Government Lies, Corruption and Mismanagement
Merrow vs Moskowitz: What Happens to Those Who Speak Out?
While I disagree with PBS’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, I believe we should take his statement on John Merrow’s News Hour finale as a learning experience opportunity for education activists. Then we can make it a teachable moment for the non-education press. Merrow closed his illustrious career with a hugely important report on suspensions at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy. Getler doesn’t seem to understand how big of a story it is.
Merrow vs Moskowitz: What Happens to Those Who Speak Out?
By John Thompson, Living in Dialogue
While I disagree with PBS’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, I believe we should take his statement on John Merrow’s News Hour finale as a learning experience opportunity for education activists. Then we can make it a teachable moment for the non-education press.
Merrow closed his illustrious career with a hugely important report on suspensions at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy. Getler doesn’t seem to understand how big of a story it is.
PBS News Hour acknowledges that as the story unfolded there was a miscommunication with Merrow, the News Hour, and Moskowitz about student privacy laws. Getler doesn’t seem to understand the complexity of those laws — and how inappropriate Moskowitz was in flouting them. If Merrow had done something wrong, I sense Getler would have said so explicitly. Instead, he focuses on a new issue – the use of confidential sources.
The ombudsman recognizes that “Merrow is a highly-experienced, well-respected specialist in this field of reporting, so what he reports and says may be absolutely true and very important in disclosing questionable activities of a high-profile school system and the impact on young children.” He further admits, “I have no special insight into education procedures, can’t evaluate the battle that still rages over the accuracy of the statistical analysis used in this segment, and can’t really tell who is right and wrong on the substance of school policy and procedure.”
Getler’s complaint was that Merrow had to use too many sources who would not go on the record. I wonder if he has the same complaint with the New York Times Magazine’s coverage of Moskowitz. Daniel Bergner watched Moskowitz for months and says her, “impatience with dissent emerged as one part of a furious and almost crazed passion.” He cites two unnamed sources to support the seemingly noncontroversial statement that Moskowitz is “downright imperious.” When reporting on another charge that is intertwined with the battle over her Success Academy, the Times’s wording is very similar to Merrow’s on suspensions, “In talking to dozens of current and former Success Academy employees and parents, the critique with the most staying power involved the schools’ overly heated preparation for the state exams.” (emphasis mine) The names of those dozens of sources were not revealed.
Getler understands that the use of confidential sources is often necessary but, “This is not a big national security issue or something like that when sources frequently decline to be identified. This is charter schools and policies that we are talking about, a big universe and surely not everyone out there with a supportable case to make is afraid of Eva Moskowitz. Or are they?”
(I should also add that given the pervasive nature of Success Academy’s test prep, the universe of Bergner’s potential sources is big. Given the charter schools’ ability to “cream” the easiest-to-teach students, the universe from which Merrow could search for sources is much smaller.)
In asking such a question, Getler also seems out of touch with a much bigger universe. It has always been difficult get employees and others who are financially dependent on monied elites to openly criticize their bosses. This is an extra complex dilemma in today’s world where the corporate workplace has become so dominant. The difficulty of getting educators and education policy people dependent on corporate donors to go on record is especially acute.
Edu-philanthropy and federal school policy have bowed to a culture known as “convergence” where everyone is committed to being “on the same page.” I don’t think Getler comprehends the nature of education’s long term “culture of compliance,” and how top-down school reformers have created educational monocultures where dissent is a cardinal sin.
A much better analysis of the PBS/Success Academy dispute is found in the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple Blog. Wemple understands that:
Merrow had alighted upon one of public education’s most consequential issues. As outlined in this New York Times Magazine profile of Success Academy Charter Schools Founder Eva Moskowitz, suspension policy is at the heart of a debate over fairness and inclusiveness in the allocation of tax dollars for public education.
