navel-gazing

Education journalism rating site launches with vow of neutrality

The Center for Education Reform's new journalism-rating site, The Media Bullpen, launched this morning.

A new website that will rate national and local news coverage of education issues — funded and run by advocates of school choice — launched this morning with vows from its publisher and editors to stay impartial.

Published by the Center for Education Reform, the Media Bullpen‘s stated goal is to promote better education journalism by judging news stories on their accuracy, balance and context, and to give readers additional information about the underlying issues.

The Center for Education Reform is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that promotes charter schools and vouchers. The Media Bullpen site is also backed by funders — like the Gates, Walton, Bradley and Gleason Foundations — that have traditionally supported choice-based models of school reform.

The backers’ clear ideological origins earned raised eyebrows from journalists in December and January after the CER posted a preview of the site and began recruiting editors who, in the words of the job notice, both practiced sound journalistic ethics and held a “passion for education reform.” (The phrase “education reform,” though claimed by various groups, has been most closely associated with those that favor charter schools and are critical of teachers unions.)

But Jeanne Allen, the president of CER, said that though she will be the site’s publisher, it will have editorial independence from its parent advocacy organization.

“We don’t want folks who think they know the answer,” Allen said in an interview yesterday. “At CER, we think we know the answer, but that’s not what this is about.”

An executive editor, Donna Sapolin, and a managing editor, Ben Tyree, will run the site. Sapolin was most recently a media consultant and before that served as editor-at-large at the online magazine FLYP. She has spent most of her career in magazines, including a stint as editor-in-chief of This Old House and as editorial director of a group of home, garden, food and lifestyle magazines. Tyree has worked for more than 25 years on the opinion section of the conservative Washington Times, most recently as its chief editor.

CER has also hired an educational consultant, Barbara Pate, for the site. Pate has a master’s in education and is pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership. She also was editor and publisher of the Daily Report Card, an online educational newsletter published in the 1990s by a bipartisan federal educational panel.

In addition to the three core staff, the site is hiring a team of around 10 to rate and review news stories.

This morning, the site included ratings for 90 stories, though that number will grow throughout the day. Allen said that the site would rate hundreds of stories each day. Right now the site aggregates only stories from newspapers and broadcast outlets and their websites, though Allen said newsy blogs like GothamSchools may eventually be included.

Stories are graded on a six-point baseball-themed scale, granting “home runs” to stories that are “clear and accurate,” use information “in the correct way,” and which “give insight into an issue.” “Strike out” stories, by contrast, are “completely wrong” and come to “conclusions [that] are invalid.”

Allen said that the ratings were assigned according to stories’ accuracy and comprehensiveness, and according to the degree the coverage holds schools and public officials accountable for their policies, rather than ideology.

“The better way to look at it is, they’re not evaluating the issues addressed in the article per se, they’re evaluating how the reporters have treated the issues,” Allen said.

In addition to the rating, the site’s editors give each story a two to three-line explanation of why the score was assigned. Some of the notes make clear what the rater thought was missing from the story; others are confusing.

A Daily News story on the fallout from the closure of 10 Bronx schools was rated a single. “Might be a good idea to ask what alternatives are available,” the site’s note reads, not specifying whether it means alternatives to the closing schools or alternatives to the policy of school closure. “More options, please.”

The site gives a “strike out” to a New York Times City Room column that interviewed Lizabeth Ashleigh Cooper, the student member of the Panel for Educational Policy that voted last week to close her school. “Instead of tugging at heartstrings, let’s provide rationale for both sides of argument,” the site’s rater says.

One of the eight “home runs” the site has awarded so far went to a Wall Street Journal piece on Harlem Day Charter School, which is trying to renew its charter by bringing in new leadership. The Media Bullpen site praises the piece for its clear message: that “there is a demand and there is a need.”

So far coverage of charter school dominates the site, with scores assigned to 28 recent stories on charters in several states. The site does not uniformly assign high grades to stories that praise the charter schools, but some of the notes seem to betray a lack of skepticism about the schools’ ability to improve school systems.

For example, a piece about the Mississippi NAACP’s objections to legislation that would expand charter schools is given a “single” rating. The site notes that the piece explains the civil rights group’s objections, then says, “That’s great, but [Mississippi] falls at the bottom of ed rankings and charters can continue to help turn things around.”

Newsroom

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.