letters to the editor

Letters to the Editor

Readers respond to our March/April cover story by LynNell Hancock, “Tested”
May 1, 2011

Grading Teachers

LynNell Hancock’s article, “Tested: Covering schools in the age of micro-measurement” (CJR, March/April), gives a thoughtful and thorough overview of the current climate in education policy and in education journalism.

But I would have appreciated a more complete exploration of the ethics and efficacy of the Los Angeles Times’s project, in which the paper developed “its own job performance system” for teachers. Is it ethical to not just publish the previously unreleased value-added stats, as the Times did, but show each teacher’s rating in a graphic format on a continuum from “most effective” to “least effective”? With the value-added project, the Los Angeles Times went beyond being the messenger to being the judge and jury.

Caroline Grannan

San Francisco, Calif.

In late September 2010, Rigoberto Ruelas Jr., a thirty-nine-year-old Hispanic teacher from the eastern part of Los Angeles, committed suicide. Rigoberto was deeply depressed—not because he had been laid off or terminated as so many teachers have been in California and elsewhere because of our “under-performing” economy. He was depressed because his name had been listed in a controversial database created and published by the Los Angeles Times and based on the value-added method that Hancock writes about. The Times identified him as slightly “less effective” than other LA teachers.

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Despite repeated warnings by experts in education testing and statistics that the Times database of teacher-ratings were unreliable and misleading, the paper published its grades for about six thousand third- through fifth-grade teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Education Secretary Duncan cheered and urged newspapers across the country to follow the Times’s example.

According to school-district officials, Rigoberto Ruelas was incredibly dedicated, with an almost perfect work attendance during his fourteen-year teaching career. According to parents whose children he taught, Rigoberto would work late into the evening to boost his students’ aspirations and academic performance through after-school tutoring and homework assistance. Most important, many of the students he taught report that Rigoberto challenged and inspired them to stay in school, away from gangs, and to graduate from college—even many years after they left his fifth-grade classroom.

Ruelas family members and teacher colleagues at Miramonte, say Rigoberto was depressed at being rated “average” in his ability to raise students’ English scores and “less effective” in his ability to raise math scores and slightly “less effective” than his peers. He became so despondent with his “failure” that he took his own life. And so a teacher who could have helped thousands of poor, immigrant, and Latino students climb the educational ladder “failed” to measure up to a misleading performance standard, and in despair, “dropped out” of the teaching profession he loved, away from the children for whom he lived.

James J. Lyons
Arlington, Va.
A version of this letter appeared in Hispanic Link News Service.

A Life’s Work
We at The Florida Times-Union and Jacksonville.com particularly appreciated CJR’s March/April piece, “The Cancer Report” by Joel Meares, because of our own Jessie-Lynne Kerr, who has been a reporter here since 1964. Two years ago, Jessie-Lynne was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer, which is especially virulent and which since has spread. For more than two years, she has fought off the cancers with waves of chemotherapy as well as her stainless-steel will. Ultimately, the cancer will prevail. But Jessie-Lynne still comes to work every day she can, even after hours of chemo.

Jessie-Lynne has covered her cancer as thoroughly, as creatively, and as honestly as she’s covered every other story over her career. The Global Lung Cancer Coalition flew in to present her with its New Media Award for her personal blog. Recently, 225 community leaders and others surprised her with a celebration of her life. She admonished them: “This does not excuse you from the funeral.”

The city renamed a section of Riverside Avenue in front of our offices for her. And her colleagues put up a plaque at the door aimed at younger reporters when they come to work: “Always ask the tough questions. Don’t accept BS for an answer. Jessie-Lynne Kerr did that as a T-U reporter for nearly five decades. She’s watching to see that you do the same.”

Frank M. Denton
, The Florida Times-Union/Jacksonville.com
Jacksonville, Fla.

Re: Sanford J. Ungar’s article “Unnecessary Secrets: Opening government, from Ellsberg to Manning” (CJR, March/April). At the risk of sounding like an intelligence-community apologist, it strikes me that discussions of the FOIA and WikiLeaks tend to miss elements that would provide a better picture of what’s in play. It’s probably a safe bet to assume that, more often than not, the reason government documents are routinely classified is not because of the documents’ factual content, but because revealing such information would provide insight into how the information was gathered, and the capabilities of those who gather it. A difference between process and product. The fact, for example, that Qaddafi prefers blond nurses doesn’t really matter; how that becomes known does.

A separate issue is that if the government’s allegations are true, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning have done the metaphorical equivalent of walking up and kicking a sleeping bear. What seems curious is the current widespread surprise and outrage because the bear woke up, and reacted by doing what bears do. It also makes you wonder: if the bear doesn’t react, what does it say about the bear?

Perry Gaskill
San Francisco, Calif.

