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Questions the New York Times Doesn't Choose to Answer

Publication Date: 2002-11-19

Point of information: Bill Borders is an editor who sent form letters to people writing the New York Times complaining about the dismissal of education columnist Richard Rothstein.

LETTER 1:

November 6, 2002


Arthur Ochs Sulzberger
Publisher
The New York Times
229 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036-3959


Dear Mr. Sulzberger:

As a lifelong subscriber to the Times, I am greatly saddened by the termination of Richard Rothstein and his column "Lessons." This column was the best education writing I have seen in your newspaper since that of Fred Hechinger. Until the introduction of "Lessons," for many years I had found little in the Times which was of value either on the opinion or the news writing in my field. With the inception of this column, I had frequent reason to copy it to our State Secretary for Education, the Director of our Commission on Teacher Credentialing, our State University System Chancellor, legislators, and other significant policy makers. I was instrumental in inviting Mr. Rothstein to speak to the Renaissance Group last year (an organization representing 10% of teacher preparation in the US). He did an impressive job at addressing major issues.

The Times is now moving back to seeing the debate in education as among only partisans of the right. The voices you seem to attend to are ones such as Finn, Ravitch, Bennett, Paige, Silber, and others who represent one part of the spectrum and a part which is overly influenced by corporate and privatization lobbies. Rothstein was a strong, objective voice of the center and as an economist he expressed his opinions in a data-rich context. I believe your newspaper has been manipulated into removing him because
of this very objectivity and factual orientation.

The partisans of the right are seeking to brand centrist educators as extremists by silencing them and misrepresenting their opinions. By limiting the voices you allow in the Times you are being made party to this stifling of debate. This is tragic since your position in American media is without parallel.

I ask you and your Editors to reconsider this decision. Don't return to mediocrity and clich? in education journalism. Investigate how Mr. Rothstein was viewed by informed persons. Be conscious of the manner in which you are representing the education debate. This great public institution deserves open and fair treatment in your pages.

Very truly,

Paul Shaker, Ph.D.
Dean
California State University, Fresno

cc: Howell Raines, Executive Editor

LETTER 2:

Nov 6, 2002

Dear Mr. Borders:

Thank you for your prompt response to my letter regarding the termination of Richard Rothstein as education columnist for the Times. Although an identical form letter has gone out to a number of my colleagues, I appreciate that personal responses may not be feasible. I do hope, however, that the Times realizes the gravity of its action in this matter.

In your letter you invited further scrutiny of your education coverage by readers such as myself. Taking your invitation seriously, I shall not confine myself to future monitoring but will give you two past examples of the weakness of your education reporting:

(1) Jacques Steinberg's August 20, 2000, article on bilingual education in Oceanside, CA was a classic example of the media being "had" by bogus "research." This article read like a press release from Ron Unz' office and indicated a basic lack of understanding of what would represent credible evaluation of the Unz initiative. Your letters column quickly documented the weakness of your coverage. I detected some remorse by you in this case.

Speaking of your letters column, I notice a complete absence of letters regarding Mr. Rothstein's termination. As a reader of journalism about the Times, this seems to me another example of your suppressing opinion about your editorial choices. The same scrutiny you promote with others should be applied to yourself. Allowing criticism will make for a healthier, if less prideful, institution. I am disappointed in a lack of self-reflection by the Times.

Today's "Lessons" is by Mr. Steinberg and it is a sincere and legitimate column regarding dubious rankings of schools. I appreciate the values it reflects. On the other hand it does not show the depth of analysis and argument and command of data that characterized Rothstein's writing. Put it side by side with prior "Lessons" and judge for yourself. This is education opinion "lite" as compared with what Rothstein as an economist brought to his work.

(2) I refer you to the coverage of the NRP Report that appeared in Rothstein's column over a year ago (Sorry for not providing the date, but I cannot access your "archives" today; the site must be crowded.) His well-researched column was quickly followed by a news piece by Diane Schemo that was a textbook case of shallow reporting. Schemo was used by government spokespersons as a mouthpiece for their perspective. For whatever reason, she failed to adequately portray the legitimate criticism of the Report, as revealed by numerous authors such as J. Yatvin (member of the Panel), E. Garan, S. Krashen, etc. Schemo's article looked like an effort by the Times to use a "puff piece" to neutralize Rothstein's legitimate analysis. One suspects you were subjected to pressure. That suspicion is also manifested by the firing of Rothstein.

Obviously your newspaper does award winning work in any number of areas and can rise to the highest standard in American journalism. You are not, however, at that level in education reporting and by eliminating Rothstein's voice, you have clearly moved further from such goals. As I said in my prior correspondence, I had become accustomed over many years to expect little from the Times regarding education. To have this change toward the positive by the introduction of Rothstein's "Lessons" and then subsequently to go back to the old ineptitude is really too much to accept in silence. I challenge you to reinstate Rothstein or replace him with someone as competent. I predict you will not accomplish the latter.

Very truly,


Paul Shaker, PhD
Dean
California State University, Fresno

LETTER 3:
Date: Wed, 13 Nov 2002 14:26:47 -0800
From: Paul Shaker
Subject: Responding to your request

To: borders@nytimes.com
Cc: publisher@nytimes.com


Dear Mr. Borders:

Assuming again that your form letter was in good faith and that you, or someone at the Times, does want constructive criticism of your education writing in the aftermath of the Rothstein firing, here are a few observations.

James Traub, certainly a competent journalist overall whose work I enjoy, fell into the pitfall I pointed out to you in his November 10, Education Life article, "Does It Work." The trap I alluded to previously was to form the education debate as among the alternatives the "right" offers and to treat mainstream educators as extremists, if they are to be mentioned at all.

For example, the NRP Report is characterized as an "impartial effort." No good review of the literature since the issuing of that report could justify such a characterization. The merits of the report can be debated but there is no consensus that it is impartial. See extensive writing in Kappan by Elaine Garan and others. Their assertions have been reported in the Times by Rothstein, Schemo and others.

Calling phonics a "four-letter word in progressive reaches of the educational world" is to fall victim to the characterizations of the right of all those who disagree with them. Again, a bit of research would show that the mainstream of reading faculty and their professional associations (IRA, NCTE) support balanced approaches to reading instruction.

The parties cited in the article are not characterized if they are voices of the right, such as Ravitch, Cook, Englelmann, Hirsch. Those of other perspectives are characterized as "romantic" or "progressive" in, one assumes, a classic technique of marginalization. Why the difference in treatment?

Interestingly, Gardner and Hirsch are cast on the same side of the argument, i.e., opposing excessive reliance on standardized tests and "rigorously designed experiments." Gardner's presence in the text is bracketed by characterizations of "progressive" and "romantic" while Hirsch is given the last word and simply identified without being characterized.

Since my last response did not elicit as much as a form e-mail, I can only wonder whether my analyses cue your sense of fairness and balance in education reporting. Since you asked for my observations, however, I am providing them.

Very truly,

Paul Shaker
Dean
California State University, Fresno




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