The big school reform issue, Wemple notes, is that in an age of competition-driven reform the charge is that “administrators foist suspensions on problem students to push them out of Success Academies and into other schools. The beneficiary of this approach, say those critics, is the test scores of Success Academies and their fellow charters.” Wemple also places the controversy in its context, “To illustrate his piece, Merrow tracked down a child who’d left a Success Academy after sustaining a number of suspensions in a nearly three-year run at the school.” (emphasis mine)
Wemple seems to be taken aback by a student’s three-year record, but I doubt it would be a surprise to any inner city teachers who I know. We tend to have multiple students per class who have “meltdowns” and “outbursts.” Wemple praises News Hour for an on-air apology related to that student’s record, but then he says the only thing in his post that I found inappropriate. Wemple writes:
Somehow, the clarification managed to echo a point from Merrow’s e-mail correspondence, as it strove to somehow extract the central characters from the piece: “Mr. Merrow’s report was not about any particular child but about suspension policy. The reporting included conversations with nearly a dozen families about their young children’s suspensions from Success Academy, as well as other sources, including one within Success Academy.” That’s what you call Ex Post Facto Story Redefinition, or EPFSR.
No! For anyone involved in our education wars, it is not a “somehow” issue. Education reporters and advocates on all sides of the battle know that the big question is “not about any particular child but about suspension policy.” Suspension policies, even on their own, are extremely controversial and important issues. Neighborhood schools and charters have very different ways of addressing their very different percentages of students who act out their emotional pain.
The reason why suspension policy rises to such an important issue, however, is that Moskowitz, and others who don’t have to accept and retain troubled students, have launched a fight to the end against traditional public schools. When any journalist worth his salt, in the course of researching a story, accumulates enough evidence that illustrates those dynamics, the story must be redefined to a greater or lesser degree. (Had Merrow found that Moskowitz’s critics were all wrong and had manufactured a slanderous campaign against her, would that have not prompted some redefinition of the story?)
Moskowitz tells Merrow, “No. We don’t suspend in order to boost our academics. Like, that’s just crazy talk.”
Any good reporter would then ask a follow-up question. It took a great reporter who had done his homework to counter as Merrow did, stating:
But our sources, including several public school principals, quite a few former Success Academy parents, and one person inside her organization, charge that is exactly what she does, repeatedly suspend certain kids to push them out. However, none of these critics were willing to publicly confront Moskowitz.
That being said, Wemple did us a service by linking the PBS controversy with what he says is the bigger conflict between the New York Times and Amazon. He cites the words of a former employee, Bo Olson, “‘Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,’ Olson told the newspaper in a tone-setting quote.”
Wemple then makes the standard disclosure: “Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.” He then explains that Amazon did what would be expected of such a company (and what Moskowitz and other reformers would surely do?), and it “looked at its personnel records as part of an inquest to check whether the complaints surfaced in the New York Times piece ‘were made inside the company.'”
Amazon then made charges against the employee who spoke out. The employee denies them.
Rather than be “shocked, shocked” that the rich and powerful fight back when challenged, Wemple writes, “There’s no claim here that after-the-fact attacks are a new thing. In fact, they date back years and have many veteran practitioners.” He cites both the big-money Koch Brothers and Hillary Clinton’s strategic research and rapid response team. The last word goes to the New York Times editor who “welcomes the use of new platforms … to take a chunk out of the New York Times.”
PBS, like the Times, knows that that when John Merrow or Times correspondents ask tough, “tone-setting” questions about Moskowitz or Bezos, or when they challenge corporate hegemony, there will be serious efforts to take a chunk out of them. Few people would be surprised that sources fearful of Bezos (or the National Security Agency) would be reluctant to speak on the record. I doubt the PBS ombudsman would be the least bit surprised if reporters challenging corporate power (or the NSA) were forced to rely on confidential sources.
The PBS ombudsman, Getler, seems to be making an attack on the News Hour that is based on two things. First, he doesn’t know much about education and, second, if he, who is an ombudsman, doesn’t know much about a subject then it is not important enough to justify the use of the confidential sources that the big stories require.
Conversely, it is hard for a teacher to understand that non-educators don’t understand how big of a thing it is to violate federal FERPA laws protecting the privacy of students. From my first day in public school, it was made clear that such violations, especially if they involve students on special education IEPs, can do more than get you fired. My colleagues and I were repeatedly told that we could lose our licenses over such transgressions. I still remember my shock when I walked into a high-performing charter school and saw its data wall, listing the names and grades of all its students. Obviously, I had stumbled across one more example of the way that favored charters – like elite activists – operate under different rules.
