The Gray Lady, Part 2: The Other Shoe Drops



By 08/12/2010

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In my previous post about the New York Times, I intentionally ignored a small elephant in the room (skunk at the garden party?), one best described in a recent Whitney Tilson email blast…  I quote, “He’s baaaaaack…”

I’m talking about Michael Winerip who, to the best of my knowledge, is the single worst education reporter in America, infamous for biased hatchet jobs on NCLB, Bloomberg and Klein’s reforms, and anything else associated with genuine reform (if anyone is aware of someone worse at a major publication, please let me know – maybe I’ll start a Reporter Hall of Shame…)

(Note to self:  must do a day in the life of Tilson; specifically, what exactly is his definition of day?)

It is the Times

Tilson’s fury says more about the paper of record, of course, than it does about poor Mr. Winerip, who has been a dependable workhorse at the Times for nearly two decades.  Winerip has turned out over a thousand stories for the great gray lady (now gone to Peter Max color), on every conceivable subject, since 1983, when he was a cub reporter covering you-name-it on Long Island.

(By the way, the consensus theory from email colleagues is that the Times is picking up the pace on education reporting in order to stay ahead of the Wall Street Journal.  “Not about what [the Journal] says,” wrote one colleague, “just that it exists.” Will education stories sex up the Times?  We should ask Michael Winerip.)

As any young beat reporter would, Winerip on Long Island wrote stories on police patrols in shopping malls, burglar alarm battles, bar owners serving youth, and speed skating.  He did well enough that, by the 90s , he was getting national assignments, on things like schizophrenia, the West Point Class of 2001, and presidential campaigns.  (Let’s remember, love it or hate it, this is the New York Times, which may make ocassional mistakes – Jayson Blair! – but does not suffer fools gladly – or for very long.)  For a time Winerip  did a feature column called “On Sunday,” but in the Times online archive trajectory (a wonderful thing), you can begin to see his favoring of school stories – whether his choice or an assignment editor’s is not known — with reporting on teen-age dropouts, disabled students, school taxes, P.S.A.T. tests, etc.

Poor Mike’s Almanac

One thing is for sure, Winerip is no naïf – or shouldn’t be – about education. Nor is he new to the subject. As early as 1993, Winerip wrote a story about a new public middle school in Detroit that conducted a lottery to choose 330 students from over 6,000 applicants.  In November of that year, the Times published a Winerip story called “American Can Save Its City Schools,” a profile of Robert (Success for All) Slavin and others then trying to rescue urban education. Winerip even had a regular “In School” beat for a couple of years during that period.

By 1998 our budding scourge of education reform had become a staff writer for the Times magazine and had authored a book called ”9 Highland Road: Sane Living for the Mentally Ill,” praised as a “harrowing account” of a group home for schizophrenics by Publishers Weekly. (Mental illness has been one of Winerip’s favored reporting subjects.) And that same year he wrote a 7,500-word piece for the Times magazine called, “Schools For Sale.” It was, according to the paper’s summary, an “article on school-choice movement; competition from charter schools, publicly-financed free schools, is forcing other public schools to sell selves aggressively and forcing parents to evaluate claims; competition for Jersey City, NJ, students between public schools and new charter school planned by for-profit Advantage Schools Inc described.”

He surely covered the territory, writing knowledgeably if pointedly, about  the “diversion of resources” that “has so far kept charters out of New York,” and including Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer, and then Jersey City Mayor (now the Garden State’s Commissioner of Education) Bret Schundler, an outspoken proponent of charters and vouchers, in his lengthy roundup.

An Aversion to Competition

“Every reform has limitations,” wrote Winerip, perhaps tellingly, in that  1998 story for the Times magazine,  “and the problem with school choice is what happens to schools that have nothing to sell, schools left behind after the most-motivated families have made their choices and moved on.”

What seems central to Winerip’s reportorial DNA is a sympathy for the little guy, whether the disabled kid or the handicapped school.   Though I can’t claim to have studied his writings thoroughly (nor have I communicated with him), if Winerip does have political or ideological views about  the education system, it would appear that he  sees the thing through the prism of leaving no child or school behind – that is, before allowing any child or school to get ahead, we must pick up those behind. The market place, which allows success and failure, is a threat; the social safety net is wide and deep.

