The NYT has no idea if student scores can be used to fairly evaluate teachers

I’ll probably be addressing news media coverage of the Chicago teachers’ strike more than once (for obvious reasons), but I was particularly struck by this egregious example of “he said-she said” reporting in the New York Times today:

Eager to improve Chicago’s schools, Mr. Emanuel has taken several steps — among them pressing the school board to rescind a promised 4 percent raise — and made numerous demands that have infuriated the Chicago Teachers Union. He wants student test performance to count heavily in evaluating teachers for tenure, even though the union insists that is a highly unreliable way to assess teachers. And with Mr. Emanuel intent on shuttering dozens of poorly performing schools, the union is pressing him to agree to strong provisions to reinstate teachers in other schools when theirs are closed. (emphasis added)

That’s the whole paragraph. NYU professor Jay Rosen described the “he said-she said” phenomenon very well:

“He said, she said” journalism means…

  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the reporter declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.

So the clashing truth claims in this story are “Student test performance is a good way to evaluate teachers” versus “Student test performance is a highly unreliable way to evaluate teachers.” Reporter Steven Greenhouse makes no attempt to assess these two claims and leaves the truth of the matter entirely up to the readers’ judgment.

But among the principles of journalism is the idea that journalists ought to enlighten their audience – to “balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need.” Readers want to know what lies at the heart of the dispute between Chicago officials and Chicago teachers, but they don’t know which side of the dispute is making more accurate claims.

There are numerous educational experts out there who could have commented on this dispute for the NYT. For example, Joseph Martineau of the Michigan Department of Education argues that some forms of long-term value-added accountability models may lead to “identification of effective teachers/schools as ineffective (and vice versa).” The title of W. James Popham’s essay “Standardized tests don’t measure educational quality” (Microsoft Word document) sums up his perspective.

I found those two articles with a quick Google Scholar search — surely similar resources lie at the fingertips of New York Times reporters, so why not use them? Instead we are left with these two competing claims, and readers are likely to decide that the stakeholders they already agree or empathize with are telling the truth. But good journalism is not about rewording the claims of powerful interests; it is about verifying those claims — and challenging them when necessary.

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