts and urban districts, there are stronger teachers and weaker ones. Some of the differences between individual students are undoubtedly the result of these differences in teacher ability. The point here is that the difference in average scores across districts as a whole have far more to do with differences in demographics than differences in teacher quality.

Imagine what would happen if all the teachers in, say, Wellesley and Lowell, were to switch places. There would still be stronger and weaker teachers in each district. But the strong suggestion from the data is that there would be very little difference in average student outcomes—in either district.

Better tools needed

Far from minimizing the importance of good teaching, these findings underscore the importance of helping teachers learn the pedagogies that can move their students forward. Whether they are in Weston and Lexington, on the one hand, or in Holyoke and Lawrence, on the other, the vast majority of teachers do not have the tools necessary to meet the needs of low-income and minority students. As we’ve seen, scores of low-income black and Hispanic students in wealthy districts are far lower than scores of non-poor whites in those districts—and only barely higher than the scores of low-income minority students in the inner cities. The need for this kind of help is particularly important in the inner-city schools not because teachers there are somehow poorer teachers or care less, but simply because so many of their students are so very needy.

The problem with today’s popular remedies—like merit pay, charter schools, and firing teachers—is that they are about carrots and sticks, not about giving teachers better tools to meet student needs.  

 
 
 

These results absolutely do not mean that children from disadvantaged homes are incapable of performing at high levels. We know from countless examples around the country that, when teachers are properly prepared, students can perform at high levels.

One example of this is the Bay State Reading Institute, which I chair. The institute has been working with Massa­chusetts elementary schools since 2006, training teachers to use data to guide instruction, use research-based pedagogy, individualize instruction to teach each child at her level, help children think critically about what they read, and help principals provide extra help to struggling readers and to be effective education leaders of their schools.

The institute has extensive data on 282 first graders in the six schools that began working with us in the fall of 2006. Of the 282 students, 48 percent are low-income and 29 percent are minorities. The students were assessed three times each year in oral reading fluency and took the MCAS exam as third graders in the spring of 2009.

In the fall of their first grade year—the first year of their schools’ partnership with the institute—just over a quarter of first-grade students were at high risk (red) in fluency (Chart 6). Two years and eight months later—at the end of third grade—57 percent of those high-risk students were at benchmark (green) in oral reading fluency. Of the 45 students who rose from red to green,  71 percent were low-income, minorities, or both. This is a very hopeful message—good teaching was able to erase the fluency deficit for over half of these first-graders!

Interestingly enough, the same is not true for students at the beginning of second grade. Because of the gains made in first grade, a year later only 14 percent of these same students were still at high risk as the cohort entered second grade. However, very few—only 18 percent—of these high-risk second graders were able to achieve satisfactory reading fluency by the end of third grade. What this means is that you can’t help low-performing students become successful readers unless you start in first grade.

Fluency is an important—but not the only—factor in predicting successful reading comprehension. Chart 7 looks at the inter-relationship between reading fluency and comprehension. None of the students who remained at high risk in reading fluency at the end of third grade were proficient or advanced on the MCAS exam given that same spring. By contrast, 51 percent of the students who were at high risk at the beginning of first grade and whose fluency moved up to green during the intervening three years were proficient on the MCAS.

It is instructive to compare the students whose fluency increased from the start of first grade to the end of third grade with those who were in the green all along. Of the latter group, fully 75 percent were proficient on the MCAS. That is, the earlier a student reaches proficiency in reading fluency, the greater her chances of success on the MCAS. Statistics alone can’t tell us why this is the case, but the most likely explanation is that success in reading comprehension is as much about vocabulary and general student knowledge as it is about the mechanics of reading. And the sooner a student becomes a fluent reader, the more time he has to use his reading skills to build vocabulary.

There is no doubt, then, that improved reading fluency leads to improved comprehension, and that strong instruction during the primary grades can make a huge difference in the reading success of children who come to school poorly prepared.

There’s a very important lesson here—school turnaround cannot be accomplished in a year or two, and re­quires the cooperation of teachers over several grade levels.

Most of the policies currently in place are unlikely to make much of an impact on student performance. If virtually all teachers lack the training and tools necessary to address the needs of low-income and minority students, firing one group of teachers and replacing them with others who are similarly unprepared will not make any difference.

