Eleven New York City education reporters were huddling on e-mail last October 20, musing over ways to collectively pry a schedule of school closings out of a stubborn press office, when the chatter stopped cold. Word had filtered into their message bins that the city was about to release a set of spreadsheets showing performance scores for 12,000 of the city’s 80,000 teachers—names included. Few understood better than the beat reporters that this wonky-sounding database was a game changer.
The Los Angeles Times already had jolted newsrooms across the country back in August, when it published 6,000 public school teachers’ names next to its own performance calculations. New York education reporters, though, were considerably more reluctant to leap on this bandwagon. They found themselves with twenty-four hours to explain a complex and controversial statistical analysis, first to their editors and then to the public, while attempting to fend off the inevitable political and competitive pressure to print the names next to the numbers, something nearly every one of them opposed. “I stayed up all night kind of panicked,” said Lindsey Christ, the education reporter for the local NY1 television station, “writing a memo to everyone in the newsroom explaining what was coming and what was at stake.”
On October 20, reporters from the Times, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, GothamSchools.org, NY1 television, and WNYC public radio found themselves in an awkward spot. Some were so angry at what looked like a blatant attempt by the city to use reporters in its fight with the UFT that they quietly threatened to quit if their editors insisted on publishing names. Others were torn between the power of the data to inform—who are we to second guess readers’ ability to process all this complexity, they asked—and their power to distort. On top of all the other distortions, the skeptics pointed out, the tests used to calculate these evaluations had been found to be flawed. The state had been forced to recalibrate the results because the tests had become too easy to pass. The next day, reporters took a collective breath. The union filed suit in New York State Supreme Court, claiming the rankings were riddled with errors that would unfairly harm teachers. “Just because it’s a number,” the union’s lawyer, Charles Moerdler, argued later, “doesn’t mean it’s suddenly objective.” Nothing would be released until the case was settled.
The delay allowed time for news organizations to compare notes. On Thursday evening, October 21, many of the reporters found themselves at a midtown Manhattan bar, sharing drinks with the same teachers union and Department of Education staff they had encountered in court earlier. The occasion was a farewell party for New York Times education reporter Jennifer Medina, who was moving to the paper’s Los Angeles bureau. A guest from the union parked his oversized protest poster—displaying the city’s confounding-looking mathematical formula for value-added numbers—against the bar. The debate from the courtroom spilled over into the festivities. School reps shrugged off complaints, reminding reporters it was they who had filed Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests for the data. Weren’t they in the business of printing information?
But the Department of Education had privately dropped hints to some reporters that their competitors had already submitted foils, some journalists countered. Suspicions had been raised when the department responded to the foils with uncharacteristic speed. Normally, such requests took months, with layers of negotiations, said Maura Walz, a reporter for GothamSchools.org, an independent online news service. This time, it was service with a smile. “The Department of Education wants this out,” said Ian Trontz, a New York Times metro editor. “They have a lot of faith in these reports. They believe they are trustworthy enough to educate and empower parents.”
Still, empowering parents had not seemed to be a top goal in the past for this administration. To the most skeptical reporters, it appeared as if the city was using them.
By December, frustration was mounting among the New York reporters as they waited for the State Supreme Court judge to decide whether the teacher data should be released or not. Reporters described “a spirited debate” that erupted during an off-the-record pizza and wine farewell party for outgoing Chancellor Klein before Christmas. Several in attendance said reporters bombarded him with pointed questions about the data, and Klein defended their release, for the sake of parents’ right to know.
Meanwhile, some reporters produced stories that attempted to add context to the controversy over the data. WNYC ran a story that examined what school districts in Denver, the District of Columbia, and Tennessee were doing with their value-added reports. Meredith Kolodner at the Daily News found a Manhattan middle school teacher who received a “zero” rating for her performance as an English teacher. The problem? Pamela Flanagan had never taught English, only math and science. Sharon Otterman of the Times wrote a thoughtful piece that dug into some of the research. She reported on a 2010 Mathematica Policy Research institute study that warned the city’s error rate was probably very large. That’s because the Department of Education was using only four years’ worth of students’ tests to analyze each teacher (Los Angeles used seven years’ worth). The study found that with only three years of data, the results were wrong 25 percent of the time. Parents and community members remained off the radar, however. In New York, 5,000 parents sent protest letters to the Department of Education in December opposing the release of the teacher-data reports. “We believe there must be meaningful teacher evaluations in our children’s schools,” said Martha Foote, a Brooklyn PS 321 parent, “but humiliating teachers with unreliable information will only hurt them.” Their letters did not make the news.
