Reporting About Reporting…..

I had planned to devote time to Alexander Russo’s critique of my reporting for the PBS NewsHour about students “opting out” of the Common Core States Standards tests. However, we have too much going on {{1}} for me to spend excessive time looking back.

So, quickly, here’s the backstory: Alexander emailed education reporters to say he was writing an analysis of media coverage of the Common Core tests and asked for interviews with anyone who was covering the subject. I agreed to an interview, which–because we were in different cities–took place by email. He sent questions, which I answered. No other reporters cooperated, he acknowledged in his short online article.

Mr. Russo took me to task for ignoring the number of tests that were successfully administered, for not providing accurate counts of the numbers of students who ‘opted out,’ and for highlighting student protesters in Newark. I addressed these issues in my written interview, but that apparently did not meet his standards of journalism.

In his critique, he cites as authorities an individual who works for the Gates Foundation and another whose organization has received millions in contributions from the Foundation. He accepts without question reports from Pearson and others that the tests have gone well, even though a modest degree of skepticism would lead one to wonder what ‘going well’ means. A spokeswoman from PARCC, one of the two test developers, told me that it meant ‘without technological failure,’ but she did not know how many students might have been flummoxed by the technology, et cetera.

Even though the tone of some of Mr. Russo’s questions made me think he’d made up his mind before he began his reporting, I answered him in detail. Here is my complete, unedited response, with his questions underlined:

I am answering your questions on the assumption that you are writing about media coverage and not just about our piece. If you are doing the latter, then I choose not to participate and am declaring the material below to be ‘off the record.’ Fair enough?

1. Are there any particular aspects of reporting the Common Core testing/opt-out story that are particularly challenging or unusually complicated?

This is THE interesting question because there are multiple players with different agendas. It makes answering the ‘W’ questions very difficult, particularly Who and Why. Opting Out is seen by these groups as their chance to change the course, although they do not agree on a new direction. The protesters, whatever their politics, have been, as I see it, marginalized in the coverage, partly because of habit and partly because it’s difficult if not impossible to judge the strength of this (or any) grassroots movement. Most media, it seems to me, tend to echo the official line and present the usual faces. So the ‘left’ part of Opt Out is dismissed as tools of the union (as your third question suggests), which is a convenient story line but not accurate, as far as we could determine.

It’s a difficult story in another way: the response of the establishment has been over the top, especially if they truly believe that it’s just a few disgruntled folks and union pawns. But that story doesn’t get told (and it’s not in our piece). But you might ask why no reporters are asking why Arne, the Chamber, Mike Petrilli et alia are going nuclear. I think of Gertrude, ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

2. The connection between the Newark sit-in and opting out of the Common Core seems pretty thin — why’d you include them in the piece so prominently?

Thin in what way? Many of those kids were also part of other, specifically anti-CC testing events, and the proliferation of testing was one of their issues at the sit-in. Because they had more than one issue (quite a few, actually), does that disqualify them from being in the piece?

3. Why no mention of the NJEA, whose opposition to the future uses of the Common Core tests is behind at least some of the concerns and opting out that’s taking place?

The NJEA began running ads as the testing approached, but we did not see strong evidence that the union was calling shots or pullings strings. The NEA has provided small amounts of money to United Opt Out, according to Peggy Robinson {{2}}, but again the financial scales are so heavily tipped the other way. {{3}} Let’s just talk Gates for a moment: The Gates Foundation has played a major role in the Common Core State Standards. Between January 2008 and November 2010, it contributed more than $35 million to the Council of Chief School Officers and the National Governors Association Center; it gave Achieve $12.6 million in February 2008; $3 million to ASCD, and another $1 million to the National PTA to organize parent endorsement of Common Core. The list goes on and on. “It is not unfair to say that the Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., which itself has received nearly $3 million in Gates Foundation grants. (and those numbers are somewhat out of date because I wrote that paragraph a while back…and Mike Petrilli has become even more prominent as a supporter of the tests and the CC, along with Peter Cunningham, another recipient of Gates largesse (and other foundations)).

