Editors had to work fast to decide what to do. Publish the raw spreadsheets? Take the numbers at face value and march out the best and worst teachers, one by one? Write thoughtful critiques of all the downsides of the data and publish them anyway, next to teachers’ names? Or refuse to publish at all, for fear of misleading the public with faulty figures and maligning teachers with bogus data?
Maybe it was the robust news climate, or all the tangled messages from on high, but for New York’s media, the answer was: all of the above.
Some outlets rose above the fray and refused to go near the reports on principle. The local Riverdale Press and two citywide online news services—InsideSchools.org and GothamSchools.org—all took the high road. “No amount of context could justify attaching teachers’ names to the statistics,” wrote Elizabeth Green, GothamSchools.org’s editor, in a column she had prepared a full year earlier. By contrast, NY1, the local 24-hour cable news television station, downloaded the entire Department of Education spreadsheet collection, which included three years of scores and more than 100 data points per teacher.
The New York Post surprised no one by taking the most reckless road of all, galloping through the numbers as if they represented reality, scooping up names for its gallery of the “best” and the “worst” teachers. Its editors and reporters did not bother to dwell on the caveats and nuances, or even to include, at least at first, each score’s margin of error. (It added the intervals later).
The low point was on day two, when the Post ran a photo and story about Pascal Mauclair, the so-called city’s “worst teacher,” thus handing the union its first real teacher data report martyr.
The teachers union reported that Mauclair’s father opened his Queens apartment door the first day of the public release to find Post reporters telling him his daughter was the worst teacher in the city. Next, reporters found their way to his daughter’s apartment. She called police. Reporters turned to neighbors for comment. The Post story the next day identified Mauclair at the “bottom of the heap,” amongst those who do “zero, zilch, zippo” for students.
The backstory of her score does more to undermine the validity of the stats than the Post had in mind. Its’ reporters might have spent their time digging into the calculations behind her zero rating, by interviewing Mauclair’s principal and colleagues at PS 11 in Queens, where she taught small sixth grade classes of recent immigrants. Her students do not speak English. It’s not uncommon for some to take the state exams after being in her class for only a few months. The union says her score was based on 11 students, only 7 of whom had enough data to compute a real report—a meaningless sample size by any measure. Her fellow teachers, parents of students, and her principal were nonplussed. “I would put my own children in her class,” Principal Anna Efkarpides told Leo Casey of the UFT. The Queens school is consistently one of the highest performing schools among similar schools, and Mauclair is one of its top teachers. “The truth is the truth.”
By contrast, the Daily News managed to steer clear of its rival’s instinct to tick off the 10 worst and 10 best. In many ways it exhibited the most caution of all the city newspapers, by weeding out all those teachers whose rankings were based on only one year’s worth of classes.
Last year, the News’s Arthur Browne told me that the data was obviously not perfect, but that was no reason not to publish. This year, he had apparently done more homework. “We were leery of naming names if we couldn’t be invested in the accuracy of them,” said Browne, who also edits the op ed page. “We screened out the biggest problems in the database. We got the margins of error down into the zero range. We are committed to publication of the data, with all the caveats. We believe the public can make sound judgments.”