Rolling Stone magazine ran an article two months ago describing the horrific treatment a young UVA co-ed experienced at a fraternity party where she became intoxicated and was raped repeatedly. The story was picked up by mainstream media and became national news. The UVA President closed down all fraternity parties, began serious exploration of the complete elimination of fraternities, and called for soul searching about the toxic atmosphere at the college. The story, as it turned out, had some holes… and ultimately led to the Rolling Stone editors apologizing for failing to validate the facts in the case.
The whole incident brought to mind personal encounters with the media and, especially, the Tawana Brawley incident in Wappingers Falls NY where the community was still putting the case behind them when I worked there a decade after the incident. In brief, Ms. Brawley was found in a garbage bag with racial slurs written on her body and covered with feces. She claimed to have been abducted and raped by six white men, one of whom was the Dutchess County Assistant DA Steven Pagones. Ms. Brawley’s allegations drew national attention from the media and much sympathy from those who were convinced of the veracity of the story, a story some believe to be true to this day. A grand jury convened and determined that the entire episode was fabricated by Ms. Brawley to avoid severe punishment from her mother and step-father for staying out overnight. In the aftermath, Mr. Pagones sued Ms. Brawley and her advisors (one of whom was Al Sharpton) for defamation and won some restitution but lost his marriage and his reputation since the coverage of the accusations far outstripped the coverage of the defamation trial. A decade later, when I applied for the Superintendency in that district, my brother sent me an email reminding me of this case, as did virtually everyone who learned that I was appointed to the job. In the minds of the public, Wappingers was defined by the case and, presumably, had a shadow cast over it. Some of the staff members I worked with rolled their eyes when I mentioned this, with one in particular recalling the turmoil it created in the secondary schools in the district where he served as Principal at the time.
I have long been suspicious of media coverage given my first experiences as a student teacher in Philadelphia and my admiration for George Orwell’s analysis of political writing. By over-reporting on salacious incidents that prove to be untrue and under-reporting the slow, steady improvements that are taking place, the media play into the hands of those who claim the fundamental issues (e.g. racism and sexual assaults on campus) are groundless. And the collateral damage to the institutions and/or communities under attack is irreparable.
This post was triggered by an article in today’s NYTimes, titled “University of Virginia Officials Blast Media Coverage”. The article quotes the University of Virginia’s rector, George Keith Martin, and President Teresa Sullivan:
“Our tightly knit community has experienced the full fury of drive-by journalism in the 21st century — of callous indifference to the truth and callous indifference to the consequences,” he said, adding, “our great university’s reputation has been unfairly tarnished.”
Before reciting a long list of things the administration is doing to make the campus safer, Teresa A. Sullivan, the university president, said, “Our concern with sexual assault was not something that started with the Rolling Stone article.” And she said she felt compelled to state that “UVA’s climate and culture are generally healthy.”
As it turns out the rush to publish a salacious article has become a lose-lose proposition. UVA and fraternities on all campuses have their reputations tarnished and, as the penultimate paragraph notes, the false story will have negative percussions for those trying to change the culture on campuses as well:
Activists have voiced concerns that the Rolling Stone episode could undermine people’s willingness to believe victims, and weaken the university’s resolve to address the problem.
The solution? When someone approaches the media with a story like the Brawley incident or the UVA episode the writer should make certain that the source has done everything possible to seek redress through administrative and/or legal channels and if not, do thorough and complete research before publishing. As the Brawley incident indicates, it takes years to heal and as UVA is learning, the aftermath outlives “…the full fury of drive-by journalism in the 21st century”.
Earlier this week, Andrew Cuomo stunned the natural gas industry and environmental activists with an announcement that he was going to indefinitely suspend fracking in NYS. An article in The Albany Project described the process activists used to persuade Cuomo to make this decision and, in doing so, provides a playbook to those who want to put an end to the high-stakes testing mania. And the analogy is apt given that in the end Cuomo used “scientific evidence” as the basis for his decision to deny fracking, and readers of this blog and students of statistics know that the “value added measure (VAM)” evaluations beloved by “reformers” are based on junk science and any reputable and respectable statistician or education assessment expert knows that there is NO scientific evidence supporting VAM based on standardized tests.
The Albany Project summarized the activists steps with these bullet points:
- They got organized locally.
- They got organized statewide.
- They correctly identified the significant points of leverage in the machines and applied pressure that never stopped.
- They took their case to their own city halls and made the issue real for people.
- They backed a primary candidate with a funny name and no money who won half the counties in the state while amplifying the fracktivist message.
- They changed the debate.
- They moved public opinion significantly.
- They severely restricted Cuomo’s freedom of movement on the issue.
- They completely out-maneuvered Andrew Cuomo, eventually placing him in such a tight position that his only possible option was to defer to the science.
Using the environmentalists playbook, those in NYS who oppose the over-emphasis on standardized tests might try the following:
- Begin and/or continue applying pressure to locally elected school boards to adopt resolutions refusing to use VAM as the basis for any evaluations and supporting parents who wish to opt out of the tests
- If and when the State tries to compel the local districts and/or parents to comply with the implementation of the tests needed to implement the VAM mandate, file a lawsuit emphasizing that teacher evaluation and student assessment are local decisions… and in filing the suit be prepared to go all the way to the State Supreme Court to prove your point
- Hound Governor Cuomo wherever he goes demanding an end to the overuse, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing
- Make sure that the overuse, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing is an election issue locally and especially at the State level. This will help raise the public’s awareness of this issue.
- Use Cuomo’s acknowledgment that he isn’t a scientist to compel him to also acknowledge that he isn’t a psychometrician and get him to turn over the ultimate decision on the use of VAM to an independent panel of experts.
It worked for the environmentalists because in the end politicians cannot argue against science… and science should always win when there is an argument.
Today’s NYTimes had an article with this headline:
New York City Teachers Score Highly Under New Evaluation System
The lead paragraph trumpeted the good news:
Nine out of 10 New York City teachers received one of the top two rankings in the first year of a new evaluation system that was hailed as a better way of assessing how they perform, according to figures released on Tuesday.
This came on top of recent reports that only .4% of the teachers in the state were rated “ineffective”. One would think that politicians, education leaders, and parents would be thrilled with this finding… but instead here are the responses:
“Two percent (of the teachers receiving “ineffective” ratings in NYC) is worrisome,” Sandi Jacobs, the vice president and managing director for state policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said of the number of teachers found to be “developing” in the rest of the state. The council has pushed for states to do a better job of identifying ineffective teachers.
Timothy Daly, the president of theNew Teacher Project, an education reform group that advocates more rigorous teacher evaluations, said, “Many districts appear to have completely botched this.”
The New York State education commissioner, John B. King Jr., said in a statement: “I’m concerned that in some districts, there’s a tendency to blanket everyone with the same rating. That defeats the purpose of the observations and the evaluations, and we have to work to fix that.”
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he wants to strengthen the evaluation system. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman, Melissa DeRosa, said, “As the governor previously stated, stronger, more competitive, teacher evaluation standards will be a priority” for the next legislative session.
The “reformers” could “prove” students were failing by rigging the cut scores and will subsequently be able to use the cut scores to “prove” reforms work. But when it came to teacher evaluations, the only conclusion the “reformers” seem to reach is that the independent evaluators MUST BE WRONG because WE KNOW THAT BAD TEACHING IS THE REASON STUDENTS FAIL TESTS! And we will continue pounding that message home and massaging the evaluation system until we can prove it! To paraphrase the t-shirt slogan: “Evaluation “reform” will continue until we prove teachers are failing”…