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Elephants in the Room

When mainstream media report on urban schools, the real story is often what goes unsaid.
Elephants in the Room

In 2004 the Chicago Tribune published a three-part, front-page special report ostensibly focused on the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on Chicago's schools. The protagonist of the series was 9-year-old Rayola Carwell. Rayola's mother, Yolanda, had taken advantage of the school-transfer provision of NCLB by pulling her daughter out of a south side school that reporter Stephanie Banchero called "among the worst in the city" and enrolling her at Stockton Elementary, 13 miles from home. Rayola was one of only a handful of students to be transferred out of 270,000 who were eligible citywide.

The story that unfolded over three days and 10 full Tribune pages turned out to be less about a seriously flawed and woefully under-funded educational policy than about perpetuating stereotypes of low-income parents. The spotlight shined not on NCLB, but on Yolanda Carwell, who was described by Banchero as "a single mother of three who dropped out of high school . . . [and] spent her life moving from one low-paying job to another." When tardies and absences began to mount for Rayola at her new school and her academic work suffered, Carwell's parenting skills took center stage in the Tribune's narrative.

Banchero reported that Carwell frequently allowed her children to stay up past midnight watching TV, and when they were too tired to get up, she let them miss school. When Rayola and her siblings got into arguments, readers were told that their mother couldn't hear them because "she [was] upstairs on the phone." We also learned that Carwell had "enrolled in, but not completed, three GED training courses at three different community colleges." Paragraph after paragraph, day after day, the articles underscored the mother's apparent disregard for her children's welfare.

By the end of the series, which culminated with Rayola leaving Stockton and returning to a school near home, little attention had been given to the lack of federal funding to help schools address NCLB mandates. Nothing had been said about how NCLB's intensified focus on high-stakes accountability measures has handcuffed teachers around the country, especially in big-city systems that serve large numbers of poor and immigrant children. And barely a mention was given to the sheer folly of the transfer provision: When the ground-level reality in Chicago was that schools had a thousand available spots for 270,000 eligible transferees, wasn't that the big story?

But readers weren't asked to consider any of that — at least not for long. Instead, they were left with the impression that the main thing holding Rayola back was a negligent mother. If there was any doubt about that conclusion, a Tribune editorial a few days later hammered the point home. While gingerly criticizing NCLB, the editorial reserved its harshest words for Carwell:

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