“The sales pitch that accompanies school choice dazzles, promising to deliver more, better, sooner,” he wrote in his Schools for Sale story, “when the reality is that education is an intricate process filled with subtle challenges like how to foster curiosity.”

Tours of Duty

Winerip’s first “On Education” tour began on January 8, 2003, with “How New York Exams Rewrite Literature (A Sequel), a followup to what has to be one of the more bizarre education testing stories of the last decade, “The Elderly Man and the Sea? Test Sanitizes Literary Texts,” the saga of  how the New York State Education Department had the chutzpah to change language in classic works of literature for statewide English exams.  (Note to self: revisit THAT one!)  Winerip wrote feverishly after that, producing six On Education columns before the end of February. His first anti-NCLB story, “A Pervasive Dismay on a Bush School Law,” arrived soon enough, in March of 2003 – and, interestingly enough, is a story based in Vermont, scene of the offending recent July 18 article that raised Whitney Tilson’s ire.

Back to the present

A Popular Principal Wounded by Good Intentions” tells the story of a “highly regarded” Burlington school leader who was dismissed because of dreaded high stakes testing forced on the district  by the dreaded federal government. The story received 292 online comments between 11:38pm  (July 18) and 6:00pm the next day,  when the comment box was closed. Not surprisingly, the anti-testing folks came out of the gate fast and furious:

If this doesn’t show the absurdity of No Child Left behind, and single, high-stakes testing, I don’t know what will. (from Steve S. in Hershey, PA)

And

Insane (Expat Mexico)

And

Absolutely insane!… It’s all about making money for the investors in the charter schools that will replace public schools. (Cloudy Seattle)

I don’t know if anyone hit the “Report as Inappropriate” button, but those three reactions alone racked up 398 “Recommended by” credits — in less than seven hours!  (This being the Times, not all the comments were shrieking and the newspaper, loyal to its classy roots, took the time to highlight (in soft blue) the “most interesting and thoughtful” of the lot. There were a couple.)

But I digress

“When I first read this NYT article,” wrote Tilson on July 22, just a few weeks ago, “I was troubled – until I saw who wrote the article.  He’s baaaaaack.”  Tilson then reminded readers that Winerip “was so bad [during his first On Education tour, which ended in 2006] that Joe Williams and Andy Rotherham both gave him a well-deserved ripping in the Winter 2005 edition of Education Next.” (Full disclosure: I helped edit these stories.)

Rotherham hasn’t mellowed much. As he wrote, the day after Winerip’s recent Vermont tear-jerker, on his Eduwonk blog (“Let’s Do the Time Warp Again!):

I woke up today and thought it was 2004, when this blog first launched.  There in The New York Times was a Michael Winerip story that, well, left a few things out.

For starters, Winerip’s story confuses the federal accountability test scores with run of the mill scores, said Rotherham. And the Times columnist conveniently  omits  the fact that the federal laws at issue here were part of a grant that “the district did not have to even apply for.” Said Andy, “there are other school improvement funds and other funds overall that can be purposed for school improvement and do not require personnel changes.”

So, what’s the big deal here?

Says Rotherham:

“If the leaders of the district truly believe the requirements to be adverse then it’s essentially malpractice to take the funds.  They fired a great principal for money?  Really?”

Yes, Really

Rotherham also did some checking and found out that while Winerip blames immigrant students for the poor scores at the school, “scores are no great shakes for white regular education students” either.

If I sound suspicious about the article’s fact base, it’s from experience…. These stories that seem too neat and tidy usually are.  This is a messy business.

In Conclusion

Fascinating as the Winerip education rebirth is, let’s hope that our veteran liberal – in the nice sense — hasn’t been brought back to the paper of record just to nip at the heels of the new reformers, Obama and Duncan, or simply to seek out the silver lining in the progressive’s pro-union agenda, or just stir the pot so that the Journal cooks.  Winerip’s too good a reporter for that.

Much has changed in the last five years, including, it must be admitted, a small vindication of the  ink-stained liberal and incessant critic of NCLB, Michael Winerip, as many proponents of the great Bush reform law have jumped ship.

Welcome back, Mike. Oh yes, Mr. Winerip can be reached at oneducation@nytimes.com.




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