Saturday, April 27, 2013

Why do the media nearly always frame education issues as the UFT vs. the Mayor; and Ben Chapman's response

One of my particular gripes is how the politics of education in NYC is usually framed by the media in simplistic terms as a battle between the teachers union vs. the mayor, without any reference to the views of parents, advocates or other members of the community.  This is especially true now that we are in the midst of a mayoral race.  If one or more of the candidates take a different position from the mayor on education, this is usually  interpreted as a naked attempt to appeal to the union, with little acknowledgement of the fact that the political crosscurrents are far more complex, and that they may also be responding to the priorities and views of public school parents, community members, or voters in general.
Here is an example from a Daily News article, about one of the mayoral debates: 

There were also moments when it felt like United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew should have had a seat onstage with the other candidates.  The four Democrats all praised the union’s push for smaller class sizes and more education funding.

Yet class size is also the top priority of NYC parents, according to the DOE own surveys, and is even more a potent political issue with them, especially given the mayor’s statements favoring class size increases and the fact that class sizes are now the largest in 14 years. And most New Yorkers support more funding for the public schools, especially after five years of cutbacks.
Another example is a recent article in GothamSchools,  that focused on how a co-located Success Academy charter school had its PCB-laden lights replaced, whereas students and teachers at the public schools in the building have to endure the dangers of pre-existing toxic lights.  IF there is one issue that NYC public school parents are most furious about, its co-locations and the perception that charters are given special privileges while squeezing public students out of the space they need to receive a quality education.  Yet the article ends with the implication that if mayoral candidates oppose this practice, it is only to please the UFT:
“Each of the Democratic candidates has been angling for months to please the UFT, which will endorse a candidate this summer before the party primary. Union officials said the process to choose a candidate would begin soon after the union’s internal elections are complete at the end of this month.”
The fact remains that many candidates may take aggressive positions on class size, education funding, co-locations, school closings or other hot-button education issues for reasons other than simply to woo the UFT, especially  given that only 22 percent of the public trust the mayor’s current policies on education.
I asked Ben Chapman of the Daily News, a very accessible reporter whom I respect, the following question a few weeks back: Why are the education issues defined by the media in general as driven almost entirely by the UFT? 
Below is Ben’s response; please add your thoughts in the comment section.  Does this practice annoy you as much as it does me?  And what do you think of Ben's explanation?
First of all, I think your underlying assumption in this question – that education issues are “defined in the media in general as driven almost entirely by the UFT” – is a bit of an overstatement. I write at least one education story a day, on average, and I haven’t written a UFT story in a week or so, at least.
A quick check shows the last article I wrote mentioning the UFT was about their charter school getting a reprieve from closure on Feb 27. Since then I’ve written about a number of topics including: safety agents, hazing, STEM, etc. But no teachers union.
However, I won’t dispute your point that the union wields a lot of clout in our dialog about the city schools. Maybe even too much clout. I don’t know. I do have some guesses as to why they are a major player– and my observations are probably not news to you or anyone else.
For one thing, I think the public conversation on education in the city often falls back on city vs. union in part because both of those parties continually take shots at the other. They often blame each other for failures in the system. And outsiders (politicians, “experts,” etc.) often blame either the union or the city for the problems in the system, too.
It’s a facile narrative that people are drawn to for obvious reasons. First of all, it’s an easy, two-warring-parties way to view the complex story of public education. Also, people are drawn to labor vs. management stories in all kinds of contexts.  
But I think people also concentrate on the union vs. the city because they are both powerful forces in our public schools. The city cuts the check and sets the policies. The teachers union represents the boots on the ground. At least that’s what it’s supposed to do. And not take anything away from principals, but teachers are probably the most significant adults in the public schools.
It’s much harder to grasp the significance of the social, economic and other factors at work in our public schools. Obviously parents are a huge factor. But what about the character of the larger communities that the kids inhabit? That’s huge too. And what about money? That’s a huge factor too. What about technology? Lots of kids don’t have computers or smart phones. That plays into it as well. And so many kids in our diverse city come from different cultures, which also has a huge influence.
To sum it up, anyone who pays attention to the public schools can see that they’re some of the most complex, compelling and important things that we can ever hope to encounter. As a reporter I try to do them justice. I’m sorry if folks feel that our coverage is too simplistic, but I am doing my best. 
 One way to improve the coverage of the public schools is to contact us reporters. My email is and my phone number is (212) 210-6365. I always want to hear from as many stakeholders in the schools as possible and I can be trusted completely to maintain the anonymity of whistleblowers.
One of the best things about the free press is that we all have a hand in it. So if you don’t like what you read, drop me a line. --Thanks! Ben


PhillipMarlowe said...

Read this humorous but accurate piece on this behaviour of the media:

robert macneil (voice over): A Galilean preacher claims he is the Redeemer and says the poor are blessed. Should he be crucified?


macneil: Good evening. The Roman procurator in Jerusalem is trying to decide whether a man regarded by many as a saint should be put to death. Pontius Pilate is being urged by civil libertarians to intervene in what is seen here in Rome as being basically a local dispute. Tonight, the crucifixion debate. Jim?
lehrer: Now for a view from Mr. Simon, otherwise known as Peter. He is a supporter of Christ and has been standing by in a Jerusalem studio. Robin?

macneil: Mr. Simon Peter, why do you support Christ?

simon peter: He is the Son of God and presages the Second Coming. If I may, I would like to read some relevant passages from the prophet Isaiah.

macneil: Thank you, but I’m afraid we’ll have to break in there. We’ve run out of time. Good night, Jim.

