The Art of Leaking

It’s the nature of organizations and bureaucracies to close ranks, just as it’s in the DNA of reporters to want more and more information.  Add to that mix the factors of self-interest and idealism. When reporters pry, officials withhold, and secrets are leaked, the result can be high drama{{1}}.  But are these supposed  ‘secrets’ true, half-true, or false? What are the leaker’s motives–to settle a score{{2}}, advance his/her own career, or see justice done?  It’s up to the reporter to answer those questions before publishing anything.  In short, there is an art to leaking and to using leaks in developing a story.

This column is addressed to the three (or perhaps four) people who are now trying to send me information without compromising or revealing their identities.  Here’s the gist: your leaks so far have been overly cryptic, incomplete or just baffling, which means they aren’t helping me report the story.  The piece ends with a suggestion for more effective communication.

Leaking well is essential, while leaking poorly can have unintended consequences. I learned this lesson in 2012 while investigating Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor of the public schools in Washington, DC, for the PBS series “Frontline.”  We were especially curious about the widespread ‘wrong to right’ erasures on the District’s standardized test.  Had her school principals done the erasing in order to give the new Chancellor the great gains that she had made them promise to deliver?  If that were the case, then her ‘miracle’ would be exposed as a fraud.  And if she had good reason to suspect misbehavior by adults and did nothing about it, then she herself would be exposed.

We knew that an outside expert had prepared a confidential report about the widespread erasures during Ms. Rhee’s first year.  Obviously we needed to see that if that report answered two vital questions: “How much did Ms. Rhee know, and when did she know it?”  Our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests were denied by the District and the U.S. Department of Education. (DC said the report did not exist; while the US Department of Education acknowledged that it had the report but wouldn’t give us a copy{{3}}.)

Enter the leaker. One day the mail brought a plain envelope containing a few tantalizing paragraphs apparently clipped from the mysterious report, along with a note telling us that we should be asking for ‘a memo,’ not ‘a report.’  More FOIAs, and more denials.

With the air date looming, we still did not have the full report and, therefore, could not mention it, or even allude to it, in our Frontline program, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” that aired in January 2013.

A few weeks AFTER the broadcast, the full 4-page memo appeared on my desk. Perhaps the leaker, no doubt the same person, realized his/her error.  After independently confirming from two sources that it was genuine, I reported on my blog just how much Michelle Rhee actually knew about the widespread erasures–a lot. One source confirmed that Ms. Rhee and Kaya Henderson, then her deputy and now Chancellor, discussed the memo at a meeting.{{4}}

Please don’t misunderstand me: It took real courage for the leaker to do what he/she did, because I know the high level of fear that Ms. Rhee and her inner circle inspired across the public school system during her 3+ years in Washington.  One confidential informant told me, “I would never work again if she suspected me of talking to you,” and another insisted on being filmed in shadow.

But the truth must be acknowledged: ineffective leaking allowed Ms. Rhee to dodge a bullet.  The memo shows that she looked the other way when presented with clear evidence that adults, not students, were responsible for the widespread ‘wrong to right’ erasures.  She simply didn’t want to know the truth, but we were unable to tell that to the Frontline audience of about 1.1 million people.  Not even one-tenth that number read my blog, and so many in the national media continue to portray her as a fearless reformer who ‘turned around’ the DC schools.

Dribbling out partial information is not the way to go, not if getting at the truth is the purpose of the leak.  Time is important as well, because reporters must independently confirm the validity of the material.

If you are concerned about your calls or texts being intercepted, you may enroll in silent circle (silentcircle.com){{5}}. After you enroll, reach out to me (‘johnggmerrow’ is my user name) by phone or text, knowing that your communications are scrambled and otherwise protected.

If you want the truth to come out, you have to trust that, if you do reveal your identity to me, it will remain secret. I’ve shielded people throughout my career and am not about to betray anyone now.

Plain envelopes may still be sent to me at Learning Matters, 127 W. 26th Street, NY NY 10001.

[[1]]1. Think Edward Snowden and the NSA, for the most recent example.[[1]]
[[2]]2. Several people volunteered stories about the Chancellor’s alleged misdeeds that turned out to be false, leading us to conclude that their goal was to ‘get’ Ms. Rhee. One former teacher claimed to have a principal on tape confessing to participating in an ‘erasure party’ but never produced the tape.[[2]]
[[3]]3. We learned the name of the report’s author, Dr. Fay G. “Sandy” Sanford, and contacted him, but he told us that it wasn’t his to release.[[3]]
[[4]]4. Henderson subsequently swore under oath that she first learned of the Sanford memo from my blog.[[4]]
[[5]] 5. $9.95 for one month.[[5]]

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What are you thankful for in education?