And, that gets us back to the story that PBS’s Getler doesn’t seem to grasp, even though Wemple seems to understand. The battle between corporate reform and traditional public schools is about education, as well as inner city schooling (which seems alien to many non-education reporters) but it is about more than that. It is about democracy, the rule of law, and the respect for our legal traditions. It is about the increasing resegregation of society and how corporate power is making it worse. It is about the working lives of persons whose paychecks are signed by members of the 1%.
If we want all reporters to treat education reporters with the respect they deserve (and that John Merrow has earned), we must explain why suspensions, charters, the edu-politics of destruction, and Eva Moskowitz’s vitriol are a part of world historical 21st century forces that routinely make the front page.
What do you think? Were you shocked that Eva Moskowitz revealed private student records? Are you surprised that people are afraid to go on record regarding Success Academy’s nonstop test prep and suspensions? Even if sources demand confidentiality, does the public have a right to know what Merrow, PBS, and the New York Times Magazine reported?
A Bruising Battle in the Schoolyard
By Michael Getler, PBS
Oct. 26, 2015
Special correspondent John Merrow is a familiar figure for viewers of the PBS NewsHour. He has reported on education for more than 40 years, 30 of those for the NewsHour. He is the recipient of numerous awards. On Oct. 15, he made his final appearance on the NewsHour before his retirement, with a long interview with co-anchor Judy Woodruff.
But Merrow did not exactly slip easily into retirement. A nine-minute segment that he reported on the Oct. 12th NewsHour—about the largest charter school network in New York City and its behavioral and suspension polices—has exploded into a high-profile confrontation between the NewsHour and the CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, Eva Moskowitz.
The dispute over Merrow’s report—the very detailed and pointed critique and demands for corrections and apologies by Moskowitz, and the defense of the story by the NewsHour—is long and complex. But fortunately, for those interested, all of these exchanges have been put online, along with a lot of other articles that have resulted, so I’ve included links to everything in this column. It's a lot of material, but well worth reading.
The confrontation started with a lengthy email from Moskowitz to Woodruff laying out her criticisms of the Oct. 12 segment and including a good deal of background material, including email exchanges with Merrow before the actual broadcast, accounts of school conduct by an unnamed (by Moskowitz) student, and supporting reports from teachers about that student’s conduct.
Eight days later, during the Oct. 20 broadcast, Woodruff, who had nothing to do with the Oct. 12 Merrow report aside from introducing it on the air, said: “And an editor's note about a story that aired on the NewsHour last week from long-time education reporter John Merrow. The story focused on school policies for suspending very young children. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the New York City based charter school Success Academy, has since raised questions or concerns that during her interview she was asked questions only about suspension policy in general and not given an opportunity to respond to a family also interviewed in the report. While the NewsHour stands by the report, we regret that decision. You can read Ms. Moskowitz's response to the report and more at pbs.org/newshour.”
The Paper Trail
Here is Moskowitz’s first email to the NewsHour. Here is a much longer “clarification” posted by the NewsHour on its website on Oct. 20 after receiving Moskowitz’s email. And here is Moskowitz’s rejection of the NewsHour clarification, in which she says “new inaccurate claims” were made.
And, if you are looking for more reporting and commentary on this specific controversy, here, here, here, here and here are some of the blogs and articles that have surfaced since it became public.
In a very brief snapshot, as I watched the program and then read the transcript, this story—labeled “Is kindergarten too young to suspend a student?”—aims to get at the national issue and problem of more than three million students suspended from public schools each year by focusing mostly on the 34 publicly-funded, privately-run charter schools of the Success Academy in New York that “emphasize science and the arts and are wildly popular among parents,” as Merrow reported.
In the broadcast, Merrow zeros in on the code of conduct for students and infractions that, if repeated, could trigger out-of-school suspensions, especially for the youngest students. He then reports that suspension rates at the school “are almost three times higher than the city’s K-12 public schools.”
