July 31, 2006

The Art of Spin

spin -- "a usually pejorative term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one's own favor of an event or situation. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, 'spin' often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics."

That's from Wikipedia. And, here's an example from the Philadelphia Inquirer of the all-too-typical spin we get when education journalists report test score results, especially when those test score results are from urban areas.

The headline blares: City schools show gains for 5th year.

The subhead screams: PSSA test scores marked progress, especially at the high school level, but there were still trouble spots.This is highly misleading, to say the least.

Philadelphia schools may have "show[ed] gains" for five consecutive years which "marked progress"; however, what we don't learn until paragraph two is that "fewer than half of the district's students in the tested grades [are] performing at advanced or proficient levels."

And, we don't learn until paragraph ten that "fewer than half," in Inquirer lingo, means:

"only a third of the district's 11th graders perform at advanced or proficient levels in reading, and nearly 27 percent in math."

This is called "burying the lead" in journalist-speak.

Yes, Philadelphia schools have made some small gains in recent years (whether those gains are real or a matter of fiddling with the tests is unknown); but, is that really what the story is about?

Isn't the real story that despite five years of "gains" only 33% (in reading) and 27% (in math) of Philadelphia students passed the test. These pass rates are abysmal by any standard. They are especially abysmal when you consider how easy the Pennsylvania test really is.

The headline "City schools show gains for 5th year" doesn't do the facts justice.

How about:

Despite small gains, less than a third of City School students in 11th grade (at least the ones who haven't dropped out yet) pass PSSA test.

Or better yet:

Despite spending over $13k per student, less than a third of 11th grade City School students pass PSSA test, up slightly from last year.

A little longish perhaps, but at least it's accurate.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're back!

Anonymous said...


It's good to see you back. I thought you decided to stay on vacation. (Not such a bad idea.)

A variation of spin I see is where an article talks about generalities, but ignores the details. In our Sunday newspaper, there was an article about how Kindergarteners don't get to play anymore (no more kitchen play and dress up); how it's all about academics. The lead example talked about an extreme academy for Kindergarteners. The author admited that it was extreme, but the stage had been set to advocate a return to play and socialization.

Who would (could) disagree? Unless you see the details. Our public schools now have full-day Kindergarten. The teachers love it. There are play times, but not all day. They love it because it gives them more time to evaluate the kids and try to get them all ready to get down to real work in first grade.

There are other issues, of course, like the fact that they have a pretty fuzzy idea of what "real work" is. One could argue that the push towards more academics earlier is driven by progressive educators who need more time to get their low-expectation idea of education to work. My position is that if the lower grade curriculum (1 - 8)focuses on content and skills, then that is all you ever need.

By the way, when I was in Kindergarten, recess was for play; school was for learning. Thirty kids lined up in rows writing our names on yellow lined paper. I don't recall any dress up or play kitchens. Kindergarten is not government paid day care.