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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addenda explaining that the scores shouldn’t be used to rate or rank teachers, since it was a single indicator based on outdated, faulty data with a ridiculously wide margin of error.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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Some Free Advice to New NYC Schools Chancellor Cathie Black—from her friends at the Neighborhood

Cathie Black, New York City's new Schools Chancellor

Chancellor Black, welcome to America’s largest, most Byzantine, and most convoluted school system. We sincerely hope that during your tenure (should I use the word “tenure”?) New York City will also be among America’s greatest networks of learning.

We must admit, in all fairness, that many folks here in the Neighborhood were none too pleased at your appointment. Given the outward business-like nature of the Bloomberg regime (or dynasty, royal house, whatever), we expected a selection process free of the nepotism, cronyism and backdoor dealing that so typified the dark days of the past. Wishful thinking, of course…

Yet we digress. In an effort to bury the hatchet, we wish to open a true dialogue with our new capo. Our hope is that through honest, frank communication we can achieve the best results possible for everyone in our school system.

We won’t belabor you with the nonsense questions so many critics have leveled on you. That would be insulting your intelligence—a well-honed trait of your predecessor. As you settle into your first week on the job, however, here are some suggestions to make your work a little more meaningful:

Visit every school in the system—unannounced

The typical Chancellor’s tour involves an entourage of poobahs parading through a pristine campus while smiling, polite children entertain him with well-worn platitudes about their “reading levels” and “learning processes”. This usually takes place at schools with “KIPP”, “Mott Hall” or “Kappa” in their names, or with suffixes like –Academy, -Charter School, or Blankety Blank School for Success and Entrepreneurial Excellence in Waste Management.

This is not reality—not even close.

Make a point to visit schools in our most distressed neighborhoods, especially those schools that have been deemed either failures or in danger of closure by the DOE in the past. Pop in without the menagerie, and watch as teachers struggle with day-to-day tasks, principals balance inane initiatives with budgetary constraints, and parents tangle with administrators over discipline, zoning and programming.

Also take into account schools that are succeeding, but are bursting at the seams with students from closed schools in the community. Take a good hard look, and tell me if these schools will continue to succeed given the budgetary and population constraints on them.

Teach one class in each grade level—including Kindergarten

You can’t hide from it. We all know: you have almost no experience in a classroom, let alone any educational institution. You might already have it in your head that teachers are lazy and uneducated, do little with their time, and need the stick more than the carrot.

At the very least, that was the vibe we got from your predecessor—as well as his boss. Michelle Rhee certainly put her two cents in, we’re sure.

It won’t make up for it, but walking a short distance in the shoes of a New York City classroom teacher can do you a world of good for giving much needed perspective. Put up a bulletin board with substandard work so your superiors look good for their bosses. Push back art history or science for the umpteenth time to test prep for an exam six months away. Get hands-on with Global History, and its rushed, watered-down, one-year fiasco of a curriculum (and we wonder that our students know little about the world.).

But no cheating, now—you can’t teach at a private school or some Upper East Side celeb-charter academy. Like before, find those schools “In Need of Improvement” or “In Restructuring”, those wonderful NCLB phrases that taste like boiled Auschwitz.

Take the standardized tests the students take—all of them.

We can probably guess that like the mayor and his minions, you are ga-ga over standardized tests and their use in evaluating everything, from the teachers to the lunchroom floor. Oh, the joy of reducing everything to a number! It looks pretty on a mission statement, makes for great graphs that delight educational Neanderthals such as Arne Duncan, and make for great printing material and “culling of the herd.” (Just ask the Los Angeles Times).

Take the time to take each of the tests yourself, from the 3rd grade reading and math tests to the vaunted Regents tests at the high school level. As you plow through the material, ask yourself these questions:

(1) Do these things really measure the ability to read and function as an intellectual being? Will a “4” on the 5th grade ELA guarantee a slot at Harvard in a few years—or a slot on the night shift at McDonalds?

(2) If you find yourself struggling with certain tests (especially the science ones), imagine a kid with half your intelligence, a quarter of your attention span and a thousandth of your resources—a specimen we find a lot of in our system. Do you think he has the right supports to pass a test that you, a middle aged wealthy white woman, are struggling with?

(3) If the teacher is already hamstrung with a motley array of students in an overcrowded classroom with a lack of support and unsuitable standardized assessments to use, how can it be the only measure of a teacher’s success or failure? How can you measure a teacher’s effectiveness on one variable?