So, if you want a story, why don’t you compare spending and then analyze the language of the reporters and the reporting (starting perhaps with the assumptions behind your question???)

4. How did you protect against exaggerating or overstating the breadth and depth of the opt-out movement? Would it have helped to indicate the number of tests administered or kids tested as of the time of the broadcast?

We fessed up to not being able to provide numbers, even ended the piece with that question, “How strong….?” But we also reported that there were anti-testing events every night of the month, often multiple events. And we tried to capture the diversity of the folks speaking out. We tried to give the audience a sense of how difficult it would be for kids to step up, and I feel we did not do an adequate job there. Quite a few school districts put up obstacles, gave misleading information and established a threatening ‘sit and stare’ policy that would make opt out kids feel like outcasts among their peers. In short, they did a lot to prevent opting out. I don’t think we captured the guts it must have taken in quite a few districts.

Re numbers, the districts weren’t releasing any, and Pearson wasn’t responding, and we were of course not willing to report the counts provided by bloggers with an axe to grind. You no doubt saw that Pearson released numbers favorable to its position, which some media simply xeroxed and reported, but those numbers don’t provide adequate information. (Q for you: why isn’t the NJ Department of Education on top of these numbers? Does the Department have a responsibility to address the spreading of misinformation, for example?)

5. Do you feel like your peace (sic) was as balanced and contextualized as you wanted, or are there things you wanted to do or would have done to make it better?

Alexander, I work for the only place on television that will give a story like this 8 minutes, and I am eternally grateful for that privilege. But do I wish we had 10 minutes, or 15, or 20? Of course I do.

The points above are ones that we would have loved to tackle in the piece, but cooler heads prevailed down in Washington. However, I have a hunch that very few reports have given this much time to those opposing the tests, which is odd considering that it’s a story about ‘opting out.’

6. Anything else about the assignment, development, or editing of the piece that you think readers (especially other education reporters) should know?

It’s a tough story to report. We filmed in Florida at the National Opt Out conference and used maybe five seconds of that. We filmed at a school in NYC whose principal is opting out her own kids in NJ but has to devote days to test prep in her school…and is seriously conflicted about that contradiction—and that story didn’t make the piece either.

(When I retire, someone is going to get a hell of an archive of raw tape!!)

Mr. Russo, who seems to be trying to position himself as an independent judge or referee of education journalism, assured me that he would be analyzing other coverage, although it turns out that no other reporters cooperated with him. There must be a lesson in there somewhere.


[[1]]1. Including our new film, “School Sleuth: The Case of the Wired Classroom” and two pieces for the PBS NewsHour. [[1]]

[[2]]2. My error here. The founder of United Opt Out is Peggy Robertson, not Robinson[[2]]

[[3]]3. I not only got her name wrong; I apparently misinterpreted what she told me on the phone in January. My notes say ‘small support,’ which I incorrectly interpreted as ‘small amount of money.’  Peggy (Robertson) assures me that United Opt Out has received neither dollars nor encouragement from the National Education Association. I apologize for my error.[[3]]

12 thoughts on “Reporting About Reporting…..

  1. Peggy
    My sincere apologies. That’s what I have in my notes from our conversation back in January. Not sure why I wrote ‘small amounts’ but that’s what I took down.


  2. Ask Hespe in Newark how the testing went and at first, you hear crickets. Secondly, you smell smoke. Lastly, he spouts forth with a pat answer: Wonderfully. Yet, we have eyes, ears, and children in the school. We know teachers and students. We know people have opted out. We know students have walked out. We’ve read the scandal, yes SCANDAL, about Pearson monitoring kids’ tweets and social media and demanding students be “disciplined.” It has gotten terribly out of hand. The only people who want these expensive tests are the test makers and the bought DOE, Obama and Duncan. Sad. Very sad how they are dismantling public education, re-segregating schools, and dumbing down “us commoner” since – they would NEVER accept this for their own children, those billionaire “philanthropists” who only want what is good for the kids…so long as it fits their own agenda, delivers an ROI, and further establishes and “us” vs. “them” society.


