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addenda explaining that the scores shouldn’t be used to rate or rank teachers, since it was a single indicator based on outdated, faulty data with a ridiculously wide margin of error.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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The “Corrupt Bargain” of the 1824 Presidential Election

Electoral College Results for 1824. Courtesy of Wikipedia

There is no such thing as a one-party system.

Whenever a political group manages to dominate all the others, there’s only one thing for the top dogs to do: fight among themselves.

From Commie red to Fascist black, the song remains the same: Stalin vs. Trotsky, Hitler vs. Rohm, Castro vs. Che, Mao vs. Deng, and in 1824, Jackson vs. Adams vs. Crawford vs. Clay.

The 1824 presidential election was rife with mudslinging, regional balkanization, backroom dealing, alliance building, nursing old grudges and settling old scores. It would be the first-and last-time only one political party would vie for the presidency—and in the process, throw politics and the Constitution into chaos.

It all began with a war hero.

Andrew Jackson, hero of the Creek War, the War of 1812, and the Seminole Wars, thought himself a perfect fit for the top job in 1824. Tough and ornery, with a series of duels under his belt, Jackson amassed a fortune selling horses and gambling to become a gentleman planter in Tennessee—the direct opposite of his upbringing in the Carolina backcountry. Yet he appealed to common folks in the South and the frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee as a sort of “common man.”

His main rival was anything but common.

John Quincy Adams was born into public service, literally. The son of the second President of the United States, Adams accompanied his father on his trips to Europe during the Revolution (and compiled an impressive diplomatic resume in the process). As secretary of state, Adams negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, as well as drafted the main ideas of the Monroe Doctrine. A favorite of New England (naturally), Adams felt he was due for the Presidency.

(and unlike another son of a chief executive, Adams was genuinely astute, brilliant and principled.)

If it were just these two, we wouldn’t be talking about it now. Yet two other rivals also come into the race-one a member of numerous Cabinets, the other a Speaker of the House that was a master of the backroom deal.

William Crawford was a Georgia Senator who also served as Minister to France, Secretary of War and Secretary of a Treasury. It makes for an impressive candidate except for one thing: Crawford suffered a stroke the year before, brought on by a side effect of a doctor’s prescription. Even though Crawford recovered—even receiving the endorsements of former Presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson—his campaign was never the same.

The last of the candidates was Henry Clay, known to history as the “Great Compromiser.” Most historians view him as a great orator and politician. In my mind, Clay was the first great Congressional wheeler-dealer in history. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, and later a United States Senator, Clay would be instrumental in the most important legislative deals of the 19th century: the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Nullification crisis, etc. He was the epitome of the great orator, a man who could charm anyone into voting for anything.

He also hated Andrew Jackson with a passion.

Referring to Jackson’s victory in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Clay scoffed: “I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy.” It isn’t much of an argument: Washington was responsible for quite a few British scalps himself. Yet Clay made his point; military victory alone does not a President make (a point often lost on the electorate, even then).

All the candidates had one thing in common: they were all Democratic-Republicans.

Since the Federalist Party imploded during the War of 1812, the Democratic-Republicans had been the only real political force for almost a decade. The previous President, James Monroe, ran without any opposition, demonstrating the Dem-Rep dominance of the period.

But, as expected, the unity couldn’t last. Tensions ran high, scores needed to be settled, and regions were quick to attack other areas of the United States. Welcome to the US in 1824, eerily similar to the Yugoslavia of 1994, minus the bloodthirsty militias and hard-to-pronounce surnames.

As Election Day neared, all four candidates were staking out their bases—and not much else. Adams was popular in the Northeast. Jackson, now less frontiersman and more planter, was a friend of the South. Crawford, on the other hand, had supporters in the Old South states of Georgia and Virginia, old planters that feared Jackson’s popular support. Parts of the West, especially the old Northwest Territory, supported Clay.

The results, as expected, provided little clarity.

Although more and more states were using the popular vote to decide their Electors to the Electoral College, Many still relied on the state legislature to make the decision, making the ballots cast a moot point. In 1824, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, South Carolina and Vermont still didn’t trust their citizens enough to choose Electors for the top job. So bear that in mind when reading the results:

Presidential Candidate

 

Popular Vote(a)

Electoral Vote

Count

%

Andrew Jackson(b)  

151,271

41.3

99

John Quincy Adams(e)  

113,122

30.9

84

William Harris Crawford(c)  

40,856

11.2

41

Henry Clay(d)  

47,531

13.0

37

(Massachusetts unpledged electors)  

6,616

1.8

0

Other

6,437

1.8

0

Total

365,833

100.0%

261

Needed to win

131

Although Jackson won the most votes, and the most Electors, he didn’t win a majority. He won 41% of the popular vote (again, without the votes of 6 states) and 99 out of a possible 261 Electors. Too bad he needed 131 to win.

So for the second time in America’s history, the US House of Representatives will decide the winner.

This time, however, was different from the last mess. In 1800, when Thomas Jefferson failed to secure the majority of Electors for the Presidency, the US House of Representatives acted under different rules. Under those rules, the winner became President, and second place became Vice-President. With a little conniving by a West Indian New York lawyer and former Cabinet secretary named Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson won the tiebreaking vote, and his opponent Aaron Burr become the veep—only to snuff out Hamilton on the dueling grounds of Weehawken four years later.

The 1824 debacle would be decided under the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804. It served to make the process less messy and more straightforward. Now, President and Vice-President were cast as separate ballots. In the House, each state would vote amongst the top three vote-getters. Each representative would vote their preference, but the final vote is cast by state (usually the majority among the state’s representatives).

Henry Clay, as the fourth runner, was left out—just in time for him to do some back-parlor magic.

As Crawford was a non-issue thanks to the stroke, the House machinations came between Jackson and Adams. Clay, as Speaker of the House and a political boss to a sizeable number of Congressmen, was in the enviable position of kingmaker. It didn’t take long for him to make a decision.

Politically, Adams’ policies on internal improvements and tariffs for promoting domestic industry was along the lines of Clay’s ideas as well (funny enough, the ideas were actually the brainchild of 1800 kingmaker Hamilton, as the first Secretary of the Treasury.) Furthermore, Clay saw Adams as more “presidential.” He came from a leading family. He held high positions in government for most of his life. He understood the domestic and international rigors of the job.

Jackson, to Clay, was no more than an ill-bred, hillbilly Napoleon with a rabble of voters and a workload done by slaves (all of which has some truth to it). Also, Jackson had an unsavory reputation for dueling, stealing women, horse betting—the sort of backcountry foolishness that would make both Boston Brahmins and Virginia planters cringe.

Finally, though no one could substantiate this claim, an anonymous account in a Philadelphia newspaper claimed that Clay sold his vote to Adams in exchange for a Cabinet post, namely Secretary of State. It was neither confirmed nor denied, and we won’t know the whole story, but such a deal would make sense: Adams and three previous Presidents had been Secretary of State, making it a logical step for an heir to the top office.

House Votes in the 1824 Election. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

So promises were made, deals were struck, cigars were smoked and hands were shook. When the votes were counted on February 9, 1825, all of Clay’s glad-handing and backslapping paid off. Adams won on the first ballot, with 13 states. Jackson wins 7 states, with Crawford bringing up the rear with 4.

Jackson and his supporters were shocked at the vote. For the next four years, the Jacksonians, soon to evolve into the modern Democratic Party, would hound and harass the Adams administration, accusing them of colluding into a “corrupt bargain” to secure the Presidency.

Adams, for one, immediately offered Clay the Secretary of State job. This did nothing to help his reputation, as the increasing number of states using popular votes would make a second term difficult. It also didn’t help that Adams attempted a principled, prudent set of policies with a Congress packed with his enemies. It virtually ensured that Adams would lose the rematch to Jackson in 1828—which is exactly what happened.

Jackson would win two terms as President, and would be decried and applauded for extending executive power in the federal government. His exploits, both good and bad, were so famous that the era itself adopted his name—“The Age of Jackson.”

Adams would serve 17 years as a US Congressman after he left office in 1829, this time as a member of the Whig Party. His last years were incredibly productive: Adams would be a steadfast champion against slavery and the slave trade, especially serving as counsel in the famous 1841 Amistad case. All of this, of course, made Jackson the slaveholder hate Adams even more.

Crawford, the third man in the voting of the 1824 election, recovered very well from his stroke—even though it was too late to convince the voters. Adams offered Crawford to stay on as Treasury Secretary. Crawford, sensing his own mortality and probably the changing political winds, declined and returned to Georgia. He served as an active state superior court judge until his death in 1834.

So what happened to Henry Clay, the man whose backroom deals vaulted Adams to the White House?

Well, the Department of State was no longer the stepping stone it once was.

Clay, who became a US Senator after he left the Adams administration, would try four times for the high office. In 1832, the Clay campaign was thrashed by the ever-popular Andrew Jackson. He would try to get the Whig nomination in 1840, but another war hero stopped him in William Henry Harrison. Clay would get the Whig nomination in 1844, but James Polk would beat him in the general election. Finally, yet another war hero, Mexican War general Zachary Taylor, would beat Clay yet again for the Whig nomination in 1848.

So what are the lessons we learn from the clusterfuck that was the 1824 election?

First, the laws are necessarily meant to produce a popular result—just ask Andrew Jackson.

Second, when someone is felled by a near-fatal illness, it’s hard to convince an electorate otherwise—just ask William Crawford.

Third, even when the contest it’s over, it’s never really over—just ask John Quincy Adams.

You don’t have to remind Henry Clay twice about the best laid plans of mice and men.

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Video for the Classroom: “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man”

It’s almost criminal that over a week has passed in Black History Month, and the Neighborhood has no posts about important African Americans.

Today’s post is a more fun aspect of history, but important nonetheless.  It can be argued that more musical tributes were written about Joe Louis than any other athlete in American history–a Black athlete accepted by both whites and Blacks.

The longest-running heavyweight boxing champion in history, from 1937 to 1949, Joe Louis was among the greatest and most influential athletes of the 20th century.  A hero to African Americans beaten down by the Depression, discrimination and Klan violence, Louis would also become the first Black athlete widely accepted by whites as well.

The culminating moment of Louis’ career was the second fight between Louis and Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938.  Schmeling, a symbol of Nazi Germany, was immediately cast as the villain (despite his own antipathy towards Hitler).  Louis, incredibly, became an American hero overnight. 

His defeat of Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds sent Black neighborhoods across America into wild celebrations, and create something of a mythic hero in Joe Louis.  It would be a heroism belied by the still-rampant discrimination in American life through World War II.

Today’s video is a montage of Joe’s greatest hits.  Yet it’s the audio that’s most important.  Listen to the great blues ballad “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man” and you can get a glimpse of how much Joe Louis meant to people.

It’s also a pretty good tune.  Enjoy.

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