We’re pretty resigned to the fact that test scores will factor in teacher evaluation. However, it shouldn’t be the ONLY factor. Taking the tests yourself will convince you of this.

By the way, we’ll cut you some slack on those advanced science and math Regents. Most of us couldn’t tell Planck’s Constant from a plank at the Home Depot.

When cutting the budget, cut the fat, not the muscle.

Times are tough economically, we know. There will, inevitably, be cuts in funding from Albany which will trickle down to the schools themselves.

When you look at the budget for the coming year, remember that the school level—yes, that level that you should’ve experienced firsthand, by now—is the sinew and muscle of our system. Yet why has it been that the knife was drawn closest to this all-important skeleton?

Instead, turn your scalpel towards the people behind you in the mirror. Since you’re a smart lady, you may notice how we chuckle at the juxtaposition of DOE headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse. That courthouse was at the center of the city’s largest political scandal, and its named for the chief culprit. That insult aside, make sure that those people immediately around you are utilized the best way possible.

If not, you can definitely lay-off at the top in a professional manner (We remember the show where you talked about laying off workers effectively—nice job.)

Give Principals real autonomy—in discipline.

Principals bear the brunt of the abuse as our schools are slowly becoming all-encompassing nation-states that are built ass-backwards—a body like an Athenian and a brain like a Spartan. A lot of the hot talk is around whether principals should be given more leeway to hire and fire personnel at will, as well as more control over the school’s purse strings.

Now remember the little bastard in the classroom you were in that was so defiant he would make any classroom cringe with fear? Good luck getting him placed in a different setting. The process for removing or transferring students due to behavior problems is long and convoluted: even teachers who diligently follow up with phone calls and letters find that administrators have their hands tied as well.

So how about this: let the principals admit and expel students as the need arises, especially at the elementary level. We’re not talking about cases where the child acts up due to academic struggles. It’s about the stone-cold bad kids that have reached the end of their rope with students, teachers, parents and principals; those kids that pose a true threat to learning for everyone.

Wondering how to use closed school buildings? Use them for programs that move these “bad kids” in a more productive direction than a regular classroom would allow. If he keeps up into high school, then he can be expurgated without a fuss.

Despite what the knuckleheads think, children are left behind, sometimes by choice. It even happens in (gasp!) Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan—those bastions of academic excellence. You think every kid in Asia is on the board of directors of a car company, construction conglomerate or electronics consortium? Morons are the same the world over.

Want Teacher Quality? Stop the half-measures and go after the source.

It’s something we harp on here at the Neighborhood almost as if in a mantra: the goal is to acquire and RETAIN excellent quality teachers. Don’t listen to Rhee and the morons at TFA who think that alternative certification programs are the “silver bullet” that will finally eradicate the achievement gap.

Teaching gets better with age, and the TFA’ers don’t stick around long enough to reach that level of maturity (if they were ever that mature to begin with).

You want to get good teachers? Make teaching a respectable profession to graduates from the top universities. The only way that can happen is (a) the salaries are commensurate with other professionals. This can only happen if we have (b) teacher training programs at the university level that are as competitive and as rigorous as professional schools and higher academia.

The education programs at New York’s universities must stop becoming diploma mills for any two-bit dipstick that wants the summer off. As schools chancellor, you are in a unique position to correct this problem.

All the education programs love the deals they have with the DOE to provide training, professional development, seminars, etc. Hold their asses to the fire with these sweetheart contracts until there is evidence of major overhauls in their education departments. It’ll be a long process, but we’re willing to bet that out of it will come high-quality teachers who will stay in the system for a long time.

Just remember to pay them adequately, otherwise they will go elsewhere. That’s the price you pay for intelligent, well-trained teachers: they usually won’t stand the bullshit for long.

Stop the “Fear Culture” of communication at the DOE

This may be the most important task you can accomplish as Chancellor.

For a long time, the draconian regime of your predecessor has rhapsodized about the need for greater collaboration, communication and team-building. Yet in private, especially amongst the administrators of all-too many buildings, a culture of fear and suspicion has arisen. Complaints, suggestions, and even legal union grievances have been met with back-stabbing, reprisals and vengeful acts that demonstrate the basest venality…

(Sorry, got poetic with the vocabulary. You following all this, Chancellor?)

You, and only you, can put a stop to this. If we can see you leading by example, taking advice, compliments and criticism professionally and courteously (from teachers, parents, administrators and even students) and offering a sense of safe and fruitful dialogue, it would be a wonderful first step in creating real cohesion within our system.