In November, reporters got another surprise. Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he would replace Klein with Cathie Black, a Hearst magazine executive who had neither government service nor education experience. The New York Times went on a rare offensive against the mayor’s choice. Reporters continued to wait for the teachers union’s case to be resolved, but by this time, the Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, and WNYC had all decided to print the data when it does arrive—names included. (The Wall Street Journal refused to disclose its plans.)
On January 10, State Supreme Court Judge Cynthia Kern ruled in favor of the city and the news organizations, saying that “there is no requirement that data be reliable for it to be disclosed.” The union quickly filed an appeal. And at press time the data was stalled in court, again.
But as they waited, the news outlets were constructing databases to collect and report the numbers, which will be searchable by teacher’s name, by school, and by district. WNYC, for example, is building an interactive tool that will try to provide context for individual teachers and caveats for the wide swath of statistical errors.
It was probably inevitable. Journalists by instinct and trade are usually in the role of arguing for full disclosure of public information, fending off cautious government arguments for moderation and restraint, not the other way around. That instinct, and the pressure of competition, eventually won out. After all, the information is public, some reporters noted, and the city is using it for tenure decisions and evaluations. “It’s in the public interest,” said Trontz of The New York Times. “If we find the data is so completely botched, or riddled with errors that it would be unfair to release it, then we would have to think very long and hard about releasing it.”
The only holdout so far appears to be GothamSchools.org. “We plan to run a message saying why we are opposed to using the names,” said Elizabeth Green, editor of the site and author of a forthcoming book, Building a Better Teacher. “I want to treat schools with as much dignity as we treat restaurants. We don’t just splash grades A through F about restaurants in the paper without explanation. We do individual stories. To be fair.”
Perfection of the data is not the point, argues Arthur Browne, editorial page editor of the Daily News. The numbers, he said, will be “a net positive in terms of adding to the conversation about quality of teachers.” But what about the quality of that conversation?
In New York City, schools coverage has been largely tethered to the corporate reformers’ agenda—mostly to a measuring tool for firing incompetents. Inadequate classroom teachers are without question a serious problem, as are the rules and systems that protect them. But it’s unwise to think that weeding out the weak will address other pressing challenges facing teachers and schools and students across the city—the huge dropout rate among a rapidly growing Hispanic population, for one example, or the absence of good preschools for the rising number of poor children, or state budget cuts that are gutting core services to schools, and on and on.
I don’t happen to know any education reporters who were drawn to this complex beat in order to pore over spreadsheets, or score an interview with Bill Gates as an education expert. Most pine for more time to spend in classrooms, in science projects with preschoolers, in rapt discussions with teachers or principals or parents. Most are inspired by education’s expansive connections to culture, science, politics, and the world of ideas. The best education reporters are skilled at the invaluable art of connecting the dots for readers between policy from on high and reality in the classroom. Yet education reporters have increasingly found themselves herded toward a narrow agenda that reflects the corporate-style views of the new reformers, pulling them farther and farther away from the rich and messy heart and soul of education.
Unfortunately, most of the reporting these days has done the same for teaching by reinforcing the corporate education reform meme that the only things that matter in education are tests, test scores, and teacher ratings derived from those.
That reporters have named names in the paper using data that they know to be flawed and error-ridden is unconscionable and nothing they try and say in their defense can justify allowing themselves to be used in the political game the powers that be in both the private and government sector are playing to destroy teachers.
Sorry, doesn't matter how much "context" you give it.
These reporter KNEW the NYCDOE was using them.
And they allowed it anyway.
But they reached out and asked teachers to correct the record themselves.
Yeah, that should assuage their guilt.
Or cover them in a court of law.
Reminds me of a movie I saw once: