Sunday, September 04, 2011

Winerip hatchet job

Let's finish with two ridiculous hatchet jobs on Class Warfare and reform efforts in general.  The first is from old faithful, the NYT's Michael Winerip.  In my last email, I called him a "hack", "gutless weasel", "infamous for biased hatchet jobs", and "the worst education reporter in America" ( – and then he confirmed all of this the very next day!  It's amazing that the NYT continues to allow this editorializing from a "reporter":

Can an education reform movement that demeans and trivializes teachers succeed? It's hard to imagine, but that is what is going on in parts of America today.

In Steven Brill's new book celebrating the movement, "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools," teachers are literally the least of it. Of the three million who work in traditional public schools, three are interviewed by Mr. Brill on the record; their insights take up six of the book's 437 pages.

Brill and Winerip exchanged posts after the article was published (  Here's Brill:


I appreciate that Mr. Winerip thinks I have "seen the light" at the end of the book. What he doesn't realize, though not for lack of my trying to explain it to him, is that I was simply reporting what I found over two years. I was not trying to render, let alone reconcile, a verdict for or against his (anti-reform) point of view.


However, despite his distinguished prior career as an reporter, I am not surprised by the apparent anger in Mr. Winerip's opinion column, let alone his decision to distort my book by ignoring all in it that describes teachers (and even teachers' union leaders) in a positive light and strains to explain, and depict from the classroom, how difficult effective teaching is. When he talked with me, it was almost as if he'd been waiting to unload on me for years. He freely cast epithets, some profane, at many of the men and women portrayed in the book, and refused to consider that his reporting about alleged "skimming" of the best students at the Harlem Success charter network might be based on faulty data. (Though he did, I guess in attempt to humor me, chuckle when I tweaked him for ignoring in a prior article that I was the product of Queens, New York elementary and middle public schools, before winning a full scholarship to go to a prep school – whereupon he repeated this revelation in this article.)


After he slammed a phone down on me on Friday when I tried to get him into the weeds of that Harlem Success data, I sent Mr. Winerip an email urging him to reconsider. I never received a reply. Whether my reading of the data on Harlem Success is right or wrong (and I believe it is correct), I think his approach to dealing with the issue, let alone the near-venom of his piece today, speaks for itself.


Here's Winerip's response, in which he sounds ever-so-reasonable:


I have not been waiting to unload on Mr. Brill for years; on the contrary, I have admired much of his previous work. As I told him during the reporting for my column, I was a big fan of the Teamsters book and I was also very, very impressed with "American Lawyer," a truly original creation.


In terms of my interaction with him last week: our interview was originally scheduled for 9 a.m., but he had a limited amount of time. We then agreed to talk at 6 a.m., when he had an hour; we talked again for about a half hour at 9 a.m. I have the email string; I sent him 11 and he sent me 11. In addition, I'd estimate he made several additional phone calls to me after the second interview. Eventually, I told him I had to cut short our conversation to write the piece; the very last words I said to him were: I have to go, I apologize. I did not slam the phone.


As for the substantive points in his email, he and I clearly have pretty different perspectives on school reform. Here's my take on his take on my take on his take:


First, on the data from Harlem Success:


In his book, Mr. Brill says: "Union critics of charter schools and their supporters have repeatedly asserted that schools like Harlem Success 'skim from the community's most intelligent students and committed families' or that they teach fewer learning challenged or impoverished students and fewer students who are English language learners. None of the actual data supports this."


As I indicated in my column, the city Department of Education Web site clearly has data that contradicts what he says. I sent Mr. Brill the link for verification. Here it is:


I also told Mr. Brill that there was a recent study by the city's charter school organization that said the same thing -- that charters serve children with fewer challenges. The study says that students at charters score better but district schools have more students with special needs -- precisely what I said in the column. Mr. Brill sent me emails claiming that the city was wrong, and that he had the right information. But in his 437-page book, none of this information is included. If he had said there is disagreement on this issue, and provided the data, I would have included a reference. But in the notes in the back, he cites the same source as I did -- the city Web site.


As for Mr. Brill's statement that he was just reporting what he found, I don't understand: is his recommending Randi Weingarten for chancellor "simply reporting?" When I asked him if he meant that as some metaphor or he actually believed it, he said he was serious, and joked that some of his friends wanted to cut off his head for taking that point of view.


I stand by my characterization of his attitude toward teachers and the union: He spends most of the book detailing what's wrong with the union, and then changes this point of view at the end -- which I noted. As for his point about supporting teachers, I think what he said about "thousands" who are "skilled and motivated" supports my perspective. Thousands out of 3 million is a modest percentage.


Finally, Mr. Brill noted in the back of his book that he and his children attended private schools, so it seemed like fair game for me to as well.


In 35 years as a reporter, I have never been accused of being profane or inappropriate. Nor was I in my many conversations with Steve Brill.


So let's look at three elements of this debate to understand what kind of "reporter" Winerip is:


A) Winerip wrote "Nor was he well acquainted with public schools — he graduated from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and sent his three children to private schools.", yet knew that Brill was "the product of Queens, New York elementary and middle public schools, before winning a full scholarship to go to a prep school."  It's dishonest and disingenuous for Winerip to say this "Nor was he well acquainted with public schools" without noting that Brill attended NYC public schools through 8th grade – a fact that Winerip was aware of (but would have interfered with the storyline he was promoting).


B) Did he slam the phone down hanging up on Brill?  No way to know for sure, but Brill emailed me: "my ears are still ringing with him slamming the phone down when I tried to walk him through the real Harlem Success numbers."


C) Most importantly, Winerip knowingly reported incorrect numbers regarding the percentage of ELL students at Harlem Success Academy I Charter School.  Winerip wrote:


According to the city, in 2010 P.S. 149 had more children poor enough to receive free lunch (76 percent vs. 67 percent for the charter); more children for whom English was a second language (13 percent vs. 1.5 for the charter); and more children with disabilities (22 percent vs. 16).


The numbers are actually pretty comparable – except for the ELL students.  Well, it turns out that the NYC DOE web site had incorrect data – Harlem Success's actual ELL percentage is 9.5%, not 1.5%, as Jenny Sedlis explains:


Getting the numbers right on Harlem schools

Aug 31, 2011 11:03 EDT


By Jenny Sedlis

The opinions expressed are her own.


I note that Michael Winerip has chosen to use data about Harlem Success Academy's student body as the central piece of factual evidence in his reply to Steven Brill.  Harlem Success Academy had 9.5% English Language Learners in 2009-10, not the 1.5% that Michael Winerip reported.  The statistics are publicly available (as a ZIP file) in the section NYSESLAT Annual Results*: Source: NYSED School Report Card Database 2009-10 URL: blicweb-external/


Even if there were vast differences in the demographics (which there are not) Harlem Success Academy 3rd graders scored in the top 1% in New York State on the ELA in 2009-10, while PS 149 3rd graders scored in the bottom 2%, a difference that cannot be attributed to demographics.  Winerip is correct that Harlem Success Academy has advantages over PS 149 that makes comparisons less valuable.  We can hire and fire. We can provide 8 weeks a year of professional development. Our principals are instructional leaders who are there to support and develop teachers. The composition of our student body is not the determining factor in our success. It's the quality, training, passion, effort, and drive of our teachers, leaders and network staff.


*All English Language Learners take the NYSESLAT test.  The number of test-takers in a school reflects the number of English Language Learners.  The demographics section in the database is incorrect.  It pulls data from the City's ATS database before the NYSESLAT results were included.


Jenny Sedlis is director of external affairs for the Success Charter Network.


Now, it would be one thing if Winerip took the number off the web site and reported it without knowing it was wrong, but that's not the case: both Sedlis and Brill told Winerip that the number was wrong and showed him the correct number on another DOE web site, but Winerip reported the incorrect number anyway – because, of course, it supported his storyline. 


This is what Brill posted below Sedlis's post:

This is the data that I was attempting to explain to Michael Winerip of the New York Times (even though the Harlem Success people had also pointed him to it) when he told me he "did not have time for this…." and hung up on me.


On Education

Teachers Get Little Say in a Book About Them

Published: August 28, 2011

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