I keep going back to him, but it bears repeating. Your predecessor cared little about public opinion, nor the opinions of those who toiled under him. He was often curt and even combative in interviews and press conferences. In last year’s testing fiasco, he even pointedly showed up late to community meetings in the ultimate display of cowardice.

Chancellor Black, you seem like a smart, eloquent woman. Only by using that intelligence to understand the system, its flaws, its accomplishments and its future can you succeed. Look at Rhee: she was even more stubborn about her dictatorial ways, and look at where it got her.

We bust our butts for these kids every day. The concerns addressed here have been shouted, mentioned, whispered, e-mailed and texted for many years now. It is high time that we finally find the common ground to create viable solutions to our educational problems.

Chancellor Black, we at the Neighborhood wish you the best of luck in leading this great school system. Thanks for hearing us.

PS. Did Joel leave any booze in the desk? You may need it every once in a while. Hope he left the good stuff.

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How’s this for “Full Disclosure”? A Counterproposal for Publishing Teacher Data

It seems my worst fears have been realized, albeit in a delayed form.

Last year, like so many others, I sounded the alarm on the so-called “rotisserie league” system of teacher evaluation, using stats like baseball cards to determine effectiveness.  At the moment, I thought my lesson had been learned, at least when using Alex Rodriguez as an example.

(By the way, he again is a failure this season, according to NCLB standards)

The recent release of teacher data by the Los Angeles Times has shown the ghastly effects of such unscrupulous shaming.  Morale is at a new low.  Attrition is rampant.  Few would want to enter a school system where taking the courageous stand of teaching children with special needs could land you on the front page with a noose over your head.  Most shockingly, one teacher committed suicide over perceived low scores, even though colleagues and administrators alike touted him as an exemplary teacher.

Now, the grand poobahs in New York City want the same thing.

Last week, the UFT went to court to stop the New York City Department of Education from publishing Teacher Data Report scores for 4-8th Grade teachers in the city.  The TDRs, as they were called, were a program designed to show teachers—and only teachers—how their students have done over time via standardized testing and other assessments. 

The move is so controversial that even the CSA, the principals’ union, broke ranks with the DOE and sided with the teachers.  When the TDRs were implemented last year, principals explicitly told their teachers that the data would be for their eyes only.  Publishing these scores would not only undermine teacher morale, but also the integrity of administrators citywide.

Yet even with the injunctions, motions, stoppages, etc. teachers may probably still face the prospect of public data reports.

Harping about the validity (or lack thereof) of the data or the data collection will do little good.  Nor will the constant chirping of union reps and teacher advocates, since the education reform crowd has already labeled teachers as the enemy.

What’s needed now is a counter-proposal. 

If the city is going to publish teacher data, it must publish student and parent records alongside each teacher’s evaluation. 

If the city wants to make everyone accountable in education, then all the cards should be face-up on the table.  Let’s make data evaluation truly public—after all, we know all the intangibles and background that surround the stats in baseball, basketball, football, etc.  There’s the differences in field surfaces, in flooring, in wind directions, fan attendance: all of which add up to some effect on the overall performance of the individual athletes.

The same could be said for teachers.  If a teacher has a class that cannot read at their grade level, show the records that indicate their improvement, as well as any individual needs, problems, situations that help or hinder the classroom experience.  If a teacher misses some phony cutoff in test scores for bonuses or whatnot, make sure the record shows the anecdotals of the little bastards who never do squat in the room.

Parents shouldn’t be off the hook, either.  Alongside the data reports should be the page upon page of meeting notes with parents—parents who never show up for meetings, parents who get belligerent, parents who “yes” the teacher to death in order to get her off their back.  Yet also show that parents who genuinely try to help, but are often frustrated with the curriculum themselves.  The problem rarely just stops at teacher and student.

Thanks to privacy laws, this proposal will probably never see the light of day.  Yet what makes teachers so worthy of exemption from professional courtesy?

 It can’t be because of our status as public employees: no other public agency would allow such open pillorying of their staff.  Nor is it because of our special relationship with children: parents have an even more intense bond, yet their results are hardly scrutinized in public.

Perhaps it’s because the inhuman, artificial nature of data allows administrators to show that they care about children without ever being involved with children.  It’s like the old line about the imperious city planner Robert Moses, “He loves the public, but he hates people.”

Publishing student and parent data, while a pipe dream, can be an even better way to evaluate a teacher’s performance.  It provides a holistic, broad-based picture of the circumstances each teacher must deal with.  Then, and only then, should test data be considered.

After all, how can you score a baseball game if you haven’t watched a single inning of it?

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