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addenda explaining that the scores shouldn’t be used to rate or rank teachers, since it was a single indicator based on outdated, faulty data with a ridiculously wide margin of error.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.
Making the case for Parochial Schools in the NCLB age
Yes, Sister Mary Margaret, there is a place for you and the rest of the “penguins.”
It’s just difficult to see against the tests, the balance sheets, and the armada of charter and magnet schools competing in your home waters.
As much as our public schools take a beating, few institutions have take as severe a scourging as the Catholic Church in the US.
I’m not referring to the sex abuse scandals, which deserve pages of analysis. The system of Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States is on an unprecedented retreat.
At the height of the baby boom in the 1960s, roughly 5.2 million students were enrolled at Catholic schools in communities across the country, according to a recent City Journal article by Sean Kennedy, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and co-author of a study on Catholic education. Today, less than half attend a Catholic institution, only 2 million. Running without government dollars, per-pupil costs skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800. Average tuition for incoming ninth graders at Catholic high schools has more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800.
The result is a massive pandemic of building closure: between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 schools were either closed or consolidated (combined with other schools). 167 closed or consolidated in 2012 alone. A recent report by the Archdiocese of New York stated at least 24 local schools will close, affecting over 4,000 students in the area.
How did it happen? How did arguably the greatest private school system in America take such a beating?
Catholic schools, in a way, are a victim of their own success.
The Catholic parochial school system began in the mid-1800s as a response to the rising public school movement in America. Early public school systems, in cities and towns, stressed preparation for adult life as farmers and workers—a preparation that included religious instruction. Public schools encouraged Bible study, particularly the King James Bible used in Protestant churches. Thus, public education was seen as a vehicle for evangelizing Protestant religious values.
The sea of Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s, from Ireland and Germany, needed schools that reflected their own values. Either through the diocese or independently, parochial schools of all levels would spring up right next door to local public schools. The parochial system would grow to essentially become a mirror of the public school system, with elementary and secondary schools local to each city and town, as well as Catholic schools of higher learning (Boston College, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Georgetown, etc.) that served as centers of university training for Catholics who still felt discriminated at the Puritan, Presbyterian and Anglican campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.
Over time, Catholic schools developed a reputation for discipline, spiritual nourishment and academic excellence. Without government money, these schools provided high-quality, low-cost education for immigrants and their children. Clergy acting as the faculty kept costs low while instilling rigorous standards of discipline and academic achievement.
When new theories or fads would ravage American public education starting in the 1960’s, Catholic schools were a haven of stability, providing excellence the old-fashioned way: discipline and hard work.
Parochial school would become the true vehicle of upward mobility: many who rose from poverty to positions of power attribute their success to the values and rigor instilled in a Catholic education.
By the 1990’s, however, Catholic schools obtained a serious rival—a rival funded by public dollars.
The rise of No Child Left Behind was parallel to the rise of the charter school movement, schools funded by public monies but operating independently of the public school system. When parents couldn’t afford rising costs of Catholic school, the charter school became a less-costly alternative. Many of these charters have adopted norms and values long cultivated in the Catholic school system: high academic expectations, rigorous discipline, school uniforms.
The result is a hemorrhaging of enrollment at an unprecedented scale. 2012 marked the first year that charter school enrollment is higher than in Catholic schools, surging past the 2 million mark. Currently they account for about 5% of children in public schools, and their numbers continue to rise.
Does this mean the slow death of the Catholic school, though? Not necessarily.
Competition from charter schools has crippled a longstanding tradition of American education. The question now is: should it be this way? Is there a way for Catholic schools to regain lost ground?
Part of the problem is financial. Catholic schools are playing on an uneven field: charters can, and often do, get continuous funding from public coffers, whilst the local parochial school is kept up largely by the parishioners and the local diocese. This is a disparity that cannot really be leveled without massive government spending in religious schools—a controversial move on many levels.
Dioceses across America are learning to make do with less—a painful lesson in efficiency that will probably be helpful in the end. Though the closures are painful, the Catholic system as a whole can still be main sustainable for at least the immediate future.
Yet fiscal discipline is only part of the solution. To really re-establish its foothold on American schooling, the parochial school needs to emphasize those things that charters often get so wrong, and that St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s get so right.
In terms of morals and ethics, it’s a no-brainer. Recent scandals aside, at least on paper, the parochial school is a model for moral education, at least through the lens of Catholicism. Catholic schools have long opened their doors to non-Catholics, as long as they take classes in religion and sit through the obligatory exercises. Through this osmosis, many non-Catholics can’t help but develop ethically in this environment. Historically, this deep moral education has also been coupled with a thorough civic education. Catholic students also tended to be proud American citizens—which upends completely the discriminating notions of a century ago that equated Catholicism with anti-Americanism.
More importantly, though, parochial schools never mess with what works in education. It’s a lesson we all know too well.
Charter schools, especially the well-known ones, often pride themselves on being up-to-date with the latest educational trends and theories. Basically, they tie themselves to a philosophy or theoretical framework, drill their teachers and students to death in it, and if it doesn’t work, they find another theory or fad and start the process all over again.
Catholic schools never had to worry about Danielson frameworks, Bloom’s taxonomy, Understanding by Design, Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, or any other fly-by-night notions that catch an administrator’s eye like a shiny toy. They understood long ago that as long as a dedicated staff is backed up by an administration hellbent on discipline and hard work, no theory was really necessary.
Unlike the twits that dictate education policy today, Catholic schools knew for a long time that the school environment matters a whole lot more than any newfangled theory.
Does that mean parochial schools can’t do a better job with English Language Learners or children with special needs? Absolutely not. In fact, many of the ding-dong theories we disparage can work for them on a limited basis. Yet the majority of kids being sent to Catholic school are not being sent there because of Wiggins or Calkins or Fountas & Pinnell—they’re being sent because Sister Mary Margaret will conjure the fires of Hell if little Johnny doesn’t do his work.
In a way, the strict discipline and focus on work in the Catholic school is a lot more nurturing than even the most liberal-minded charters—places where the chanting, the slogans, and the high fives seem so…antiseptic…artificial…
…dare I say…fascist?
Catholic schools have a role as a viable alternative to the public school system. They provide a discipline and focus that no charter can dream of providing, combined with a moral compass that makes KIPP look like a Dickensian workhouse.
Once they can get their financial house in order, America’s Catholic schools need to focus on how to compete effectively with charters and stake their ground in the 21st century education landscape.
After all, they do answer to a higher power.
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