Concluding from raw test scores that inner-city teachers are somehow “bad” teachers and teachers in suburban schools are “good” is grossly unfair to teachers in urban schools, the vast majority of whom work very hard and care deeply about their students. Worse, insulting teachers (unfairly) is no way to motivate them to change.

For sure, teachers in urban schools need help. But they need help not because they are poor teachers, but because of the great challenges they face.

Merit pay—particularly individual teacher merit pay —is unlikely to work. This is because the underlying problem is not teachers’ motivation, but rather their lack of training. Offering them more money to do what they don’t know how to do is a recipe for frustration, not for success.

School turnaround cannot be done quickly or on the cheap. It requires a long-term partnership over several years. This would mean concentrating enough money on any given school  to make a difference, rather than spreading literacy funds across hundreds of small grants unlikely, by themselves, to make a lasting difference.

Because success takes several years, too much emphasis on short-term changes in MCAS results may backfire, since it diverts attention from the long-term changes necessary for success.

Gov. Patrick set out to be the “education governor.” Given the budget choices he’s made—consistently favoring education over other areas of state government—there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. But he—or his successor—is unlikely to succeed if he continues to base his policies on a fundamentally flawed understanding of what is holding schools back.  

Edward Moscovitch is president of Cape Ann Economics and chairman of the Bay State Reading Institute.

Eating up deficits

Eating up deficits

with depleted coffers forcing belt-tightening at all levels of government, it would make sense that officials, especially at the local level, would grab onto any chance to pick up a few more pennies to avoid service cuts.

But like their Beacon Hill counterparts, many municipal officials are leery of any additional tax, particularly if it puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

According to the Department of Revenue, only 108 of the state’s 352 communities have adopted the .75 percent local option surcharge on the state meals tax approved by the Legislature a year ago. According to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, at least 10 other municipalities have flatly rejected the surcharge. The remainder have either taken no action or, perhaps, quietly considered it and then thought better of asking their residents and visitors to pony up an extra 7.5 cents when purchasing a $10 pizza.

The early adopters are concentrated in Greater Boston and areas of Cape Cod and western Massachusetts. Boston stands to gain the most from the surcharge, an extra $11.3 million over the course of a full year, while Cam­bridge will net $1.9 million, Worcester $1.2 million, and Nan­tucket $494,000. DOR officials estimate the surcharge could generate $57.6 million a year if all cities and towns adopt it.

Not everyone sees the need. Tiny suburbs such as West­on, Sudbury, and Lincoln have made no move to adopt it, while other towns such as Reading and Randolph opted not to go after the money.

Foxborough officials, with Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place accounting for a good portion of the estimated $305,000 the town could generate from the surcharge, declined to approve the local option, fearing it would drive diners to adjacent towns without the tax. Town Meeting members in Plymouth approved levying the surcharge in an attempt to pull in $427,000, but the issue was subsequently placed on the ballot where voters rejected it during the special election in January.

The next deadline for cities and towns to adopt the tax is Aug. 31.


Source:  Massachusetts Department of Revenue and Massachusetts Municipal Association

Identity politics

Identity politics

In the race for governor, candidates draw on

long-established traditions in Bay State politics

to understand the forces shaping the 2010 election for governor, head back to 1965, specifically, to Edgar Litt’s book The Political Cultures of Massa­chusetts.

What Litt put forth is an enduring typology of political groups that inhabit our electoral system: patricians, workers, managers, and yeomen. These species are still potent in 21st century Massa­chu­setts politics.

Litt’s patricians are descendants of the Puritans. John Winthrop famously called for Massachusetts to be a “city upon a hill;” the context of the speech, though, was an entreaty to extend Christian care to all community members. That willingness to see Massachusetts as a “commonwealth” lives on. Patricians are liberal on civil rights and civil liberties, though conservative on spending. They are the historical backbone of the state’s Republican Party. At the time Litt wrote, the patricians’ power had been declining for some time.

The group that dislodged patrician supremacy was the workers, including immigrant groups and especially the Irish. The workers lived in (but many have now fled) the cities, are Democratic and Cath­olic, and lower-to-middle class. Workers orient toward New Deal-style programs, though they are increasingly suspicious of social welfare spending, and are conservative on civil rights and civil liberties. Political patronage might not quite rise to a sacrament, but is considered the way the system works. Even in 1965 the workers’ political power was contracting.

