Monthly Archives: February 2012

Where Does Journalism End…and Bullying Begin? Teacher Data Reports and the Media

العربية: صورة التطقت عام 2008 لمقر إدارة تعليم...

Tweed Courthouse, headquarters of the NYC Department of Education. Image via Wikipedia

On November 16, 1801, a group of New York politicians led by Alexander Hamilton began a political broadsheet that would eventually become one of the most influential publications in the metro area.

Recently, it decided to cease being a newspaper…and become a tool of propaganda instead.

On Friday, February 24, after a lengthy court battle, the New York City Department of Education was forced to comply with a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request filed by the New York Post, the aforementioned tabloid founded over 210 years ago.  The DOE released the infamous Teacher Data Reports (TDRs)—the rankings of supposed teacher effectiveness based on standardized test scores in English Language Arts and mathematics.

In the days that followed, each of the city’s major media outlets released the teacher scores (with names attached) in varying formats.  Some ranked teachers from highest to lowest percentile.  Others released searchable databases by district, borough and school.  Still others, such as the New York Times, published the data with lengthy addenda explaining that the scores shouldn’t be used to rate or rank teachers, since it was a single indicator based on outdated, faulty data with a ridiculously wide margin of error.

(These explanations, by the way, were provided by the DOE itself, along with a recommendation that the media treat the data fairly as it was intended.)

However, the New York Post, the paper that initiated the FOIL request, didn’t stop at a mere spreadsheet of names and numbers.

After releasing its own version of the teacher data—with language so editorialized it hardly passed as hard news—the Post released a story about the alleged parent uproar over a Queens teacher who received the lowest scores in the city.

The story’s lead paragraph read: “The city’s worst teacher has parents at her Queens school looking for a different classroom for their children.”

In that one sentence, the Post lost the last vestige of journalistic integrity.

The controversy over the TDRs embroils teachers, administrators, parents and political leaders.  The arguments range from the valid to the ludicrous.

The data was flawed. 

It’s impossible to rate teachers based on only one indicator in each subject.

The data doesn’t take into account the myriad of extenuating circumstances.

The DOE secretly wanted the scores released. 

The DOE supposedly encouraged media outlets in their FOIL requests and even expedited the process. 

The DOE got into a devil’s compact with the UFT leadership, the mayor, Fox News, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Freemasons, Jesuits, the Vatican, the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderburg Group to publicly tear out the entrails of “ineffective” teachers…

(Okay, that last one was far-fetched—but you get the point.)

The actual release of the data is a moot point.  Until a new law or federal court ruling decides otherwise, the scores are out, and will probably be released again in the future (even if the DOE itself stopped collecting such scores).

The real issue, one that has an even farther-reaching implication than the classroom, is how media outlets use that data.  While it is true that the First Amendment gives newspapers quite a bit of leeway, there are definite boundaries that journalists cannot cross.

When a newspaper publishes a story based on a flawed, incorrect and unsubstantiated source, it crosses that boundary.

When a newspaper uses false data to publicly shame an individual, it is not only unethical.  It is slanderous.

The inaccuracy of the TDRs was acknowledged by teachers, administrators, and even the DOE itself.  All parties agreed that the data was imperfect.  What’s more, the data has such a wide margin of error that any percentile derived from it is akin to throwing a dart at a dartboard blindfolded.

Thus, the TDRs are a flawed, inaccurate, and therefore non-credible source—by open admission from the powers that be.

The papers can print the data, as long as their stories about them have multiple sources discussing the data.  So far, all the newspapers covered this base (in the Post’s case, just barely.)

Yet the labeling of teachers in superlatives, as “best” or “worst”, based on TDR data does not pass the journalistic smell test.  Along the same vein as the Queens teacher’s article, the Post also published a piece about teachers with the highest percentiles.  The following was the lead to the story:

“The city’s top-performing teachers have one thing in common: They’re almost all women.”

Not only does this statement say absolutely nothing (considering the vast majority of teachers in the city are women anyway), but it makes a dangerous classification—the same kind of classifying that drove that Queens teacher to a virtual lynch mob by ill-informed parents.

