Are teachers treated fairly by The Miami Herald?

When a teacher committed suicide in Los Angeles in September, the debate over evaluating teachers took on a different meaning.

Rigoberto Ruelas, a fifth-grade teacher who colleagues said was so dedicated that he spent much of his personal time outside school working with students, was found dead in a ravine after The Los Angeles Times released a database that ranked teachers by name. Ruelas was listed as “less effective than average” based on how his students did on standardized tests.

Hundreds of parents and teachers protested outside the newspaper, convinced that the humiliation of the public ranking drove Ruelas to depression and death.

Krishna Madan, a Broward County history teacher, afterward wrote to me: “Rigoberto Ruelas will not be the only teacher casualty if such attacks [in the news media] continue.”

Madan didn’t accuse the Herald of going as far as the Los Angeles newspaper, but he did write: “If you review the Herald coverage for the last year, you will see that the coverage has been overwhelmingly pro ‘reform,’ with teachers getting much criticism. There has been very little defense of teachers.”

So I decided to do just that: review the Herald’s coverage since last March, when the issues of the state law known as SB 6, teacher pay and evaluations began to heat up in Tallahassee. I followed it through the Legislature’s quick approval and Gov. Charlie Crist’s veto of the measure, which would have ended multiyear contracts for new teachers and based a large part of their salaries and the future salary increases of all teachers on performance, including how their students do on standardized tests.

I continued to follow it as the state issue turned to class size, education figured prominently in the Congressional midterm elections and Broward County became embroiled over the withdrawal of contracted teacher pay raises.

The concern over characterization of teachers in the news media extends to all public employees, including police officers, firefighters and other government workers.

Understandably, we readers want to feel confident that our taxes are being spent wisely on these employees and what they do for us. The current recession and ideological divide over tax levels and government size, meanwhile, has added layers of vitriol to the debate. The challenge for reporters and editors is to cover the debate without demonizing our neighbors who are public employees, most of whom are dedicated and hard-working.

Looking at just the coverage affecting teachers, I didn’t find that they were negatively characterized or that there was any particular slant in stories. Articles were pretty straightforward.

One Broward story didn’t make it sound like 500 teachers were exercising classroom decorum as they used “heckles” and “boos” in a meeting of the School Board and were “drowning out” Superintendent Jim Notter. But I wasn’t there, and I assume the reporter was accurate in describing a public event.

That was the closest I could find to a negative image or characterization, and even it cast no dispersion on how teachers work or teach. Even quotes from critics focused overwhelmingly on improving education and not condemning teachers.

This is not to say that the newspaper shouldn’t write — up front and honestly — about how good our teachers are. The demand to link pay to student performance is clearly based on a belief that many teachers could be doing better, and that some should be weeded out altogether.

The growing trend, pushed by the Obama administration nationally and by many local efforts such as SB 6, is to include students’ standardized test scores as at least part of the measure of teacher performance. A major issue is how large a part. An emerging new issue nationally, meanwhile, is whether to release teacher evaluations and their students’ test score performance to the public.

The Herald’s education editor, Heidi Carr, told me that The Herald has no plan to seek, analyze and print teacher rankings by name, as the Los Angeles newspaper did. But she understands the competing pulls between taxpayer and teacher rights, and is not sure where she might end up if public demands for more transparency grow.

“Teachers are indeed paid by taxpayer dollars, but it’s a pretty public scolding,” she said.

Ratings of college professors by students — as well as ratings of doctors, restaurants, gadgets and so many other things by consumers — are available online. But few, if any, of us have our full job evaluations available for the world to see. Listing how effective teachers are in raising student test scores, moreover, is a partial and, in many ways, misleading measure if used by itself.

Carr and her team — education reporters Kathleen McGrory, Carli Teproff and Michael Vasquez in South Florida and, until recently, Hannah Sampson, along with statehouse reporters in Tallahassee — have done a good job in bringing some rational light to the policy issues.

They produced an excellent front page Q-and-A on SB 6, as well as front-page stories on class size and merit pay trends nationally. PolitiFact Florida, a joint project of The Herald and the St. Petersburg Times, corrected statements by political leaders such as Crist and Paula Dockery.

All the while, they also covered school board politics, events such as the recent lockdown in Broward schools, and other issues important to parents, such as putting high school and middle school students on school buses together.

“I really want to be in the classroom and talking about the issues and how they affect the kids,” Carr says.

But what I found missing was easy access to The Herald’s past education-policy stories if a reader hasn’t been collecting them and following the debate assiduously. An education page exists at MiamiHerald.com, but it is a mere chronological listing of the latest articles. The issues of SB 6 are coming back, for example, but a reader wouldn’t know The Herald has addressed them. The articles online are hard to find.

Most ongoing articles have a political context. The print and online editions should guide readers of these articles to the more important policy analysis that allows us to judge how best to proceed with our schools and our teachers. The stakes for South Florida and the nation are too important not to do so.

This column was originally published in the Miami Herald on Nov. 28, 2010.

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