Wednesday, February 9, 2011

UPDATED FEB. 14: More ethically-challenged journalism at the Los Angeles Times

Apparently, the Times covers education 
exactly the same way it covers child welfare.

See update at the end of this post
            Child welfare coverage isn’t the only area where the Los Angeles Times has taken heat for its reporting.  An even more controversial project was an effort by the Times to evaluate every Los Angeles public school teacher, with the results published, by name, online.

            And now the Times is coming under fire from a respected education think tank and from two influential blogs, WitnessLA and LAObserved – for the same lapses in journalistic judgment and journalistic ethics that characterize the newspaper’s child welfare coverage.

The evaluations were based on “techniques that estimate through analysis of standardized test scores how much a given teacher helps or hinders the academic growth of students,” according to this very good Washington Post story about the controversy.  Those techniques are highly controversial in themselves.  But at issue now is whether, even using these techniques, the Times got the scores right.  The even larger, and familiar, issue is the Times’ effort to spin and stifle dissent about its reporting.

            At issue is a study released this week by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder concluding that the Times got its teacher evaluations wrong.  According to a summary of the study:

The research on which the Los Angeles Times relied for its teacher effectiveness reporting was demonstrably inadequate to support the published rankings. Using the same L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) data and the same methods as the Times, Derek Briggs and Ben Domingue of the University of Colorado at Boulder probed deeper and found the earlier research to have serious weaknesses making the effectiveness ratings invalid and unreliable.

            The Colorado researchers concluded that, even if the whole idea of evaluating teachers this way is valid, the Times gave low marks to some “good” teachers and high marks to some “bad” ones.  Obviously, were this kind of publicity to prompt the “good” teachers who were maligned to leave, or were it to get them fired, while the “bad” teachers who were praised got promoted, that would only leave the school system worse than ever.

            And the stakes may be even higher. The Times stories may have contributed to one teacher’s suicide.

            But the issue is not that researchers say the Times got it wrong. As Celeste Fremon writes in an excellent post on the controversy on her Blog WitnessLA, she doesn’t know which set of evaluations is right.  Neither do I.  For that matter, they both could have some merit or they both could be wrong.  And that’s before even reaching the larger issue of whether this method of evaluating teachers makes sense at all – a debate beyond the scope of this Blog.

            The real issue is how the Times responded to the critical findings:  by completely distorting them.  As Fremon points out, the press release announcing the Colorado findings was headlined:

Research Study Shows L. A. Times Teacher Ratings Are Neither Reliable Nor Valid

            In the press release the director of the National Education Policy Center blasts the Times in no uncertain terms, declaring:

This study makes it clear that the L.A. Times and its research team have done a disservice to the teachers, students, and parents of Los Angeles. The Times owes its community a better accounting for its decision to publish the names and rankings of individual teachers when it knew or should have known that those rankings were based on a questionable analysis. In any case, the Times now owes its community an acknowledgment of the tremendous weakness of the results reported and an apology for the damage its reporting has done.

            And yet, Fremon notes, somehow, the Times managed to run a story about this same research that was aptly summed up by a headline which read:

Separate study confirms many Los Angeles Times findings on teacher effectiveness

            At LAObserved, editor Kevin Roderick contrasted the Times stories with the accurate accounts in The Washington Post and a local public radio station.  He then compares the lead in the Times story to, as Roderick puts it, “what the researchers actually said.”

            In short, the Times came up with a “master narrative” – these teachers are good, those teachers are bad and our analysis proves it.  Then they ignored or distorted the findings from a scholarly study.  And now they may leave the system they crusaded to fix worse than it was before. Somehow all this has a familiar ring.

            It should be noted that Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times, who wrote the child welfare stories had absolutely nothing to do with the teacher evaluation stories.  And Fremon writes that the Times reporters who wrote the education stories, “are very good journalists whose work I respect and admire. Thus I can’t help but wonder if this urge to spin the contents of the Colorado study came from above their pay grade.”

            I’m wondering too.  Particularly since the spinner-in-chief seems to be Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter – the same David Lauter whose lame defense of Times child welfare coverage included the claim that anyone who disagrees with that coverage  “presumably” doesn’t want news organizations to cover “mismanagement or poor execution of policies.”  (So if precedent is any guide, presumably, Lauter now will write a column claiming that the Colorado researchers don’t want kids to have good teachers.)

            In fact, both the child welfare stories and the teacher evaluation stories appear to be cases of what David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who went on to write The Wire calls “Pulitzer-sniffing” – when a newspaper reeling from budget cuts, plummeting circulation and poor morale becomes desperate for a high-profile story or series to win the paper a Pulitzer Prize.

            The Times has forgotten that the most important prize for any news organization is its credibility.  And at the Times, credibility is plummeting even faster than circulation.

UPDATE, FEB. 14: The Times "Reader Representative" has a column in which Lauter offers up a lame defense of the education story much like what he put forward for the child welfare stories.

This time, Lauter argues that because both the Colorado study and the Times stories show that teachers have some kind of effect on student achievement, that means the Colorado study “confirms the broad conclusions” of the Times stories.

That’s like saying if I hand you a mushroom and say: “Eat this, you’ll really enjoy the taste” while a mushroom expert says: “If you eat that, it will kill you” the mushroom expert confirms my broad conclusion because we both agree the mushroom will have some kind of effect on you.

            In a future post: Results from NCCPR’s latest California Public Records Act request. Bottom line: The L.A. Foster Care Panic has been curbed, but it’s not over.