A Rare Man of Courage
As Percy Crosby’s daughter, court-appointed administrator of his estate, and president of Skippy, Inc., I found David Hajdu’s article interesting (“Not for Laughs: A pathbreaking look at the dark comic genius behind Skippy,” CJR, March/April). However, I question his reliance on Jerry Robinson’s 1978 biography (Skippy and Percy Crosby), whose license I granted and rescinded for legal reasons, and on Robinson’s professed expertise on my father’s life and career. Why Robinson refused to recognize my role in seeking redress against Skippy infringers who wanted my father silenced is known only to him. Robinson’s allegations that Percy Crosby was “mentally ill” and that “he proceeded to undo everything he had accomplished” (in the 1930s) is a malicious rumor that benefits those who conspired to steal Percy Crosby’s Skippy business and destroy his career. What is unknown is my father’s courageous crusade against the behemoth of organized crime during the Great Depression and Prohibition—he used his Skippy comic strip to satirize Al Capone’s rackets and ties to Wall Street and paid a high price for the cruel vendetta that ensued.

In the recently published book I wrote, Skippy vs. The Mob, I used many examples of Crosby art that should dispel the false portrayal of my father as “mentally ill” and other denigrating comments about his failed career. The truth is my father was a maverick and a rare man of courage during the dark history of the Capone era.

Joan Crosby Tibbetts
President, Skippy, Inc.
Altamonte Springs, Fla.

David Hajdu responds: I share Joan Crosby Tibbetts’s admiration for Percy Crosby as a maverick and a man of rare courage. I referred in my piece to Crosby having been “plagued by mental illness” (my actual phrase), and the record of facts that led to his prolonged hospitalization for psychiatric treatment make that clear. To acknowledge mental illness is not an act of malice, nor is it a form of denigration.

Mr. Inside
In your March/April editorial (“Members Only: Two cheers for high-cost subscription journalism”), you make the mistaken, idealistic, and naive assumption that these news organizations are, or want to be, reporting “in the public interest.” I’m far more pessimistic, and history shows I’ll probably be proved right. Beltway reporters from Politico and National Journal are already bed partners of the political power brokers of Washington, and working yet more closely with lobbyists, politicians, and social-network mavens, without any competition from outsiders, can only ensure further corruption. I imagine they’ll more resemble Wall Street and business journalists—captured by their sources and enthralled by the money and power and the thrill of being “inside the loop.” There is no way that an independent journalist can escape that corruption.

Comment posted on

Mind Your NGOs
Karen Rothmyer’s article, “Hiding the Real Africa: Why NGOs prefer bad news” (CJR, March/April), says many things right and long overdue. People who have lived in Africa for many years and have experience with NGOs tend to agree with Rothmyer’s views. Many thanks to Rothmyer and CJR for helping to broaden the dialogue.

Victor de la Torre Sans
Advocacy and Projects’ Director
Africa Siglo 21
Nairobi, Kenya

Sincere thanks to Karen Rothmyer for her piece, “Hiding the Real Africa.” As a veteran communicator for a large NGO, I agree that NGOs feed that “media beast” when they respond to large disasters and other sources of bad news. I’m circulating the piece amongst the growing number of concerned insiders in our organization, which, hopefully, will lead to some change.

Ontario, Canada

Yes, the US media insufficiently covers good news about development in Africa, but the positive regional numbers on poverty, health, and economic growth cited by Rothmyer conceal terrible inequities. In too many African countries, statistics on health outcomes, if they are reported, can still shock the conscience. Time’s June 2010 photo story on maternal death in Sierra Leone sheds some light on a rarely reported truth: a pregnant reader in the US is forty times more likely to survive pregnancy than her counterpart in Sierra Leone, where one woman in twenty-one will lose her life to complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

Health advocates try to raise attention to these issues, and struggle to present a balanced picture. The most recent report from Countdown to 2015—a global effort to track progress in reducing maternal and child deaths, whose participants prominently include NGOs and UN agencies—began like this: “The Countdown report for 2010 contains good news—many countries are making progress, reducing mortality and increasing coverage of effective health interventions at an accelerating pace. But the news is not all good.” This is hardly “poverty porn.”

Africa is anything but “a continent of unending horrors,” and NGOs and aid groups are eager to provide reporters with stories of empowerment and progress. But an African woman dies every two minutes from pregnancy-related causes, and nearly every one of these deaths is preventable. This is no stereotype; it is a simple, tragic, and infuriating fact.

Adam Deixel
Communications director, Family Care International
New York, N.Y.

Required Reading
Laurel to CJR for stunning coverage by Abigail Deutsch of the reissue of Jessica Mitford’s Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking. Mitford has too often been underestimated by the journalism establishment as one of our most effective muckrakers. Ethics may not have been one of her strong points, but results surely were. I used her Poison Penmanship as a required text in my journalism classes at Sonoma State University in California and my students appreciated her tips for investigative journalism.

Carl Jensen
Cotati, Calif.

The March/April issue’s Darts and Laurels column stated that Randy Billings of The Forecaster broke the story about the Portland Press Herald’s donation of ad space during a political campaign. In fact, Al Diamon of DownEast.com and Jeff Inglis of The Portland Phoenix had both written about it several days earlier on their respective blogs. We regret the error.

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.