Tuesday, May 30, 2017

NO to the Seattle Times Education Reporting

 At the very least, you should take all of the Seattle Times' education reporting on policies and solutions to education issues with a grain of salt.  Some of it is supported by the Gates Foundation and the rest of it is suspect. 

You should be unhappy that the newspaper of record in our city is being decidedly disingenuous with readers and attempting to manipulate the conversation about public education in our state via back-room decisions with ed reformers around the state.

Over the last seven years or so, I have repeatedly told various Times' education reporters that I thought their editors (via Editorial) had to be leading their reporting and every time I am told that there is a "wall" between Editorial and reporting. 

Recently, I had given the Times credit for pushing and pushing on the Legislature to get McCleary done.  They didn't acknowledge their push was for the GOP plan and they would be using every trick in the book to undercut the Dems plan.  The Times Editorial Board sounded so earnest and yet demanding for the Legislature to get this done.  And I fell for it.

I say to you today that the Times' wall between Editorial and reporting is about as believable as the Trump wall.  
I got to this unfortunate way of thinking because of two recent findings - one via Twitter and the other an article that the Times recently printed on the impasse between the Dems and the GOP in our state legislature over McCleary funding.

What did I find via Twitter?  Well, it came from the unlikeliest of sources - former state senator and champion ed reformer (and another of the "smiling faces of no"), Steve Litzow.

(For those of you who don't use Twitter, they often "link" up possible tweets you might want to see based on the subject matter you follow.  I just happened to click on one.)

What was on Litzow's Twitter feed were two graphics/photos seemingly about McCleary but really about the "failures" of Seattle Public Schools.

What I found troubling was that the Seattle Times was named as a source of the information.  That makes sense given they have been writing about some of the claims made in these graphics and photos.  However, it is HOW the Times was part of this that is disturbing.

At the top of every graphic , to the left, it says this: A public service announcement from The Seattle Times, provided by the Education Research Institute.   To the right, is the actual Times logo.

So the Education Research Institute - sounds all fancy and important, right?  Of course, I've never heard of them so I decided to try to find out who they are.  Well, first I found a group in Texas with this name but it's not them.  Silly me, though, I thought putting in that official name into Google would pull up their website.  What I needed to put in was Education Research Institute ROI - there it is!

Now, of course, if the ERI name was already taken, sure your URL might need to be different but here what their URL is: schoolingroi.com.  I'm sure most of you know that ROI is a business term - return on investment.

What an interesting choice for a URL until, of course, you see who is part of this organization.

There is a "sponsored" page at the Times with these tweeted graphics naming the Education Research Institute but the Times doesn't acknowledge they themselves are actually part of the group.

Shameful but we live in shameless times.

Here's their approach:

-Build and maintain a visualization tool & database connecting these datasets to serve as a catalyst
to create a data-driven discussion on improving our education system

-Create & Promote consumable media elements from the data analysis and insights
and disseminate them broadly and repeatedly around the community.

-Train & Facilitate Parents, Principals, Teachers, Superintendents, Community Advocates, Public Officials discussion.

And I know how parents, principals, teachers, superintendents and community advocates just love to be "facilitated."  Me, I hate that and feel very manipulated and talked down to when it happens.

So who are these researchers?  Whoops, "the Team"?

- Steve Litzow
- Marguerite Roza, Ph.D.  She's the only real person with a research background and worked for both the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Gates Foundation.  
- Scott Battishill - a PR guy
- Chris Korsmo - head of League of Education Voters
- Marty Loesch - a public affairs guy who works for a favorite group for ed reformers, Insight Strategic Partners
- Mark McNeely - a branding guy, Founder, CEO of Intelevision and former Head of Strategic Planning for Publicis Worldwide and Chairman of Cole & Weber.
- Steve Mullin - president of the business group - Washington Roundtable
- Cindi Williams - Principal at HCM Strategists, a leading DC-based education and health public policy firm, where she provides communications and advocacy strategy for a portfolio of clients dedicated to improving student outcomes for low income students. Also formerly worked at the Gates Foundation.  Oddly, her profile does not include that she is Vice-Chair of the Charter Commission.

Which brings me to the Times:

Curator PR is a digital public relations and marketing firm that drive the marketing efforts for the initiative coordinating with the Seattle Times and other Partners. Scott Battishill is the Principal & Founder.