When news stories throw around a value judgment based on one singular measure—a measure that is so ridiculously flawed even its authors disavow it—the journalists behind these stories used what amounts to false, unsubstantiated information. 

It is, in effect, mocking (or exalting) people based on a probable lie.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is the textbook example of slander and libel.

The New York Post’s editorial pages have attacked teachers’ union and teachers for years now.  Yet this frenzied hatred never hit the news headlines as hard as it did this weekend. 

They have used unsubstantiated, inaccurate data to shame teachers, using the unfortunate quotes of ill-informed parents in the process as they whip up support for their negativity.

Worst of all, they have the gall to couch this journalistic lynching as hard news.

The New York Post should stop calling itself a newspaper.  It is now no better than a common propaganda pamphlet that panders to the lowest common denominator.  At times I even agreed with the Post politically—but their tactics disgust me.

Finally, for those whose reputations have been ruined by this pseudo-journalism, there is a weapon far more powerful than any ordnance.  It usually has a suit, a briefcase, and an avalanche of legal motions.

See you in court, Rupert.

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The FY’2013 Federal Budget Proposal–and its Implications for Social Studies

It seems the one truly bipartisan agenda in Washington today is duping the American public.

The bailout, the modest job increases, the upswing in the NASDAQ and the Dow Jones, even the rebound in the mortgage bond market are all spun to make it seem that things are actually getting better for average Americans.

The same is true for American education, and no more so than social studies—the sacrificial lamb to the altar of “interdisciplinary” or “integrative” studies.

Back in 2011, the federal budget for the fiscal year 2012 saw hatchet-like slashes across federal agencies, cracking off limbs where pruning would suffice.   In education, the ax fell on programs that were needed for its stated mission of a literate citizenry by 2014.  Suffice to say the boughs that needed most attention were left untouched (boughs with branches in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example).

The Teaching American History (TAH) Grant program, of which I am a big fan, lost its funding for FY 2012, signaling to one and all Washington’s contempt for a quality education for our citizens.  In the 2013 budget released on February 13, the program’s woes would continue—the lost funds would not return.

Furthermore, most of the 2012 cuts have remained in place for 2013.  Although the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) would receive a modest $8.2 million boost, most agencies saw a leveling off or a reduction in funding. 

The real insult, however, is how the Obama administration’s Department of Education views the role of social studies in future national plans.

Once again, the DOE proposes to scrap traditional K-12 history education and fold it into this new educational Leviathan named “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education.”  According to the National Coalition for History, the program aims to:

“support competitive grants to States, high-need LEAs, and nonprofit partners to develop and expand innovative practices to improve teaching and learning of the arts, foreign languages, history, government, economics and financial literacy, environmental education, physical education, health education, and other subjects. There would be no dedicated funding for any of the disciplines.”

To add insult to injury, this boondoggle has also felt the sharp edge of Obama’s ax: from $246 million in FY’12 to an astounding $90 million in this current budget.  Even the Administration has lost faith in their own proposal, to the tune of an over 63% reduction in funding.

If the federal government doesn’t even believe in this idea, why should educators buy into it?

In this endeavor, social studies educators should be joined with science faculty, teachers in foreign languages, physical education teachers, athletic coaches and others in common cause.  As much as integration is a valuable tool in the classroom, it is not a silver bullet for the ills of education—any teacher will tell you that. 

There are certain skills, concepts and facts that require the concentration, focus and expertise of a dedicated subject.  Thus, funding should also reflect the continued necessity of subjects/content areas by allocating monies to science, foreign languages, the arts and especially the social studies.

This program is dependent on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which governs K-12 education.  Since it’s an election year, and the ESEA is mired in Congressional deadlock, then nothing much can be done on this in the coming session.  Yet that gives that much more time to express our opinions on the matter.

Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of collective action—too much of the Beltway cynic in me.  However, this can be driven in the right direction given the right buttons are pushed. 