Real power, rising then and foremost now, is with the managers. Managers prize rationality, merit, and efficiency.  They are middle-to-upper-middle class suburban professionals. Managers lean Democratic but have weak party ties, and are liberal on civil rights and civil liberties. They are egalitarian and willing to see government assist the less well off, but they want to know their tax dollars are being well spent.

Litt’s yeomen were small town Yankee Prot­es­tants of the lower and working classes, and small businessmen. They were parochial and opposed to government action across the board, suspicious of bigness whether in government, corporations, unions, or media.  Yeomen were thought to be dying out—but not so fast. In the 21st century their isolation is not in small towns but is a trait of a disconnected culture Robert Putnam wrote about in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. They tune into conservative talk radio. You find a yeomen at a Tea Party rally clutching a sign that says, “Keep your govern­ment hands off my Medi­care.”

What does this all mean for 2010? Let’s see how the cultural types battle it out in the race for governor.

As hard as it may be to fathom today, for most of Massachusetts history the Democrats were the out party. But as Irish (and other immigrant group) numbers grew, the newcomers upended genteel patrician procedures in favor of a style occasionally less attuned to ethical niceties. Democratic Party politics became a system of relationships, rewards, and revenge; it sometimes veered into corruption.

Along came a young suburban reformer named Michael Dukakis, who captured the party and the governor’s office in 1974. Dukakis entranced managers seeking rational administration but turned the hearts of the Irish regulars to stone. As Richard Gaines and Michael Segal reported in Dukakis and the Reform Impulse, party bosses schemed to depose Dukakis in the next Democratic primary: “Everything else will be subplot,” they quoted a legislative leader as saying, “but that’s the plot.” The conspirators succeeded, but Dukakis came roaring back in 1982 to recapture the Corner Office. Since then, reformers and regulars have battled for the upper hand in the Democratic Party.
Like Dukakis, Patrick has adjusted his style.
Deval Patrick has consolidated power in the party, giving the more conservative Tim Cahill little running room and snuffing out Grace Ross on the left. The governor resides in the communitarian tradition, using government to help the vulnerable. Workers are not always happy with him, though union leadership is strongly Democratic. Like the second-term Mike Dukakis, Patrick has accommodated his rational, managerial style to the realities of Bay State politics—sometimes painfully so. His clumsy efforts to reward state Sen. Marian Walsh with a high-paid sinecure grated at his managerial base. In 2006, when attacked as a “tax-and-spend” Democrat, he adroitly married the managers’ social welfare liberalism with their concern for their own wallets. “It is [the people’s] money,” he declared, “but it’s also their broken road. And it’s their over-crowded school. It’s their broken neighborhood and broken neighbor.”

While Democratic gubernatorial nominees have become managerial, there remains lots of room for the “go-along-to-get-along” style in the Legislature. The recent scandal over pay-for-play patronage in the Probation Department is one example. Three criminally charged members in one term of the Senate and three consecutive indicted House speakers have provided ample ammunition to critics of Beacon Hill.

Republican gubernatorial aspirants prospered for 16 years by providing a managerial alternative to Demo­cratic shenanigans. Bill Weld offered a patrician tolerance on social issues, and managerial probity on fiscal matters. As the descendant of Yankee aristocracy, he even provided a link to the Puritans. Mitt Romney won office by railing against the “gang of three”—the House speaker, Senate president, and governor—who would lord over an overtaxed citizenry if Democrat Shannon O’Brien should prevail. Romney’s resume as a successful businessman and savior of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games was catnip to managers who saw him as just the man to purge patronage and uphold bureaucratic efficiency.

One advantage Republicans have is the widespread appeal of lower taxes. “I trust you to spend your money more wisely than the government” is a popular appeal, and Charlie Baker takes full advantage. Like Romney, Baker can claim a strong managerial background with his success in turning around Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Baker’s censures of Patrick are not so much opposed to social welfare programs as to bad management. For example, when Patrick recently announced up to $800 million in potential budget cuts, the Boston Globe’s characterization of Baker’s critique was that what is needed is “a prudent budget that would better protect the most vulnerable.”