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In a recent tweet, I wondered aloud about what we should be thankful for in education (a similar discussion happened before Thanksgiving on the Learning Matters website). I got a variety of responses, including:

  • Students who are hungry to learn;
  • Parents and other family members who work in concert with teachers to support effective learning;
  • Growing collaboration between School Boards and Unions, often made possible by foundation grants;
  • Teacher collaboratives, like Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards;
  • A rich and broad variety of well-written blogs that assist in solving problems;
  • Research and documentation of pedagogy and materials that have a positive impact on learning; and
  • The Internet itself, which allows teachers to connect and support each other.

That’s a nice list. However, although I am basically a ‘glass half-full’ personality, it’s hard to be cheerful given what we are doing in public education. While I was in California last week, a friend in Palo Alto told me that his daughter was one of 40 students in her high school math class, one of 38 in her history class. In Palo Alto, one of the state’s richest communities! Our 2005 documentary history of California education, “First to Worst,” is due for a sequel, “First to Burst.”

Or take the U.S. Department of Education. It seems to me that the push for higher standards, the emphasis on early education, and the support for developing common tests are all positive. But, with its other hand, the Department is supporting more cheap and dumbed-down testing when it encourages grading teachers based on bubble test scores. Now, I know someone will tell me that I am misrepresenting Arne Duncan and send me quotes from his speeches, but I think we are past listening to what’s being said, and into actually watching what’s being done.

Thankful
What should inspire this reaction in education?

I would be happier if the Department supported policies that rewarded entire schools, not individual teachers, because education is a team sport. After all, federal legislation punishes entire schools for not making ‘adequate yearly progress.’ So why not create some carrots to go along with the stick? How about ‘OYP’ for ‘Outstanding Yearly Progress?’

In California last week at a 1-day meeting about “next generation” assessments, I was struck by the richness of what’s being developed in New York, Ohio, California and elsewhere. In these approaches, project-based learning leads to complex and comprehensive assessments. The logic is clear: kids will dig deep into subjects, and the assessment that follows will respect their efforts. In this (future) world, simple bubble tests will be trumped by assessments that are also learning experiences.

Right now, however, bubble tests rule. Teachers spend as much as one-sixth of their time getting kids ready for the test, administering the test and test makeups, or going over the test. Imagine that: 30 out of 180 days on testing stuff, days that could be spent on learning and teaching. New York State just announced plans to expand testing, so that third graders will now take a 3-hour reading test, and Washington, DC, has announced its intention to give standardized exams to second graders!

We won’t get to a brighter future until we figure out ways to turn our backs on the idiocy of the current system–while keeping our focus on achievement and accountability.


A final note of thanks: Learning Matters has received a challenge grant that will give us $100,000 if we can raise $100,000. Right now we are about $40,000 shy of the goal. If you want to help, click here. Invest $20 or $100 or an amount of your choice, and I promise you will get that back tenfold in quality reporting.

The teacher quiz, and the ‘other one percent’

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If you live in or around NYC, John will be appearing in conversation with Randi Weingarten — the topic is “Unions and the Future Of Our Schools” — on Wednesday, December 14. Click here for tickets and info.

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Friends,

We posted a new video at Learning Matters this week; it’s an attempt to review what we know about the American teacher force — and done in quiz format. Watch it now, embedded here. After the video, check out my thoughts on “the other one percent;” I had similar ideas published in The New York Daily News this week. If interested in some of these themes, I encourage you to purchase a copy of my book, The Influence of Teachers. All proceeds go to Learning Matters.

Let’s watch the video to test your knowledge:

And now, thoughts on “the other one percent.”


I’d like to begin by thanking my teachers in 5th, 6th and 7th grades, Mrs. Pulaski, Mr. Burke and Miss Elmer. They taught us percentages and showed us how to ‘round down,’ which I am doing now, because the US population is 312,624,000, and we have 3,198,000 public school teachers, which computes to 1.02%.

That’s right. More than one out of every 100 Americans teaches in our public schools.

What, you thought I was talking about Wall Street fat cats, professional athletes, entertainers and other rich people? (If interested in some thoughts on the intersection of business and education, you should listen to a new podcast we posted with Doug Lynch of UPenn.) That’s a different one percent, and I guarantee there’s no overlap between the two groups. The average teacher today earns about $55,000. At least 75 CEOs earn that much in one day, every day, 365 days a year. According to the AFL-CIO’s “Executive Paywatch,” the CEO who ranked #75, David M. Cote of Honeywell, was paid $20,154,012, for a daily rate of $55,216.47.

