2004-10-08 / Columnists

School Scope

Donna
By Norman Scott


If you’ve been part of a story being given press coverage, it’s often hard to reconcile what you observed with what you read about it the next day. (Except in The Wave, of course).

This is especially true when it comes to interpreting what is happening in education in NYC, where massive PR departments at the Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers bring out their spinning machines on a daily basis. The public’s perception of education often depends on a combination of editorial policy and reporters’ interpretation, with the former being much more of a factor that the latter. For instance, you can pretty much always start out with the assumption that notorious anti-union Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post will take an anti-UFT position.

We find it interesting that Murdoch was trotted out to address the aspiring principals at the Leadership Academy, the DOE’s training ground (an extremely expensive training ground) for new principals. We can just imagine what his advice to these principals would be – “success will start when you destroy or severely weaken the union in your schools.” But we’ll leave this part of the story to another time.

The position of the NY Times is more complex. Ostensibly not anti-union, the Times consistently accepts the DOE spin, as reporters and editors are catered to and coddled. When it comes to what is really going on in the schools, it is rare when a reporter actually gets it right. Needless to say, learning to read through the lines becomes a necessity to understand what is really going on.

Recently, we had a rare occasion to explore this issue when Ms. Moffett’s First Year – Becoming a Teacher in America , a book by former Times education reporter Abby Goodnough, now the Times’ Miami bureau chief, was released. Telling the story of the trials and tribulations of Donna Moffett, a former legal secretary who decided to change careers in the summer of 2000 and become a teacher through the Teaching Fellows’ program in NYC.

The book is based on the extremely well received series of articles Goodnough wrote about Moffett throughout the 2000-2001 school year, some of the best articles I’ve read about what really goes on in the classroom – articles that were extremely sensitive to the issues new teachers face.

Vera Pavone, good friend of mine, worked at the same elementary school in central Brooklyn (PS 92) where Donna Moffett, now in her 4th year as a teacher, works. Goodnough also interviewed Pavone extensively for the book. When Moffett and Pavone saw advanced galleys they were somewhat perturbed, to say the least, at the distortions and twisted view of what really went on. Most shocking was how different the book was from the original series of articles. They both communicated their distress to Goodnough, who did make some modifications in the manuscript, but her prejudices and assumptions, much of them shaped by the spin-doctors at the DOE, did not change. Pavone has written her own review of the book Donna’s First Year – The Real Story? (which can be read in its entirely at (http://www.ice-uft. org/ bookshelf-goodnough-pavone . htm.) She explores in depth how Goodnough’s distorted views of education influenced the nature of the book. In his review of the review John Lawhead, who teaches at a high school in Brooklyn, wrote:

“Remember your first year teaching? Imagine being visited, observed and interviewed every few weeks by a reporter from the NY Times. Then imagine that after a series of articles about you this reporter decides to write a book. As though your experiences in the classroom weren’t interesting enough, she makes it a vehicle for her pet beliefs about cultural conflicts in the city schools, stuffy preconceptions about teachers and a fondness for corporate-style school reform in all its grandeur. Would you have weathered the distortions as well as Donna Moffett has been able to do?”

Vera Pavone’s review of Abby Goodnough’s book is so perceptive and analytical of so many of the hot-button issues facing education, it is worth exploring in some depth. She says: “I was anticipating an honest depiction and appraisal of Moffett’s situation. As I started reading the book, I was surprised by her emphasis on conflicts, unsuccessful lessons, personality issues, and racial, cultural and social class differences. Goodnough portrays Moffett as a typical teaching fellow – well educated, creative, hardworking, enthusiastic, and overly optimistic, but also elitist, naive, overly enthusiastic and emotional, resistant to suggestions, culturally distant from the students and therefore sometimes insensitive. In addition Goodnough shows her to be alternately too patient and then too impatient, too loose then too strict. But ultimately, in the last few pages of the book and in the final days of Moffett’s first year we see that her struggles have proven to be worth it after all. Despite all the obstacles, her dedication, hard work and tenacity triumph; her students and their parents appreciate her after all; and she learns to get along with her supervisors and mentors, despite their huge differences.”

In part two, we’ll look at how Abby Goodnough swallowed the Department of Education spin hook, line and sinker.

Note to Steven Greenberg, former President, CSB 27:

Your comments and criticisms have been duly noted in the “Letters to the Editor” of the Oct. 1 edition The Wave. In future columns I will address some of the issues you raise.

The Wave has covered a number of events related to Rockaway schools extensively in its regular news reports. Howard Schwach’s knowledge of the schools in the area is extensive and he has written, and continues to write, a number of articles and editorials on these issues.

Should we pretend that the schools in Rockaway are not influenced by policies promulgated by the Mayor, the state education department and the No Child Left Behind Bush initiative? As I pointed out in my last column, the coverage if these crucial educational issues in the major newspapers is colored by the editorial policies of those papers, and even though you say you have read these articles, it is not enough to just accept what you are reading. My aim here is to provide the perspective from the point of view of a long-time teacher, a point of view sadly missing from most reporting on the educational scene.

My agenda should NOT be “to inform [you] on what’s happening locally.” I am not writing School Scope as an educational reporter out to provide glowing reports on the wonderful things happening in Region 5. All you have to do is read the press releases of the DOE and the self-congratulatory pats on the back so many people are giving themselves. There are negative things I hear about policy in the Region. (I wonder if you have spoken to many teachers in the Region about their feelings about what is going on – but maybe they are all frustrated UFT members.) I’d rather not go there. My “tirades against BloomKlein” may be boring and meaningless to you but to teachers and parents who daily have to face the results of the follies going on, they are not.

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