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.

Public schools may be revered as engines of our democracy, but Americans have never agreed on who should govern them or what they should teach. In the 1950s, the Cold War stirred America’s anxiety that its schools were too soft to compete. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement elevated equal opportunity as the decade’s school reform banner. President Lyndon Johnson signed the groundbreaking Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which directed federal dollars into public schools where children lived in high concentrations of poverty. The federal Coleman Report issued the following year found that a child’s family economic status was the most telling predictor of school achievement. That stubborn fact remains discomfiting—but undisputed—among education researchers today.

By the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan, concerned about the growing economic power of Japan, commissioned the groundbreaking report, “A Nation at Risk,” which warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future.” Reagan ushered in marketplace ideas intended to rattle government bureaucracy, such as choice, merit pay, and more testing.

By the 1990s, the era of standards and accountability was at full throttle. With it came a subtle change in language. Instead of “teaching children,” pundits talked about “raising test scores” and “closing the achievement gap.” James Crawford, president of the non-profit Institute for Language and Education Policy, traced the injection of the “achievement gap” into the national policy debate back to the presidential platform of George W. Bush, who seized an issue traditionally owned by Democrats. The idea of bringing the test scores of poor minority children on par with those of white children became the centerpiece of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. “Achievement gap is all about measurable ‘outputs’— standardized test scores—and not about equalizing resources, addressing poverty, combating segregation, or guaranteeing children an opportunity to learn,” Crawford wrote. “It shifts the entire burden of reform from legislators and policymakers to teachers and kids and schools.”

LynNell Hancock is the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism at Columbia, and director of the school's Spencer Fellowship in Education Journalism.