The third major candidate, Tim Cahill, is trying to hit a worker/yeoman parlay. In times past, he might have been an insurgent against Democratic reformers, in the mode of Ed King in 1978 or John Silber in 1990. But Patrick has commandeered the Democratic machine, and with no room there Cahill is running as an independent. He brings some baggage to the race. Cahill has suspended Probation Commissioner John O’Brien’s wife and daughter on his payroll, and he responded to the Probation Department scandal by remarking that patronage is “part of the political process.” That remark could only have infuriated managers, and his comment that he couldn’t offer suggestions for cutting the state budget because he lacks insight into the financial process was positively malware to the managers’ Excel programs.

Yet Cahill has strengths with workers and yeomen. His heritage and tack to the right give him a leg up with white, ethnic Catholics estranged from the Democratic Party. There are still a lot of voters in this state who like the idea of a pol that can get their kid a summer job, and Cahill might be their answer. Tea Party yeomen wearing T-shirts that say “Let me keep my wealth—redistribute my work ethic” are a likely target. According to a Rasmussen poll released in late June, 15 percent of Massachusetts voters consider themselves to be part of the Tea Party movement.

Scott Brown found a ready fandom on conservative talk radio and even sports talk radio. Years ago, when Celtics coach Rick Pitino was undergoing bitter disparagement from callers to sports radio shows, he lashed back, dubbing them “the fellowship of the miserable.” Unhappy they may be, but also politically potent. Brown won rebellious working class voters—another positive for Cahill.

So here’s what voters have to choose from: a communitarian alert to managers’ concerns (Patrick); a manager who concedes a role for government action (Baker); and an independent who criticizes government for doing too much, with workers and yeomen in his sights (Cahill).  The winner of this year’s race for governor will be the candidate who builds a winning coalition from Litt’s political cultures.  

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

About-face

About-face

Diane Ravitch's change of heart on testing and charter schools

The Death and Life of The Great American School System:
How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

By Diane Ravitch
New York, Basic Books, 283 pages

diane ravitch is the preeminent historian of American public education. For decades she has played Cassandra, challenging the received wisdom and questioning trendy notions of what does and doesn’t help young people learn. Her willingness to resist fads and question the cant too often generated by educational elites—particularly schools of education—has earned her a reputation as a courageous and thoughtful maverick.

Although a lifelong Democrat, she served in the Bush I administration as Assistant Secretary of Education. In that capacity, she became one of the nation’s fiercest champions of standards measured by testing and of choice in education through charter schools.

In The Death and Life of The Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Under­mining Education, she announces an about-face, abandoning her support for charter schools and criticizing the use of testing in many public schools. Was this apostasy, as some of her erstwhile allies would have it? Or, as Ravitch claims, was she acting in the intellectually honest tradition of John May-n­ard Keynes who, when accused of flip-flopping on monetary policy during the Great De­pres­sion, replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

To try to find out for myself, I went to the Boston Teachers Union headquarters in early April to hear Ravitch speak about her new book. The atmosphere reminded me of a political rally. The teachers were energized by Ravitch’s opposition to charter schools and to evaluating teachers based on student test scores. She was welcomed as the prodigal daughter returning to her senses.

Ravitch skillfully played to the crowd, including attacks on President Obama for uncritically adopting Republican orthodoxy on education policy generally and, in particular, for praising the mass firing of the teachers in Central Falls, Rhode Island. When she concluded her remarks, Ravitch received a standing ovation. A long line of teachers snaked around the room to purchase her book. I bought one, too.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System makes a number of important contributions to our understanding of what is going on in K-12 public education. Ravitch makes a convincing case about the positive role teachers’ unions play in protecting teachers’ dignity and their freedom of speech. She also provides a trenchant criticism of the influence that large private foundations are exerting to shape education policy. But such matters are tangential to the core issues that Ravitch’s book is meant to answer: how she came to reverse her position on testing and charter schools.

With regard to these issues, the book is considerably more nuanced than her remarks at the teachers’ union hall. In print, Ravitch heaps accolades on Massachusetts, praising our high standards and achievement, and repeatedly citing the Com­monwealth as the rule-proving exception to the underperformance of public schools in other states. Accordingly, it is questionable how much of her critique of American education is applicable to Massachusetts.