A Tough Question
Then he goes on to ask: “Could out-of-school suspensions be a factor in the network’s academic success? Eva Moskowitz’s critics think so. They accuse her of suspending very young children over and over to persuade parents to change schools before state testing begins in third grade. Could that be true? We do know that some Success Academy students are suspended over and over.”
To support the questions he raises, he first interviews one youngster on camera and, later, his mother, who are both identified by name, and he adds, “Other parents told us their young children were sent home multiple times for infractions like not paying attention or for getting out of their seats to look at the bulletin board.”
Moskowitz fires back on the program, saying, "Anecdotes don’t make for statistical trends.” And later, when Merrow starts to ask directly if "you ever use out-of-school suspensions as a way to persuade parents that...,” Moskowitz replies, "No. We don’t suspend in order to boost our academics. Like, that’s just crazy talk.”
But Merrow immediately counters, stating: “But our sources, including several public school principals, quite a few former Success Academy parents, and one person inside her organization, charge that is exactly what she does, repeatedly suspend certain kids to push them out. However, none of these critics were willing to publicly confront Moskowitz.”
In the longer “clarification” that the NewsHour offered to Moskowitz’s first emailed complaint, the program also claimed: “The reporting included conversations with nearly a dozen families about their young children’s suspensions from Success Academy, as well as other sources, including one with Success Academy. Most of these sources were unwilling to go on camera.”
They also noted in that clarification that the one family (the mother mentioned above) that did appear on camera “was not willing to allow Success Academy to release her son’s school records.”
The reason this controversy is of special interest to me, and the reason for calling attention to the quotes above, is because it puts in play important journalistic fundamentals, conflicting journalistic instincts and even how sophisticated audiences absorb journalism.
I have no special insight into education procedures, can’t evaluate the battle that still rages over the accuracy of the statistical analysis used in this segment, and can’t really tell who is right and wrong on the substance of school policy and procedure.
On the one hand, Merrow is a highly-experienced, well-respected specialist in this field of reporting, so what he reports and says may be absolutely true and very important in disclosing questionable activities of a high-profile school system and the impact on young children. Merrow is a very credible figure, so segments like this have power and many viewers may be grateful for such challenging reporting and are instinctively inclined to believe his report.
And Moskowitz, as some have commented publicly, may also have gone too far at one point in her very pointed efforts to rebut Merrow’s reporting by disclosing the long and detailed list of infractions, and teacher reports, that this one young student was reportedly engaged in. Moskowitz did not name the student but there was only one interviewed on the program.
The Perception Problem
Part of the controversy over this story, as it was presented, is in perception concerning what this story was really about.
In its later clarification, the NewsHour says, "The fundamental point of Mr. Merrow's report is about the policy of suspensions of young children. It accurately documents that Success Academy suspends students as young as five- and six-year olds at a greater rate than many other schools."
Moskowitz counters that "very little of Mr. Merrow’s report is about this contention. I freely acknowledge that Success Academy suspends students more readily than most other public schools. We are less tolerant than other schools of dangerous and disruptive behavior by students. But Mr. Merrow’s report was not primarily about the acknowledged fact that our rates of suspensions are different but about the reasons our rates are different. Mr. Merrow argued that it is because we suspend for minor infractions. He also argued that this leads to attrition and that this accounts for our high test scores. All of those claims, which were the primary focus of his report, are untrue and unsubstantiated."
And Other Issues
I, too, had problems with this segment but mostly of a different sort, and the question I ask myself, and also asked the NewsHour, among other points, is why this segment could not have been held-up to do more work on it, beyond the acknowledged failure to let Moskowitz respond directly to the claims of the mother and her son. Again, this is a very serious and important subject, aimed at a forceful, very high-profile figure in the charter school universe, and you would want it to be as credible and bullet-proof as possible. This segment did not achieve that, in my view.
I have no reason not to believe Merrow or the NewsHour when they say that virtually everyone they talked to said what the program suggested they said, but that they declined to say it on camera. An extensive New York Times story in April, which quoted many people on the record, also reported, "some other former Success teachers, did not want to be named criticizing the network. These former teachers said they feared hurting their future job prospects by disparaging a former employer or by being identified as critics of charter schools."
