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.
In February came a new website called the “Media Bullpen,” which, unfortunately, has the potential to help ensure that the conversation about school improvement will continue to revolve around a predictable script. This new watchdog newsroom plans to rate dozens of education stories daily using baseball metaphors—from strikeouts to homeruns.
The site is run by the Center for Education Reform, a DC-based advocacy group dedicated for the last eighteen years to promoting charter schools, and funded by the Walton family and the Bradley family, among others, including a $275,000 grant from the ubiquitous Gates Foundation. Time will tell whether the Bullpen will use its influence to expand the democratic conversation about schools, or merely bully the press by trying to call all the pitches.
Early signs are discouraging. A job posting for managing editor said its ideal candidate would be a “passionate advocate for education reform.” And we know what that means.