Oh my.

I'm not sure who started this initiative but what a backhanded way to push an agenda.  Any person who just glanced at those tweets would assume it was the newspaper in general who supported this and not just Editorial.   

I think that bad for the Times but maybe they know who the audience was for those tweets and weren't worried.   It's troubling that Seattle's only daily newspaper has created a backdoor way to push for their public education agenda. 

To the tweets -  Litzow has tweeted out two graphics, 14 times over four days last week.

These graphics/photos are described as:  

A data-driven public service series that tracks education funding and results to improve transparency, accountability, student outcomes and use of public tax dollars to educate all children in Washington State. 

Graphic #1 
Points out that SPS has spent more money over the last three years - up 24% - and where did it all go?  The next line says - What's your school's ROI?  I find it charming that the Times thinks that all parents would know what an ROI is however, if your goal was to reach the ears of certain parents/readers, that's a great dog-whistle.

Of course, the Times and Litzow seem to forget that there was a recession that TOOK money out of the district and that much of that "increase" is really backfill.

Naturally, they put in a quote from a GOP lawmaker and a Dem lawmaker but try to casually insert something good about the GOP lawmaker's background "a commander in the Naval Reserve" and nothing about the Dem.  Woof, woof, here comes the dog you just called to.

Graphic #2 
It says - McCleary requires an increase in school funds but also presents an opportunity to change the way Washington allocates it.  Just pouring money into a system that distributes it inequitably could deepen the opportunity gap.

They go on: Equity means leveling the playing field between districts - and schools within that district - rather than treating all students the same.

I find that misleading.  Is equity the same thing - the exact same thing - as "leveling the playing field"?  I'm not sure I agree.  We have over 200 school districts in our state and honestly, striving to treat them the same - all together and at once - might be a challenge.

And, for should be the last time, districts DON'T treat students the same.  There are state and federal dollars that get driven to schools and districts depending on student need like Sped, ELL, homeless and highly capable.

But again, if you want the narrative to be that districts don't fund for those students and don't fund equitably, then sure, that statement makes sense.

Then they go after "Key Player - Sue Peters, Seattle School Board President"  and the text following this details how the Seattle Schools Board has "fiduciary and legal responsibility for the district."  Yes, they do but the text goes onto to state what the Board does but somehow makes it sound like they do it on their own.  They don't.  The Superintendent and staff are every bit as responsible for that spending and those outcomes.  (Note; this was written before Peters decided to not run again but clearly they wanted her name to be front and center.)

What is the point to these graphics? Why would it be only about Seattle Schools if your goal is equitable funding for all the districts?  Maybe because it's more important to get support for your agenda - the GOP agenda - from areas of the state that resent Seattle if you show the opportunity gap in Seattle.

As well, if you wanted to push the point that there are HUGE amounts of money going into schools - without breaking down how that plays out - so that people think the schools are already well-funded (and darn that Supreme Court and state constitution for thinking otherwise) to push the GOP plan, well, this is one way to do it.

I did try to contact the Editorial Board at the Times with no answer.  I was also directed to call a woman in marketing and no answer there either.

Next up, the article in the Times.  It actually was a decent topic - the staff mix formula that districts use to fund staffing.
Staff mix is a five-digit numeral, baked into school-finance formulas, that reflects the average experience and education level of teachers in any given district. A place with more seasoned educators has a higher staff mix, and the higher the staff mix, the more money the state forks over per teacher.
The idea makes sense: More experienced teachers command higher salaries, which triggers more money from the state to cover their pay.

But opponents consider it one of the largest drivers of inequity in Washington schools — if not the largest.
Only six other states use a formula like staff mix, and those who are pushing to eliminate it here see it as part of a larger effort to completely overhaul the state’s funding system.
Read the article, see who lines up on which side - it's all worth thinking about.  As well, this article from a year ago from NPR has some good insights.

But to this topic, there were a couple of issues.

One, they cite the Campaign for Student Success, yet another fairly new group that wants to see McCleary done.

Let's just stop and note here that the group Washington's Paramount Duty was on the scene and fighting on this issue long before these people.

The Times only states that there are the teachers unions and various education associations and not a single other type of group that support the staff mix. 

