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Leadership High School: The power of headlines to mislead

favicon A nervous student called me today. “Mr. Isero, our school is going to close,” she said.

“No, it’s not,” I replied.

“But I read it in the newspaper,” she said.

She was right. She had read an article on SF Gate with the headline, “S.F. Leadership High on state’s list of 10 for closure.”

And she had read “Poor test scores may shut Leadership High in San Francisco” in The Examiner.

Unfortunately, because of poorly written headlines, my student — and thousands more — received a misleading representation of the truth.

In fact, the school is not on the state’s list for closure, as the Chronicle suggested. That’s just false. And while it’s true that test scores are influential in our current climate, there’s no evidence to suggest that the school’s charter renewal is in jeopardy.

The truth is: (1) A charter school association recommended our school’s closure because of low test scores, (2) That organization has no authority over the school’s existence, (3) The school applies for charter renewal with the district’s Board of Education this Spring.

If you read the entirety of the articles, both writers — Jill Tucker and Amy Crawford — do an adequate job reporting the story. After all, when you’re pressured with a deadline and limited space, it’s hard to get deep into nuances.

But most people are influenced mainly by an article’s headline. That’s what we read first. That’s what grabs our attention.

Unfortunately, it’s standard practice in journalism that an article’s headline writer is different from an article’s writer.

A headline writer must quickly scan an article for its contents and write a headline that fits the amount of space in the newspaper or on a website.

In both the Chronicle and the Examiner’s stories, the headlines are misleading — and have caused a great deal of anxiety. If I distrusted the news media (which I don’t — I have a deep respect for journalism), I would say the headline writer knew exactly what he or she was doing in order to sell papers and cause controversy.

More likely, this was just an oversight. As our school deals with this media barrage, however, I’m reminded by what I tell my students: Every word matters. favicon

3 comments

  1. Mark Isero

    Thank you for the comment, John. Sometimes I worry about the big guys. With local news, however, my hunch is that their bias is toward accentuating potential controversy and conflict, rather than driving a particular political message.

  2. Paul Preston

    Mark

    You are right on the money with your post. For those who understand the charter school movement and the plight California school children and their parents the CCSA’s “recommendation” is nothing more than an act of betrayal to the entire charter school movement but more importantly betrayal to the students who would not or could not attend the traditional public comprehensive schools.

    Most charter schools in the state and the nation take in a disproportionally higher number of students who drop out of the traditional public schools. In the late 80s and early 90s before California had implemented its massive and “flawed” data system that tracks student performance on standardized tests, demographics and drop outs, most educational experts would have agreed the state’s drop out rate hovered around 9%. Over the last 20 years the these drop out numbers have continued to grow and grow to the point where even the state Department of Education now admits California’s drop out rate is 18%. For all of us in the business who understand the data and can read between the lines of the CDE’s conservative data interpretations put the real drop out number well above 30%. Los Angeles Unified the largest District in the state and second largest in the nation which has 660,000 students reports their drop out rate is a jaw dropping 50% plus. In one school district in Southern California where I recently consulted staff reported the real drop out number for them was more like 78%.

    Most disturbing as an association in which these schools pay dues they offer no help to them to improve these “scores”. What Jed and the CCSA need to be looking at is the outrageous drop out rate we have in California schools before they start “dictating” the closure of schools that serve students most at risk of dropping out.

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