Thursday, February 17, 2011

UPDATED, FEB. 19: Foster care panic in Los Angeles: It’s been curbed, but it’s not over


Ever since his shoddy reporting set off a foster-care panic in Los Angeles County, Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times, has taken an approach to the panic that boils down to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” 

With one exception, he appears not to have even asked the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services for data on entries into foster care – and DCFS hasn’t particularly wanted to tell.

(The exception: In one instance, Therolf responded to a comment I posted on the Times website by posting some entry data, even inviting readers to “judge for themselves.” But he’s never allowed readers of his actual stories to “judge for themselves” since, as far as I can tell, he’s never included the relevant data on entries in those stories.)

Since Therolf doesn’t seem to ask, and definitely won’t tell, NCCPR has obtained the information by filing requests under the California Public Records Act.

The first such request produced data showing that, during the first five months of the panic, August through December 2009, the number of children torn from their homes was 16 percent higher than during the same period in 2008.  In January, we filed another request, for data on entries into care in 2010.  Those data show that for the first full year of the panic – August 2009 through July 2010, removals were up seven percent over the previous 12 months. 

That’s better than other cities which have faced similar media-driven panics, but the main reason for that probably is a waiver from child welfare finance restrictions – the very waiver Therolf smeared in stories at the end of 2010.

We’ve updated our report on the Los Angeles foster care panic with all the new data – including month-by-month entry data for every month from January, 2006 through the most recent available, November 2010.  So at least readers of this Blog really can judge for themselves.


Meanwhile, there’s more on the Times’ failures in covering education, the ones that so closely parallel their failures on the child welfare beat.  There’s a comprehensive account at WitnessLA.

As I discussed on this blog last week, the Times had published rankings of teachers in Los Angeles based on a formula linking teacher evaluations to student test scores.  The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder did its own rankings which, it says, show the Times rankings are unreliable.  The Times then distorted NEPC’s position, claiming that the NEPC study actually “confirms the broad conclusions” of the Times’ stories.

Now the Times has issued two responses, one as part of a discussion of the issue from the paper’s ever-faithful “reader representative”; that one is available here.

In that one, Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter (yes, that David Lauter) says the Times spin was justified because both the Colorado study and the Times stories show that teachers have some kind of effect on student achievement.  Therefore, says Lauter, 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 second response, discussed below, the Times gets mean and petulant.

In both responses, the Times attempts to change the subject, focusing on whose evaluation method is better.  But the real issue is how the Los Angeles Times tried to distort the debate.

Had the Times simply reported the NEPC findings without adding its own absurd spin,  allowed the relevant Times editors and the scholar they chose for their own evaluation to respond, and given readers the necessary information to, once again, judge for themselves,  there would be no controversy now.  Instead, the Times wrote a misleading story about the NEPC findings.  Then, when NEPC and others complained, the Times retreated into petulance and name calling.

So, in its unsigned statement, the Times says that anyone who disagrees with how they evaluated teacher performance doesn’t want any evaluation at all.  The Times statement declares that

[NEPC]’s claim boils down to this: Until a perfect value-added system is developed that everyone agrees upon, nothing should be published. We reject that idea.

And later:

For years, school districts around the country, as well as academic experts, have conducted value-added analyses of teacher performance which they have kept secret. With “Grading the Teachers,” we put this information before the public, with ample explanation of the method’s limitations. That, we submit, is exactly what a newspaper should do. [NEPC] would like to put this information back behind locked doors. We disagree.

In fact, as one of the NEPC researchers states in an e-mail reprinted by WitnessLA:

Our report was a critique of [the Times expert]’s white paper, not on the decision by the Times to write the story and publish the ratings. We say this explicitly on p.2 and our narrative is consistent with this.
To some of us this kind of immature bunker mentality at the Times is depressingly familiar.  When NCCPR and many others criticized Times child welfare coverage Lauter replied by declaring that  “presumably” we don’t want news organizations to cover “mismanagement or poor execution of policies.”

Presumably, then, if anyone criticizes how the Los Angeles Times covers any topic, the newspaper will dive into a bunker and declare that we don’t want the topic covered at all.

UPDATE: NEPC has posted its own detailed response to the latest claims from the Times.  It's available here.

UPDATE FEB. 19: Caroline Grannan, a former copy editor for the San Jose Mercury News, posted a great comment under the Times' unsigned statement defending its coverage.  The comment perfectly sums up the problems with the hubris that has infected parts of American journalism.  Ms. Grannan writes:

Even if all parties involved agreed that the original gauge was valid, the Times was still dead wrong to engage in the project. Determining or approving the design of a gauge to measure teachers, or any other profession outside their own, is beyond the scope of journalists. It's outside their skillset, beyond their role -- just all-around wrong.

The role of the press is to serve as messenger. With the teacher-rating series, the Times set itself up as judge and jury -- and, some would say, executioner. That's out of bounds. The Times needs to press reset; rethink its ethics, professional standards and journalistic role; and recant and apologize. The Times brings shame on the entire already-battered news industry with this mistake.