But that results in a weakened and vulnerable broadcast presentation.
The NewsHour, as I’ve watched it over the years, rarely relies on anonymous sources. But in this case all the critics are anonymous except two, the mother and her son. And she won’t release her son’s records, which probably should have been another red flag signaling that perhaps this youngster did do some pretty bad things and was not easily suspended and was not a good choice to be the solo on-camera example.
There is, for me, just too much in this presentation that depends on anonymous “Eva Moskowitz’s critics,” and “other parents told us” and “but our sources...charge.” The NewsHour, day in and out, is better than that.
In response to my questions to the NewsHour of why this segment could not have been delayed to do more work on it, the executive producer of the NewsHour, Sara Just, said this:
Sara Just Responds
I want to clarify two things that, based on your questions, you seem to be drawing conclusions over incorrectly. First, the issue that NH clarified regarding Ms. Moskowitz responding to the family was due to miscommunication with Mr. Merrow and the NewsHour about privacy laws. Holding the story for more time would not have changed that. Second, the NH does not have a blanket no-anonymous-sources policy. Anonymous sources are to be used rarely and judiciously when needed in specific stories. As for the rest of your questions, the statement NH published stands.
My Further Thoughts
Not surpringly, I don't agree that I'm drawing incorrect conclusions. I invite those interested in this issue to read Moskowitz's lengthy exchanges with Merrow prior to and just after the broadcast. Before the segment aired, Moskowitz, without naming the mother, writes to say she "should not be allowed to simultaneously use her privacy rights to prevent us from speaking while telling her side of the story. We object to your allowing this to happen."
At another point, Merrow responds, according to the record Moskowitz sent to the NewsHour: "Our story is about out of school suspensions of very young students, not about Jane and her son. We would not air unsubstantiated accusations, and so her decision not to allow the release of John's records was not material." Moskowitz counters, in part, "If Jane and her son are not part of the story, then why is she going on the air?"
After Moskowitz writes again, Merrow writes: "Because Jane was unwilling to release her son's records, we were of course unwilling to allow her to openly criticize the school. Her role in the piece is limited and should not be a cause for concern on your part."
That's just part of the email record that took place before the program aired. As it turned out, I think it is fair to say that the comments on camera of Jamir Geidi, the son, and his mother, Fatima, were, in fact, an important part of the program. Indeed, they were the only ones to comment on the record about the school. The code of conduct rules that the youngster talked about were: "I would always have to keep my shirt tucked in. And let's say I wasn't wearing black shoes, and I was wearing red shoes. Then that would be an infraction." The mother was slightly more forthcoming, and Merrow was correct in that the mother did not directly disparage the school but rather compared its policies to the public school he now attends. So there was no indication of the extensive record of misbehavior that the school, and teachers, provided after the segment aired.
So going back and interviewing Moskowitz, after having interviewed the youngster and his mother, would have been worthwhile and fair, in my view, even if it meant delaying the segment.
But that is not the reason I asked why the segment could not have been delayed for more reporting, although it might well have caused the NewsHour to have second thoughts about who to put on camera. And the NewsHour, to its credit, did say it regretted not having given her a chance to respond.
The segment, however, contains some hard and serious shots at Moskowitz by Merrow and they are all anonymous. Is there no one, anywhere, with a substantive case to make against Moskowitz and the Success Academy policies who will speak up? If, as the NewsHour claims, there was no one among "her critics...other parents...several school principals, quite a few former Success Academy parents and one person inside her organization" who will speak up on the record, maybe you ought to keep trying. Or maybe this tells you something about the story and not just about Moskowitz. Or maybe that student and his mother don't illustrate the case you are trying to make. Maybe this segment isn't ready for the public.
Finally, I never thought, or said, that the NewsHour had a blanket, no anonymous sources policy. As I said earlier in this column, which I had written most of before Just's response, anonymous sources are "rarely" used. So Just's response simply confirms what I had already written. But this is not a big national security issue or something like that when sources frequently decline to be identified. This is charter schools and policies that we are talking about, a big universe and surely not everyone out there with a supportable case to make is afraid of Eva Moskowitz. Or are they?