Ravitch dates contemporary education reform to 1983 and the publication of the federal report A Nation at Risk, with its insistence on a rich curriculum with commensurate standards. To her, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act passed nearly two decades later degraded and deformed A Nation at Risk, while often borrowing its language. For Ravitch, NCLB was doubly flawed at its core: First, it failed to appropriate the funds which would be needed to support our schools’ great leap forward. Secondly, she writes, NCLB “required the states to set their own standards and to grade their own progress. This led…to confusion about standards with 50 standards for 50 states.”

It was also an invitation to game the system. Mississippi is the poster child for this practice, self-reporting that 80 percent of its students are proficient in math and English. When the same students take the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), fewer than 20 percent achieve proficiency. Ravitch advises, “In a choice between the state’s self-appointed scores and [NAEP], the public should trust [NAEP].”

For Ravitch, Massachusetts stands apart from the empty standards and grade inflation practiced by many states under NCLB: “Most state standards were windy rhetoric, devoid of concrete descriptions of what students should be expected to know…One exception was Massa­chusetts, which produced stellar standards in every subject.”

She is equally complimentary of the Commonwealth’s curriculum, calling us “[o]ne of the few states with excellent curriculum in every subject.” Ravitch goes on to note that “students in Massachusetts have the highest academic performance in the nation on the NAEP and rank near the top when compared to their peers in other nations,” as measured by the TIMMS international assessment.

It is telling that she relies on standardized test results to demonstrate Massachusetts’ primacy in educational achievement. Those who are reflexively antipathetic to any form or objective measurement of student performance find no friend in Diane Ravitch:

“The information delivered from tests can be extremely valuable if the tests are valid and reliable. The results can show students what they have learned, what they have not learned and where they need to improve. They can tell parents how their children are doing compared to others of their age and grade… They can inform educational leaders and policy makers about the progress of the educational system as a whole.”

According to Ravitch, NCLB has not encouraged an intelligent use of assessments based on a robust curriculum. Instead, the federal law too often reduces testing in the states to a drill-and-kill exercise in math and English, while crowding out instructional time for other subjects. It is less than clear where Ravitch stands with regard to our assessment system, MCAS, because she does not explicitly address it. Nonetheless, given her generous praise for our curriculum and education outcomes, it is hard for me to imagine how she could logically condemn the way we measure the results.

What is clear is Ravitch’s insistence that tests not be the exclusive basis for evaluating teachers. Ravitch observes that test developers are quick to caution against using their products for purposes for which they are not designed and student assessments are not designed to measure teacher effectiveness. Clearly, many variables affect student performance from year to year, but to me Ravitch goes too far with her insistence that factors other than student performance provide most of the basis for teacher reviews. Tests may be an imperfect means of measuring an educator’s performance, but how can we abide a teacher, school, or district that fails year after year to educate the children entrusted to them?
Why should poor kids be the only ones denied a choice in education?
This is not to celebrate the collective punishment (later withdrawn) meted out to the Central Falls teachers, some of whose only sin may have been to try to teach poor kids. At the same time, it is not enough for Ravitch to identify a problem without offering a solution. In practice, I fear that refusal to evaluate teachers based on their students’ performance—over time—tends to default to laissez-faire acceptance of the status quo.

Ravitch said something at the Boston Teachers Union hall that reinforced my concern. When asked what it would take to make equal educational opportunity a reality, she replied, “Income equality.” Income equality may well be a consummation devoutly to be wished, but if this is the precondition to fundamental reform of public education, our great-grandchildren will still be awaiting real change when they send their kids to school.

While Ravitch’s critique of some of the misuse of tests in some states under NCLB is withering, and at times, spot on, her failure to identify a politically viable and intellectually realistic alternative marks the absent center of her analysis.

With regard to charter schools, Ravitch writes that she initially came to support them when she asked herself a question she couldn’t answer: “Since affluent families could choose their schools by moving to a better neighborhood or enrolling their children in private schools, why shouldn’t poor families have similar choices?”

But Ravitch has grown disillusioned with charter schools because she believes they would create “a two-tiered system of widening inequality.” She sees motivated poor students deserting the regular public schools for charters, leaving the traditional system with a population of largely unmotivated poor pupils.