Dauman
Philippe P. Dauman is not worried about his next meal.

The CEO at the top of the heap, Philippe P. Dauman of Viacom, was paid $84,515,308. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Krepela, taught me how to compute averages, so I can tell you Mr. Dauman earns a daily average of $231,549, which is more than four times what the average teacher earns in a year.

Unlike wages for teachers, CEO salaries have been soaring in recent years. Forty years ago, the average public school teacher earned $49,000, adjusted for inflation. That’s a raise of a whopping $150 a year for forty years, or about one quarter of one percent annually.

Here’s another way that the other one percent is different: teachers spend their own money on supplies for their classrooms. That came to $1.33 billion in school year 2009-2010, or $356 per teacher, according to the National School Supply and Equipment Association.

I will wager several packs of colored pencils that Mr. Dauman, Mr. Cote and the other high earners do not drop by Staples to pick up office supplies for their secretaries.

The teaching profession is often criticized because salaries are not based on performance, meaning that the best teachers earn what their less-than-stellar colleagues take home. While that’s generally true, it’s also changing fast. Twenty-four states now base teacher evaluation in part on student performance, and Denver, Washington, DC and other localities have created ‘pay for performance’ systems that reward individuals or entire schools when students do well. Connecting teacher effectiveness with student outcomes is the wave of the future, and it’s becoming easier to remove ineffective teachers than it was just a few years ago.

That doesn’t seem to be true on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms, where the pay of the CEO is often at odd with his company’s performance. Take Cisco and John Chambers. The website 24/7 Wall Street ranks Chambers the most overpaid CEO, based on his total compensation of $18,871,875 even though the price of Cisco common stock fell 31.4 percent.

In fairness, some teachers are actually overpaid, because they have ‘retired on the job’ and are just going through the motions until they can retire for real. Of course, there’s a big difference between being overpaid at $55,000 and being overpaid at $20,500,000, which is what Carl Crawford of the Boston Red Sox earned for hitting .255 with just 11 home runs last season. Like the CEO of Honeywell, Crawford is earning about $55,000 a day, every day, 365 days a year. He ranks only 28th on the list of athletes, according to Sports Illustrated’s “Fortunate Fifty.”

As may have occurred to you, public school teachers — the group I am calling the other one percent — are actually part of the 99 percent. However, they probably were not occupying Zuccotti Park. At least not during the day, because that’s when they are otherwise occupied — teaching our children and grandchildren.

Do we need better parents?

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If you live in or around NYC, John will be appearing in conversation with Randi Weingarten — the topic is “Unions and the Future Of Our Schools” — on Wednesday, December 14. Click here for tickets and info.

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If we want our children to perform better academically, we need “better parents.” That’s what Tom Friedman wrote, perhaps ironically, on November 19 in the New York Times. The column provoked hundreds of readers to comment, and those comments provide insights into just how far apart we are as a nation, at least when it comes to public education.

Friedman cites an OECD study that reveals that “Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.” (My use of the verb ‘reveals’ is my effort at irony, in case you are wondering.)

Friedman cites another study, “Back to School,” from the American School Board Journal, which says that, when parents are involved in children’s learning, the kids do better. “Monitoring homework; making sure children get to school; rewarding their efforts and talking up the idea of going to college. These parent actions are linked to better attendance, grades, test scores, and preparation for college,” the study reports. It adds that these things matters more than attending PTA meetings, volunteering in classrooms, or helping raise money for the school.

There is a certain “Duh” factor — yes, involved parents make a difference in their children’s education — but what struck me was the heat and intensity of the responses, some of which I am excerpting below.

A few readers responded to Mr. Friedman’s comments about ‘better parents’ by changing the subject and preaching about the need for ‘better teachers.’

Janet of Salt Lake City was an early responder who wrote, in part: We need to place the responsibility for teaching squarely where it lies — on the teachers. A great teacher can teach anything to any child. Rather than wishing to turn every parent into the perfect parent, a goal that can’t be achieved, we need to provide the training and salaries that will attract the best and the brightest of our college graduates into a career in public education.

Moreover, suggested another respondent from Salt Lake City, SThomas: It’s the fault of the schools that parents aren’t involved. He wrote, in part: Unfortunately, most of these uninvolved parents were educated in the same school systems that are now failing our children, so naturally they lack the kinds of skill sets needed to instill in their children a thirst for learning. And it’s a vicious cycle: these same parents will then go on to elect next year’s school board members who will determine next year’s under-performing curriculum when compared to the rest of the world, thus setting up their children for failure in an ever-changing world.

