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.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.