An enlightening encounter with The Wichita Eagle

Writing from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

I recently had an issue with an article published in The Wichita Eagle, and my encounter with this newspaper was quite revealing.

In a story titled “Schools get shopping lists ready” in the June 20, 2005 Wichita Eagle, reporter Josh Funk wrote this: “Research shows that having 15 students per class gives teachers time to offer individual help and fosters academic success, especially among low-income kids, said Mary Ellen Isaac, the district’s chief academic officer.” I believe that the quoted person is misinformed, but aside from that, this is reporting. Someone said it, the reporter quoted the source, and also identified the source.

What I have trouble with is the second sentence of the article, where Mr. Funk wrote, in a single paragraph all by itself: “Proven reforms, such as reducing the number of kids in a classroom, top the list of things Wichita area school districts plan to invest in.”

This statement is presented as an indisputable fact, when there are many distinguished researchers who would disagree with it. I don’t think that anyone Mr. Funk quoted in this article would disagree with it, and that, perhaps, is the biggest problem with this story: its unbalanced coverage of this topic.

There is definitely no consensus that small class sizes produce better educational outcomes. You don’t have to look very far to find reputable evidence of this. For example, consider research by Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University. His paper “Evidence, politics, and the class size debate” is available at this link: http://edpro.stanford.edu/eah/papers/EPI.class%20size.publication.pdf. This article provides reasoned criticism of the Tennessee STAR experiment, which may be the evidence that Mr. Funk relied upon for his story. (We don’t know the source of Mr. Funk’s evidence, of course, as he doesn’t tell us, but that experiment is evidence often relied on by the educational establishment.)

Or, consider Harvard economist Caroline M. Hoxby’s research titled “The effects of class size on student achievement: New evidence from population variation”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics 115:4 (2000), 1239-1285, which can be read here: http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/hoxby/papers/effects.pdf. The conclusion to this paper states, in part: “Using both methods, I find that reductions in class size have no effect on student achievement. The estimates are sufficiently precise that, if a 10 percent reduction in class size improved achievement by just 2 to 4 percent of a standard deviation, I would have found statistically significant effects in math, reading, and writing. I find no evidence that class size reductions are more efficacious in schools that contain high concentrations of low income students or African-American students.”

Failing to mention, even in passing, that spending huge sums to reduce class size may provide little or no benefit to schoolchildren makes this news article read like a press release authored by Winston Brooks, the superintendent of the Wichita public schools.

I attempted to contact Mr. Funk about this article, as I wanted to learn the source of his statement about class size. I emailed twice and left voicemail messages twice. Finally, after the third email, Mr. Funk called me. He listened to what I had to say about the problems with the article, but he disagreed. I did not learn the source of the claim made in the second sentence of the article.

What is revealing about this encounter is that the last email I sent to Mr. Funk was also sent to a Mr. Kevin McGrath, whom I thought might be Mr. Funk’s editor. (I hate to complain to someone’s boss, but I was getting no response from Mr. Funk.)

Mr. McGrath forwarded my email, along with a few remarks of his own, to Mr. Funk, but he also, I presume by accident, sent it to me.

The most revealing part of Mr. McGrath’s letter that I inadvertently received is how he implied that my criticism of Mr. Funk’s article would be based on my belief that he is a “no-good liberal elitist so-and-so.” I do not know Mr. Funk, and I know nothing about his political beliefs or elitist background, if in fact that is the type of personal history he has. Furthermore, if my criticism of Mr. Funk’s article was based on his personal characteristics or political beliefs, it wouldn’t be very compelling or valid criticism.

My criticism, instead, is based on defects in his reporting and the editing of the newspaper he works for.

It is also enlightening to note that The Eagle brushes off criticism of their reporting and editing by discounting the beliefs of their critics. As long as they believe this about their readers and critics, we will never have a newspaper that gives the public the information they really need.

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