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.”

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.  

Student Voice

Boasting impressive resumes, five Newark students compete for a school board seat

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Top row: Amanda Amponsah, Nailah Cornish, Andre Ferreira. Bottom row: Shalom Jimoh, Emmanuel Ogbonnaya.

Earlier this year, Newark residents elected three new members to the city’s re-empowered school board. Now, public school students can choose one of their own to join the board, which in February became the district’s governing body for the first time in more than two decades.

Students have until midnight on Tuesday, June 5, to vote online for a rising 12th-grader to represent their interests on the school board. The winning student representative will provide the board with student perspectives on district policy, but will not be permitted to vote.

Eligible candidates are required to have a minimum 3.0 grade-point average, a satisfactory disciplinary record, and to submit peer and faculty recommendations. Last week, the five candidates participated in a debate, which can be heard here.

The candidates are:

  • Amanda Amponsah, of University High School, who is class president, captain of the softball team, a member of the marching band, and an aspiring pediatric oncologist.
  • Nailah Cornish, of Barringer Academy of Arts and Humanities, who plays basketball and volleyball, runs her own modeling program, and plans to study law and business in college.
  • Andre Ferreira, of Science Park High School, who is a soccer player, debater, and vice president of the student leadership organization. He plans to major in political science and aspires to work for the United Nations.
  • Shalom Jimoh, of Weequahic High School, who immigrated from Nigeria, and is now a member of the student government council, the National Honor Society, and the track and volleyball teams. She plans to study medicine and theater arts in college.
  • Emmanuel Ogbonnaya, of Weequahic High School, who serves as school photographer, soccer team captain, and is a member of the National Honor Society. Emmanuel wants to study engineering, and then start a company that combines photography, architecture, and engineering.

The winner will join the board at an historic moment. Control of the district reverted to the city in February, when state officials determined the district had met its requirements for home rule. The district had been run by the state for 22 years prior.

Last year, more than 1,200 students  — or about 13 percent of Newark public high school students — voted for a student representative to the school board, which then functioned in an advisory capacity only. This year, a Newark student group tried to ramp up turnout with text messages and a video posted on Facebook encouraging voting.

“The student representative will work closely with administrators and board members to make sure that all student voices are heard,” according to a video produced in advance of the vote by the Youth Media Symposium at the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Newark civic-engagement group. “Now that we have local control, this is more crucial than ever.”

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, 1,381 votes had been cast. District officials said the winner will be announced Friday, and will be introduced publicly at the board’s June 12 meeting. The representative will then be required to attend at least four board meetings and various district events during the 2018–2019 academic year.