  3. Mr. Russo should make clear if he has received money from the Gates foundation, Pearson, and any other groups at any time.


  4. Mr. Merrow,

    Given your interest in the educational issues which schools and families face in New Orleans, I hope you will give some attention to the way the opt-out movement has played out across Louisiana.

    On March 16th, reported that “approximately 99 percent of Louisiana students who are eligible to take the PARCC standardized tests completed the first part of the exam on Monday” according to the state’s superintendent, and that “about half of the testing non-participation occurred in Calcasieu Parish. According to the superintendent, “four Calcasieu Parish schools are driving most of the non-participation.”

    New Orleans schools had virtually 100% participation in PARCC tests. This, despite Gov. Jindal’s pronouncements against the Common Core.

    Common Core critics are dubious that the standards will do anything to decrease achievement gaps typically measured by income and race. Many claim it will widen the achievement gap. Yet polls consistently demonstrate that African Americans and Latinos consistently voice stronger support for the Common Core than whites.

    So what’s the story in Louisiana? And for that matter, what’s the story in other parts of New Jersey with large minority populations? It would be interesting to get the perspective of these students, parents, and their teachers.


  5. John,
    Thanks for your coverage of this issue vital to public education. As a science teacher for the past 30 years, I have observed the damage that standardized testing has done in our school system. It has slowly converted an environment supportive of teachers and students into an environment of conflict and stress for schools, teachers, and students. The test results are used by the media (and thus the public) to compare schools and then attack troubled schools. It does nothing to help educate children or fix “failing schools”. The draconian solution of closing schools as a result of low test scores is very harmful to the community. Tests that help students learn should be developed by competent teachers and reflect the instruction given in the classroom. Students should receive IMMEDIATE FEEDBACK on their success or failure on each test question. The objective here is to pinpoint learning gaps and then modify instruction to repair those gaps. This direct communication between teacher and pupil helps the student build his/her knowledge base.
    The context, wording, and development of test questions when done at a national level provides a very poor measuring device to ascertain progress in a local school. It does nothing to help students learn (they get no feedback on questions they miss) and amounts to nothing more than bullying of the students, teachers, and the school.
    The “opt out” movement is a significant grass roots effort and, from my observation point, is growing. We have been deluded by the “snake oil salesmen of our era” into taking these useless tests. They measure the wrong things and steal funding for ligitament educational needs.


  6. John,

    Are you listing 2008-10 Gates funding to CCSSO and Achieve, for instance, in support of your “over the top” point? That surely would have been for any number of projects but whatever part of it was for the Common Core would have been for the development of the standards rather than as a response to criticism that didn’t start until later.

    Actually, I’m surprised by how you conflated the standards and the testing, two different subjects that get conflated by advocates but I would think an education reporter would bring a more critical ear.

    Advocates are not succeeding in moving states away from the standards. But they find a broader constituency when they oppose the new tests. Parents’ and teachers’ and legislators’ reactions to “standardized testing” and “over testing” are much more unified and the debate can get generated a lot of emotion and legislation.

    I do see Fordham and others defending testing – I defend it. I think the new tests are a big advance over the old ones. And what I see among education policy organizations is a lot of effort to move beyond standardized testing, efforts that would probably get more recognition in a calmer debate (or news report).

    But I don’t see the “over the top” or “nuclear” reactions you talk about, either in terms of money or rhetoric, as it applies to testing.

    So I’m wondering what are you are referring to?


  7. It seems that Mr. Russo is just fine with comparing apples to oranges. That’s what contrasting the opt out numbers and the total number of tests given is. An apples to apples comparison would have been to see what percentage of parents decided to not opt out after performing the same level of due diligence when educating themselves on the issues surrounding testing as those who did opt out. That would be a measure of who parents believe and what their consensus on the question is. It would also be a proxy measure of parental involvement in education policy. Equating a group of people who on their own time have made themselves knowledgeable with a group whose knowledge of the issue and search for information is unknown is dishonest at best.


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