Posted on Oct. 26, 2015 at 3:28 p.m.
Cant We Do Better?
When You “Got To Go”, You Got To Go
Posted on November 1, 2015 by gary rubinstein
The New York Times recently published a blockbuster report about a leaked sixteen student “got to go” list created at a Success Academy school in New York City. The school, Success Academy, Fort Greene opened in September 2013. In a press conference, Eva Moskowitz apologized for the “got to go list’ scandal, said it was an anomaly, and the principal who created it, Candido Brown, offered a teary eyed ‘mea culpa.’ What caught my attention was this paragraph from the New York Times follow up article published a day after the initial report where Moskowitz, the ultimate ‘No Excuses’ proponent, offered this bizarre excuse for the principal’s decision:
Ms. Moskowitz said the school, which then went through second grade, had severe disciplinary problems. Mr. Brown previously said in an email that he believed he could not turn the school around if the 16 students remained.
When I think of a school in need of ‘turnaround therapy,’ I picture a school of veteran unionized teachers that has supposedly been ‘failing’ for decades. This school was in its second year when it was in need of being turned around. And the total number of students in the school was about 200, with about 70 kindergarteners, 80 first graders, and 50 second graders. All of these students have been at the school for their entire schooling and all had Success Academy teachers. I have trouble believing that this school needed a radical turnaround plan and if it really did, what does that say about the reform mantra that ‘great teachers’ overcome all if the great teachers at Success Academy were not able to maintain control of 200 5, 6, and 7 year olds?
The reaction to this story by reformers varied. You had Michael Petrilli writing in The Daily News about how if a school needs the flexibility of harsh discipline, then that’s one of the benefits of charters. The initial title that The Daily News gave to his piece was “Charters Are Not For Everyone.” Though this is exactly what the piece was about, Petrilli complained about this title and it was changed to the infinitely less snappy “The real moral duty of charter schools: The goal should be to create orderly and challenging environments where strivers from poor families can learn.” On Dropout Nation, though, they are not supportive of the harsh discipline and exclusionary policies at Success Academies. Most reformers refrained from commenting on the “Got To Go” list, however. Campbell Brown was one exception, tweeting that she was “So proud” of Success Academy admitting it made a mistake and learning from it. I could not resist responding to it.
I think that Success Academy would have been smarter to stay small and ‘under the radar.’ With their ambitious growth plan, there are too many teachers and former teachers who will be that much less likely to keep the secrets of their techniques of purifying their gene pool. I expect there will be more whistle-blowers in the coming month.
Though it is just a small sample, all five reviews of this school on Inside Schools were negative (click on the comments button). Here is a recent review on Inside Schools from a parent who nearly sent her child there for kindergarten, but changed her mind when the school would not excuse their absence from an orientation so the child could see her grandfather for the last time before he died:
We were accepted into this school for Kindergarten. I was a little wary of the hard sell they present to prospective parents. They boast about test scores, test scores, and test scores. Then they emphasize how your child will not have to interact with the other kids that Success has commandeered the building from as if they are lowly untouchables, and I couldn’t believe I was being reassured that my kid would never have contact with them. It was very elitist, but I wasn’t quite sure what they had to be so pretentious about. Maybe the TEST SCORES?
We were put on a waiting list, and then notified shortly after that we were fortunate to have been accepted. There were forms to bring back, and so forth. Then–they tell you about the uniform fittings. The uniform fitting is a big deal, and unlike other uniforms in the city, the uniform is rather costly-running you about $350 when all is said and done. That’s a chunk of change for a charity school looking outfit, with orange and brown being the predominant colors. We went to this mandatory “fitting” in the beginning of June. At the same time we were presented with a packet of summer reading materials, and we were supposed to log in the reading hours every week. I love that they emphasize reading, but this was a little much for an entering Kindergarten child. Of course we read to her, but now I was going to have to mark it all summer too, following specific guidelines for each book. Okay. But I was beginning to sense that this place was going to demand a lot more than just reading logs, and this was evident before we had even finished our fitting.
There was going to be an orientation for everyone directly after the first week of August (the school year begins mid-August-they seem