Whether this specter has come to pass in school districts like New Orleans (where a majority of the students are in charters) or in Washington, DC (one-third in charters), I do not know. But we are a long way from this threat being realized in Massachusetts (3 percent in charters) or even Boston (9 percent).

Ravitch’s worry about charters is based on her experience chronicling the history of American public education: “If there is one consistent lesson that one gleans by studying school reform over the past century, it is the danger of taking a good idea and expanding it rapidly, spreading it thin.”

Ravitch has real authority on this score, given her lengthy career debunking trendy but ineffectual teaching approaches. With regard to charters, however, the most her warning counsels is prudent restraint in expanding the number of charters granted. As it happens, admittedly as a function of politics and not conscious policy, the cautious path has been followed in Massachusetts.

There remains a principled reason to reject Ravitch’s rationale for opposing charters, and it goes back to the question that prompted her support of them in the first place. Why should poor kids be the only ones denied choice in education?

Ravitch well describes the way privileged families “make sure to enroll their children in schools that have small class sizes, a broad curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences, well-educated teachers and well-maintained facilities.”

It would be politically unthinkable to broach depriving upper class parents of this freedom of choice even if their children’s departure from the regular, neighborhood school would disadvantage the unmotivated poor kids remaining behind. How can we, then, justify holding only poor kids hostage in schools they would prefer to leave? Until Ravitch answers that question, the modicum of options charter schools provide kids whose parents can’t afford to buy school choice is for me reason enough to support their continuation.

With her willingness to stand against accepted wisdom, Ravitch remains a strong and important voice in the ongoing education policy debate. But with the zeal of a new convert, she goes too far in her opposition to charters and testing, threatening some of the reform principles she previously did so much to advance.  

Tom Birmingham is senior counsel at Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge. He is a former president of the Massachusetts Senate and was co-author of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.

Correspondence

Leave Prop 21/2 alone

From all I hear, Jay Ash is an excellent city manager, and we appreciate his kind words about Proposition 2½ and his concern for its continued viability. I hope he will appreciate the response here of the organization that created it, which I think reflects the opinion of the voters who voted for it in 1980 and the even larger number who would vote for it today: Leave Prop 2½ alone!

Jay (“Tax cap courts tra­g­edy,” Spring ’10) complains that “inflation has outpaced the 2.5 percent property tax allowance,” which is accurate but meaningless considering that the 2.5 percent allowance has been increased by new growth. New growth state­wide has more than doubled the allowance, easily keeping pace for most of the past 30 years with inflation. The community also gets fees and local aid to spend. If it wants more, it can ask voters for an override. If they are presently uninterested, it’s because many of them are in revolt against government excess.

The ballot question couldn’t tell mayors, city managers, and selectmen not to give in to the public employee unions. When all that local aid was available, much of it went to creating “fixed costs” that are now becoming unaffordable. There’s a big problem with spending and unfunded liabilities, but there’s nothing wrong with Massachusetts that higher property taxes would fix.

Barbara Anderson
Executive Director, Citizens for Limited Taxation
Marblehead

Nursing homes aren’t movies

Evaluating a nursing home for a parent or grandparent isn’t as easy as choosing where to eat or what movie to see.  While the federal government’s Nursing Home Compare website is a tool that consumers can use to get basic information on health inspection results, staffing, and whether the facility meets certain quality standards, it is no substitute for visiting a facility and talking with residents, families, and staff.

Unfortunately, in your recent article about nursing homes (“Mis­diag­no­sis,” Spring ’10), it doesn’t appear that your reporter ever left her computer screen to visit any Massachu­setts nursing homes.  If she had, she might not have taken such a negative view of the state’s 430 nursing facilities or suggested that the only reason that they score so highly on the federal web­site is because of some kind of  “grade inflation.” Couldn’t it simply be that Massachusetts nursing homes have higher staffing levels and better quality-of-care scores compared to other states, as noted by the state’s chief nursing home regulator?

Consider the following: In a new independent survey of 20,000 family members conducted by Market Deci­sions and the Rutgers University Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, nine out of 10 family members said they would recommend their loved one’s nursing home to others. The primary reasons families cited were nursing facility staff and the physical environment of the nursing home.