Here is the link to the members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.  Also included is the members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (phew, that’s a mouthful).  Take a little time to let them know that “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education” is nothing but a front to destroy our educational system.  It will make a mockery of our system, dragging us even farther behind other countries in every category.

Furthermore, even the Administration has shown its reluctance by slashing its funding—so Congress should devote those funds to more worthy educational endeavors.

Please contact your local Congressman, at any rate…and as usual, make sure to let him/know the Neighborhood sent you.

House Committee on Education and the Workforce

John Kline, Minnesota
(Chairman)
Thomas E. Petri, Wisconsin
Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California
Judy Biggert, Illinois
Todd Russell Platts, Pennsylvania
Joe Wilson, South Carolina
Virginia Foxx, North Carolina
Bob Goodlatte, Virginia
Duncan Hunter, California
David P. Roe, Tennessee
Glenn Thompson, Pennsylvania
Tim Walberg, Michigan
Scott DesJarlais, Tennessee
Richard L. Hanna, New York
Todd Rokita, Indiana
Larry Bucshon, Indiana
Trey Gowdy, South Carolina
Lou Barletta, Pennsylvania
Kristi L. Noem, South Dakota
Martha Roby, Alabama
Joseph J. Heck, Nevada
Dennis A. Ross, Florida
Mike Kelly, Pennsylvania

George Miller, California
(Senior Democratic Member)
Dale E. Kildee, Michigan
Donald M. Payne, New Jersey
Robert E. Andrews, New Jersey
Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Virginia
Lynn C. Woolsey, California
Rubén Hinojosa, Texas
Carolyn McCarthy, New York
John F. Tierney, Massachusetts
Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio
Rush D. Holt, New Jersey
Susan A. Davis, California
Raúl M. Grijalva, Arizona
Timothy H. Bishop, New York
David Loebsack, Iowa
Mazie K. Hirono, Hawaii
Jason Altmire, Pennsylvania

Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Tom Harkin (IA) - Chair
Barbara A. Mikulski (MD)
Jeff Bingaman (NM)
Patty Murray (WA)
Bernard Sanders (I) (VT)
Robert P. Casey, Jr. (PA)
Kay R. Hagan (NC)
Jeff Merkley (OR)
Al Franken (MN)
Michael F. Bennet (CO)
Sheldon Whitehouse (RI)
Richard Blumenthal (CT)

Michael B. Enzi (WY) -Ranking Republican Senator
Lamar Alexander (TN)
Richard Burr (NC)
Johnny Isakson (GA)
Rand Paul (KY)
Orrin G. Hatch (UT)
John McCain (AZ)
Pat Roberts (KS)
Lisa Murkowski (AK)
Mark Kirk (IL)

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Videos for the Classroom: Interview about “Slavery by Another Name”

A few nights ago, PBS showed a documentary that chilled me to the bone.

Slavery by Another Name is a documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.  It details an often-overlooked chapter in African American history: the  “convict lease” system that placed thousands of Southern Blacks in a state of virtual slavery after the Civil War.

When the Reconstruction occupation forces left the South in 1877, Southern whites retook state governments and forced Blacks into a secondary status.  Part of this process was a series of laws that entrapped Black men under seemingly innocent conditions, such as looking at a white woman, walking on a railroad, etc.

Once in custody, these men faced exhorbitant fines and were forced to pay for the cost of their arrest.  Unable to pay such “debts”, these prisoners are leased out to plantations, mines, brickyards, railroads, quarries, steel mills and road building contractors.  State governments made millions in revenue leasing prison inmates to private companies as a source of cheap labor.

These men endured brutal conditions and backbreaking labor in a state of bondage thanks to a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which does not bar slavery in the case of punishment for a crime. 

It was a system that persisted until World War II.

The video is a conversation that takes place at the National Museum of American History between Blackmon and Bernard and Shirley Kinsey about the book.  For those unfamiliar with the period, the conversation is a real eye-opener to Blackmon’s award-winning research.

Also, read his book and watch the documentary.  You’ll be just as shocked as I was.

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