While the CSS has many parent-driven groups in their coalition, they also have Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children and the Washington State Charter Schools Association (which also said largely on the sidelines allowing others the heavy lift of pushing for McCleary funding).  I'm not sure who funds CSS but the Gates Foundation funds all the ed reform groups.

Then the article has this quote:
“If you care about equity, the staff-mix factor is not a good thing,” said Zahava Stadler, policy and research manager with EdBuild, a nonprofit focused on school-funding issues.

Gee, who is EdBuild?

EdBuild is a nonprofit organization focused on bringing common sense and fairness to the way states fund public schools. 

Well, that's good, no?

Who are their funders? Eli Broad.  The Waltons. The Gates Foundation. (There are other groups but really, when you see those names, you know.) Not so good.

And is the Times going to say that there was NO other group that the Times could have found to get a quote on this type of funding? Not believable.

Finally, Gates has made significant contributions to the Solutions Journalism Network (from Wikipedia): 
In October, 2013, The Seattle Times launched a series of education-related articles, documentaries, and guest opinion pieces written from a solutions standpoint.[12] The Times, with SJN’s support, has assigned two journalists to the project full-time. They write a major feature article each month addressing perennial issues with education, like dropout rates, attendance, parent involvement. They also produce an Education Lab blog, which now attracts over 60,000 views each month. This series has been instrumental in stimulating community dialogue and engagement with education-related issues.

Responses from a survey taken of Seattle Times readers indicated that people are aware of the campaign and feel that the solutions stories being run are different from traditional journalism. Other results indicated that people are more likely to share, act on, or change their think about an issue due to the solutions stories they read. Some respondents stated that they felt that the solutions journalism was biased, while others said they were happy with the positive approach to issue.
In March 2015, The Boston Globe and SJN began a collaboration to produce two major solutions-focused series on issues affecting education in Boston and the state of Massachusetts."
The Gates Foundation apparently thinks that major newspapers like the Seattle Times and The Boston Globe don't know how to write "solutions-focused" articles on their own.  But whose solutions are they especially if they use references from groups supported by Gates' funding.

In summary,

The Times cannot be trusted at this point with their
 education reporting on policies and solutions.   

The swirl of who they are associated with - directly now - makes clear what their agenda really is even if they don't have the courage to say it out loud on their Editorial page.

They don't have the courage to acknowledge that they are working with groups that they mention in news stories and who they quote in their reporting.

They don't have the courage to acknowledge that they quote and use as sources groups that all lead back to the same ed reform groups and even the group that financially supports some of their education reporting, the Gates Foundation

I do understand that it is difficult to swing a dead cat in public education work and not hit a Gates-funded group but for public policy and research, the Times can and should do better.  Maybe at this point, it's too late.

In summary, it's just all so incestuous and ties together like one big swirling Medusa head. 

18 comments:

Stuart J said...

Sometime in the past week or two, the Seattle Times had an ad that I think included much of the content you mention. It definitely had Sue Peters' name. What was strange was there was no web site to go to for more information. The ad ran on the bottom of a page that was on the right side. It might have been section B. It definitely wasn't the sports section.

Anonymous said...

Since its inception I have found the Times "Education Lab" reporting to be disappointing and, as you state, disingenuous. The only insightful articles on Seattle education come from elsewhere, such as from Danny Westneat's column from time to time. The Education Lab, in contrast, has specialized in garbage (to my eye) from day one. Thank you Melissa for solving that conundrum.

-SPSParent

Anonymous said...

Marty Loesch was also Fmr. Gov Gregoire's Chief of Staff.

Anonymous said...

What's the line though? One article down you take the Seattle Time's reporting at its face value when it reports about Garfield. Shouldn't the same standard apply equally even if the article is confirming your beliefs?

-dilemma

Anonymous said...

No - there are no broadly applicable standards. Especially with paid trolls manipulating public opinion at every opportunity.

-grownup

NNE Mom said...

There is no newspaper in Seattle. The Seattle Times should definitely be thought of as a conservative-leaning suburban newspaper. The Stranger does do good reporting, but even they can't seem to understand the local education scene.

Thank goodness for Washington's Paramount Duty and this blog. The McCleary stuff is very hard to understand and to the extent that I can understand it, it is only thanks to you guys.