Or consider this: More than 85 percent of nursing home residents are now referred directly by hospitals. Because of the care they receive in nursing homes, more than half are able to return to their own homes within a month.

The remarkable thing is that nursing homes are able to achieve these results despite the lack of adequate financing. Today, nearly 7 in 10 of the state’s 45,000 nursing home residents rely on the state Medicaid program to pay for their care. Medicaid funding for nursing home care has not in­creased in the past two years, and payments are now well below the actual cost of care.

The nursing home community continues to strive to provide high quality, compassionate care, but it needs the support of its largest payer—the state. Without that support, we won’t need to look at a federal website to figure out if nursing home care is good or not. We’ll see the effects all around us.?

Abraham E. Morse
President, Massachusetts Senior Care Association?
Newton Lower Falls

Gambling article evenhanded

I commend CommonWealth for the evenhanded article by Alison Lobron describing the inconclusive effect of casinos on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, after one year (“Ka-ching!” Spring ’10). We need more reports like hers.

I am an opponent of increasing the availability of gambling in Massa­chusetts because I believe the long-term costs (increases in addictions of all kinds, crime, suicides, recidivism, bankruptcy, and domestic violence) will eventually outweigh the short-term benefits (jobs).

I acknowledge opponents tend to maximize costs and minimize benefits. Proponents do the opposite. That’s why we need an independent cost-benefit analysis, which is supported?by Gov. Deval Patrick but not?supported by House Speaker Robert DeLeo.?DeLeo did not even bother to have public hearings. A market study of potential jobs, provided by the speaker,?is a benefit analysis, not a cost-benefit analysis.

Tom Larkin
Bedford

Gambling article not up to standards

As a reader of CommonWealth magazine since its inception, I found the Spring cover story on the Bethlehem, Penn­syl­vania, casino well beneath its usual standard.

Historically, CommonWealth has been an important source of information for opinion leaders and concerned citizens across the state, and its writers are among the best. It built its reputation on well-researched, data-driven journalism, yet its recent casino piece, timed to release on the eve of the House debate to maximize its reach, represents the total opposite of that tradition. In eyebrow-raising fashion, it based much of its analysis on just a handful of in­terviews, three of which were major boosters of the Bethlehem casino project from the outset.

A typical CommonWealth investigation would have in­cluded a stop at the widely advertised Pennsylvania Gam­ing Congress held in February, where the state’s casino operators like Parx Casino President Dave Jonas candidly spoke about how their business really operates. Jonas said his revenue comes almost exclusively from local low rollers “who give us $30 five times a week,” 150 to 200 times a year, and tend to live within 20 miles of the casino. He said it didn’t take much to lure them, beyond proximity, free valet parking, and $50 comps. “If you live 15 minutes away, you really don’t need a room,” Jonas said. “They come in, grab a hot dog or maybe a chicken sandwich, gamble three hours, then go home and sleep in their own bed.” This reality best explains why Sands Bethlehem opened its casino and did not build the hotel it promised during the approval process.

Typical CommonWealth coverage would have referenced the Lehigh Val­ley Research Consortium survey re­leased in March that showed a whopping 48 percent of those below the poverty line in the Bethlehem area said they intended to frequent the casino compared with 20 percent of those making more than $100,000.

Typical CommonWealth coverage would have looked at the research findings of Natasha Schull, associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, who has prom­inently testified that the electronic gambling machines at Sands Bethlehem and elsewhere are designed to get every user “to play to extinction’’ —until all their money is gone—by using technology that has been labeled a “high-tech version of loaded dice.’’ While CommonWealth used a picture of a slot machine on the magazine’s cover, it included not one reference to the design and technology behind the machines within the story.

Typical CommonWealth coverage would have pointed out the Lehigh Valley Express-Times report in late Feb­ruary that Las Vegas Sands wants to sell its Bethlehem slots parlor because the company is disappointed in the facility’s financial returns.
There are many people across Massa­chusetts who talk about casinos yet know virtually nothing about the casino business model, its “products and services,” and why it is the most predatory business in America today. Regret­fully, after reading Common­Wealth’s most recent story, that still remains true.