Many readers attacked Janet, often in a ‘what planet are you living on?’ vein.

Persam1197 of NY was pretty typical: Janet, you said: ‘The public school system of every community has the responsibility to teach every student, regardless of the quality of the home life.’ I agree wholeheartedly, and that’s why placing the burden and responsibility of squarely on teachers as you suggest is misguided. It takes a village to raise a child, and, until our communities accept responsibility for our children, expect more of the same.

Parents
Do mom and dad need to improve?

Predictably, teachers — like Malcolm in Pennsylvania — responded defensively to the being criticized. I have taught in public schools for more than 20 years, in an inner city and in a rural setting. I wouldn’t mind being held highly accountable for achievement in children I see for 150 hours a year (50 minutes a day for 180 days) if the parents who are responsible for them the other 8,610 hours out of the year were also held highly accountable. “Accountable” means more than showing up for a 10-minute parent conference once a year.

A more common response, however, was supportive of Mr. Friedman’s point, often with hand-wringing. Here’s what Judy C of Phoenix wrote:

It goes without saying that when parents are actively involved in their children’s education, the children do better. Unfortunately, for many reasons, a lot of parents are uninvolved, and the raising of the child is essentially left up to the school. Sure, there’s nothing better than a good teacher; but really, a child’s primary, and most important, educator is his or her parent. Parents need to step up.

Don Myers of Connecticut agreed: How the parent respects learning is the key to how the child perceives and respects learning. Learning is a 24/7 deal not just limited to the school and related activities. We treat the school with disdain and with no more respect than we do the baby sitter.

Dale, a former teacher in Idaho, suggested that parents actively instill anti-school attitudes in their children: Many students regard school and their teachers as adversaries.

Jim G in DC agreed: Hostility toward education does not come from the great teacher. It comes from the parent, or from the lack of a parent. We must break the cycle of poor student performance in economically disadvantaged homes, and we cannot expect the preschoolers in those homes to do the fixing. The parents must change.

Which prompted a question from Josh Hill in Connecticut:

Sure, but how do you improve the parents?

If the challenge is to improve parents, whose job would that be?

Susan of Eastern Washington noted that “Parents often do not acknowledge that they, and not any school, are ultimately responsible for their children’s educations.”

Why is this happening? Do parents not know they are responsible, are they aware but incapable, or are they willfully ignoring their responsibilities to their children in their mindless pursuit of money and status? (Those were all popular explanations, by the way.)

None of the comments I read addressed what to me is a critical issue, and that is a false distinction between ‘education’ and ‘schooling,’ a distinction that I believe has been perpetuated and reinforced by many educators. That is, too many educators act as if they are in charge, a kind of “Leave your children — and your tax dollars — at the schoolhouse door, and don’t bother us.”

(Many superintendents and principals then set up ‘parent involvement committees’ and other patronizing activities that actually reinforce the barriers between parents and schools. It’s like saying ‘yes, we will let you be involved in your children’s education, but only through channels and by serving on committees.’ No wonder so many parents are fed up with educators!)

So what’s to be done? Ken of Hobe Sound (FL) suggested that “One powerful change a parent from an at-risk family can apply to transform their child’s defeatist approach to school is to become very involved in their student’s education on a daily basis.”

Bingo! But how can that happen? Mr. Friedman quotes from his conversation with Andres Schleicher of OECD:

“Just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring. It is something every parent can do, no matter what their education level or social background.”

Sure, every parent can do that if they know they’re supposed to, but I believe that schools and teachers can actually make that happen, organically and naturally, with a carefully designed curriculum in the early grades that continues up through secondary school.

I have written about this elsewhere but here’s a short summary: beginning in kindergarten, teachers should create ‘homework’ that involves the parents or guardians of their students. It can be as simple as asking Mom or Dad about their favorite movie for the first-grader’s ‘show and tell’ the next day. Early writing assignments can be on family-connected topics: What was Mom’s favorite food growing up, and why? What was the first trip Dad or Grandma took? Why is XX your favorite (athlete, actress, political leader)? And so on. And this is not a one-off but a routine, at least once every week.

This works for math as well, with shopping and cooking and anything else that involves numbers.

When ‘homework’ is organic, the families cannot help but ‘fulfil their responsibilities, but not in an ‘eat your peas’ way. Parents will want to see what their children write, and what the teacher writes on the paper. More connections emerge.

I am thankful that we live in a country where we can speak freely, but in public education the ‘them versus us’ approach isn’t working. We all can and must get better, but finger pointing won’t get us there.