NYCDOEnuts said...

I think Ben's account says it all. He didn't point to the media's portrayal of the bias, but to what they honestly see as people's interest in the bias. Is that denial? Willful neglect? A profession trying to keep their finger on the pulse of their customers? Whichever way you answer, THAT'S the problem: The conclusion (or assumption) from the media -that people are more interested in that narrative because it makes sense to them is the problem.
This of course -maddeningly- brings the conversation right back to where it began.

My two cents.

MA_Benjamin said...

Reporters seem to have no trouble finding you and quoting you. Many of your positions however, parallel those of the UFT. And as I've written, some so-called "parents" groups are union-funded fronts. Other than Mona Davids' NYC Parents Union, it's hard for the daily ed beat reporters to find more truly independent parents voices (with children enrolled in public schools).

What we really need is more diversity in the media, so reporters can bring added perspectives,experiences and new voices to the ed reform debate.

Lastly, one of Ben's colleagues was so good at her ed beat writing that she won a job as a UFT spokesperson. Is that the problem you are really referring to in your post?

Diane Ravitch said...

The last comment made the snide observation that "many of your positions parallel those of the union," and I assume he refers to Leonie Haimson. I object to this comment, as he is really saying that parents and the union are the same. Does the union want smaller classes? Yes. Do parents want smaller classes? Yes. Does the union want to reduce reliance on high-stakes exams? Yes. Do parents want the same? Yes.
Does this concurrence mean that the UFT and parents are the same? No. Does it mean that the views of parents are always the same as the union? No. Does it mean that the media should quote the UFT and ignore parent voices? No.

Diane Ravitch said...

And one more salient point. Class Size Matters is an independent organization. It is not funded by the union.

Leonie Haimson said...

Michael: do you deny that class size reduction is the top priority of parents according to the DOE's own surveys? Do you believe they simply care about this issue because they are puppets of the union? And your comment about the DN reporter who now works for the UFT is bizarre. Lots of reporters go back and forth between news outlets and PR for organizations. For example, did you know that Barbara Martinez, formerly a reporter at the WSJ is now working for a charter chain? Does that mean that the reporting of the WSJ is simply an echo chamber of the charter industry?
In any case, thank you for writing in. Your comments exemplify the sort of simplistic and erroneous thinking that I was writing about; the paranoid fantasy that everyone who agrees with the union on any issue must be their clone.

kk, parent said...

@MA_Benjamin. I would like to offer myself as a direct contradiction to your comment. I am a member of ParentVoicesNY. Not only are we not funded by the union, we are not funded period. Every single one of us has children in the public schools. We were one of the major organizers of last year's boycott and rally against the field tests. We had some great materials for that campaign: writing, graphic design, and video were done in kind by parent members (and children). We printed posters by each member throwing in what he or she could (usually about $20 bucks).

This Thursday May 2, we are sponsoring a *parents* forum with some of the mayoral candidates. (Details here: ) The UFT was not consulted because while many of our concerns do overlap--in my view, my child is best off when her teacher is happy--they are not entirely coincident.

By the way, who are you? Are you a public school parent? Or have you been one? I would say that Leonie is a fair representative, having been one for more than a decade. In fact, though I currently have kids in the system, she has more experience as a public school parent than me (7 years so far) and many other of my fellow parents and so is an arguably better observer of trends.

kk, parent said...

Oops! Forgot to include the link about the ParentVoicesNY Parents Forum for Mayoral Candidates.

THursday May 2 @PS 29 in Brooklyn fr 5:30-7.

Submit questions in advance to

McLieberman said...

MA_Benjamin didn't say Leonie was on the payroll. Unlike Nyer's for Great Public Schools etc but that there is no daylight between them and that is relevant. If one is for smaller class sizes, how can there be no discussion of pension costs and other union taboos that make it more expensive to higher teachers? Even if that isn't right answer, if every point you make supports UFT and they do fund a good portion of "parent groups", its tough to whine about how your independence isn't taken seriously.

MA_Benjamin said...

I don't recall having children in public school as a requirement when I was asked to cast votes on the state education budget. Being and representing taxpayers (public and private school parents included), informed my decision-making. In my comment, I was pointing out a correlation between CSM (not the universe of city parents)and UFT positions on the same issues. The media wasn't biased so long as it unquestioningly quoted Ms. Haimson. Now that they are hesitant to print her every utterance, they are cast as ignorant. Draw your own conclusions.

kk, parent said...

McLieberman & Benjamin, I was responding to Benjamin's assertion that most parent groups were "union-funded fronts." Of course, you don't need to be a public school parent to have interest in these issues (B was the one who brought this up with the snide "with children enrolled in the public schools.")

Still, neither of you acknowledge my point (and, I think, Haimson's) that the alignment of positions may just be due to the fact that many parents believe their kids' teachers do have their children's best interests at heart and that, as I said before, a contented teacher makes for a happy classroom.