Les Bernal
Executive Director,
Stop Predatory Gambling
Lawrence

Bad judgment at archives

Thank you for taking on the Massa­chu­setts Archives’ poor treatment of the state’s valuable documents (“Hid­den Treasure,” Spring ’10). When the new “fortress” was built at Columbia Point, those in charge showed bad judgment in not allocating funds for proper, safe displays. Their overreaction to the 1984 burglary of the Bay Colony’s Charter—an inexcusable loss—was simply to put everything in vaults.

Not only does the state of Massa­chusetts own a full set of Audubon’s The Birds of America, but also the original watercolors for the three-volume (93 plates) Birds of Massa­chusetts by Edward Howe Forbush. In the early 1980s, as staff for Sen. Chester Atkins, then-chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, I talked the curator into putting the Forbush watercolors on exhibit, launching the show with the customary white wine and brie. They have probably never been seen since.

The author’s interviews with other states’ curators make it clear that more than money is needed to get the Massa­­chu­setts Archives staff to allow the public to see the wealth of materials in our state’s possession.

Deborah Stark Ecker
Chatham

Filling the cracks

The news business is changing so quickly that sometimes you have to stop and take stock. Shawn Zeller did just that in his Washington Notebook report for this issue, and what he found was discouraging.

Zeller discovered that over the last five years every Bay State newspaper except the Boston Globe has pulled its reporters out of the nation’s capital. The Globe continues to cover Washington, but its bureau there is only two-thirds of its original size.

Stories like this are becoming all too familiar as newspapers struggle to remain afloat. There are fewer local reporters in Washington, but there are also fewer at the State House and fewer overall. It’s the type of attrition that you barely notice, and that’s what’s really scary about it. News coverage is disappearing and, unless you’re paying close attention, you don’t even know what’s missing.

My biggest concern is for the watchdog role the press plays. I remember a meeting of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center last year. The center’s board voted to hand out $25 million in tax credits to 28 companies, with more than half of the tax breaks going to three very profitable firms. It was a revealing look at the use of taxpayer funds, yet I was the only reporter in the room.

CommonWealth, along with a handful of other nonprofit entities like the Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University and Professor Walter Robinson’s investigative reporting collaborations at Northeastern Univ­er­sity, is filling some of the growing cracks in news coverage.

We’ve had some early successes. Jack Sullivan reported last year on how the concrete ties supporting South Shore commuter railroad lines were falling apart prematurely (“Back Tracking,” CW, Summer ’09). The MBTA, which owns the lines, minimized the problem initially but this year was forced to admit that the crumbling railroad ties were a safety concern. The T now plans to replace every one of the concrete ties at a cost of more than $90 million.

Last year, as a result of our coverage of state tax credits, Gov. Deval Patrick included a provision in his budget proposal that would have required state agencies to identify tax credit recipients and disclose the number of jobs they create. The Patrick proposal stalled last year, with the Senate balking at its disclosure requirements. But in May the Senate changed course. Greater transparency in the issuance of tax credits now seems likely.

Our online magazine this year reported on patronage at the state’s probation department (we were the first to report that Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien’s daughter was working there) and the tug of war for control of the agency between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The Globe’s Spotlight Team in May weighed in with a devastating two-part series on the agency that prompted the Supreme Judicial Court to put O’Brien on paid leave and bring in a special counsel to investigate the agency.

This issue of the magazine continues to explore issues receiving scant attention elsewhere. Sullivan spent more than two months investigating one of the chief causes of health care inflation—the exploding use of medical imaging tests like MRIs and CT scans. He concludes that many of the tools at the state’s disposal for reducing health care costs are not being used effectively.

Last fall, Michael Jonas reported on a growing body of research suggesting that there are substantial differences among teachers in their ability to drive student learning (“Teacher Test,” CW, Fall ’09). That research is fueling calls for the firing of some teachers and dramatic changes in the way the rest are evaluated. In this issue, economist Ed Moscovitch, relying on his own research, suggests teachers are being scapegoated to explain differences in achievement that are mostly a function of student demographics. He says that if the teachers in Wellesley and Lowell switched places there would be very little difference in student outcomes in either district.

Going beneath the headlines. Exploring alternative viewpoints. This is what we do at CommonWealth. Good journalism illuminates important issues and can be a powerful force for change. Happy beach reading.