As for the Times, one of the only things I actually know about is gifted education, and I can definitely say that the paper hasn't managed to write a single fact-based story gifted education in the 30+ years I've lived in this city. They can't even figure out the name of the programs they're talking about (was it Advanced Learning? Or APP? Or Spectrum? Or HCC? or was it AP course--are those even "gifted education"? Or IB(X)? What? Huh?--Don't ask them, they're just writing about!!!)

Melissa, wouldn't you like to write an education column once a quarter or something for the Stranger? Many of those young hipsters who enjoy reading the Stranger now will be having kids in not that many years and many will be sending their kids to Seattle public schools shortly thereafter. Now would be a great time to start waking people up to some of the issues our city (and state) need to fix in terms of education. Pre-persuasion for the win!

Melissa Westbrook said...

Dilemma, I was careful to write "on public policy and research" on public education. Naturally, other news stories like the Garfield one, I have more trust in because Gates isn't interested in that.

Anonymous said...

When Paul Constant and Goldy were at the Stranger it was my "go to" for local news. Goldy was especially cogent on education news. Now that they are gone I hardly read it anymore. Contributions from Melissa could change that!

-SPSParent

Anonymous said...

Melissa for The Stranger contributor! Yes, I agree with all my heart!

SPS Parent, too :-)

Anonymous said...

Yeah if you assume the Time is anti-public school and works to advance the Gates Foundation / Charter school agenda in many of its articles doesn't it also follow that it would also try to cast schools in a bad light as much as possible? Articles that allege waste, fraud, mismanagement tend to decrease confidence in the system and push folks to look for alternatives. There's no clean division between political views and reporting in this world view. Every article showing problems advances dismantling the public school.

-dilemma

Anonymous said...

Then by your B&W vision (very GOP that!), Melissa is a major supporter of dismantling public schools. Maybe you should stop trolling unless you have something useful to contribute information-wise. Useless back and forth semantics is a troll signature.

-Go

Robert Cruickshank said...

There's another important piece to this, which is the Washington Roundtable. Many of their members are literally buying beat coverage in the Times, via Education Lab or Traffic Lab. (The Gates Foundation is a member of the Washington Roundtable.) It raises significant ethical questions, in addition to those you raise here. Who gets quoted? Who is getting preferential treatment? How are stories really being assigned and covered?

I don't hold individual reporters responsible for this. My analysis, based on numerous conversations with insiders, is that what happens is the newsroom editors generally share the same biases as the editorial writers. Blethen hires them all, and it makes sense they'd reflect his wishes. And any reporter or editor will feel pressure, whether overt or implicit, to keep the funders happy.

The Seattle Times needs to decide: is it a newspaper, or is it an outlet for the state's biggest corporations via the Washington Roundtable and their Republican allies to promote their ideas?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jan said...

This was a hard post to read, Melissa -- but very much needed, and very informative. Thanks for posting it. I too had sort of "fallen" for the seemingly neutral "fix the financing" schtick that the ST was peddling on its op ed pages. I should have known better.

And, dilemma, who wrote: "Every article showing problems advances dismantling the public school." That same logic would suggest that you might think that every national news outlet reporting problems in Washington wants to dismantle democracy and move to oligarchy (to the extent we are not already there) or dictatorship. In actuality -- what good press wants to do is to shine light on problems. That allows citizens who care to work to correct those problems and to make the public structures (the ones that voters set up and fund) work better, more efficiently, and with more accountability. (As for op ed pages -- in my opinion, the ST's versions have been insipid and either irrelevant or wrongheaded most of the time for years.

Anonymous said...

This blogger has stepped on a landmine, she just doesn't want to acknowledge it.


Freedom Foundation

Melissa Westbrook said...

FF, if you have something to say, say it. I don't know what your cryptic comment means.

I could care less if I ruffle feathers.

Stuart J said...

On the back of the May 31 Northwest section B, there's another of the ads. This one does not include a school board name, it includes Dr Nyland's name. Again there's no URL, just suggestions about how to contact the Seattle School District.

chunga said...

What is so disingenuous about the ads and the article that emphasize SPS's achievement gap is the support for the Republican plan, which would end exacerbate the inequities by raising property taxes for poor families in Seattle - who are already hit disproportionately due to WA's regressive taxes and due to rent prices and property values skyrocketing.