As you would expect, Eva Moskowitz didn’t take kindly to the clarification issued by PBS yesterday about John Merrow’s broadcast on the harsh school discipline practices of her Success Academy collection of charter schools. Harrumphing that the veteran education reporter’s piece was “shoddy and biased through and through”, the New York City councilwoman-turned-charter school operator continued her demand that the public broadcasting outlet apologize to her and her staffers.
Particularly grating to Moskowitz was the fact that PBS refused to retract Merrow’s statement that Success’ student attrition rate was higher than that of other public charter and traditional public schools. As Dropout Nation readers already know, PBS argued that Merrow “reconciled those numbers fairly and thoroughly”, noting that he had adjusted the numbers to account for the fact that KIPP charter schools, which was used as the comparison in the piece, based their attrition on a full calendar year, something that Success doesn’t do (since it only operates schools during the traditional 180 day school period). As far as Moskowitz is concerned, PBS’ response is “nonsense” and its defense of what she calls “home brew statistical manipulations” is indefensible.
As your editor made clear yesterday, PBS certainly should have offered a correction on citing the attrition data. It just isn’t borne out by evidence available so far, including analyses by Beth Fertig of WNYC-FM in her own piece on student attrition. At the same time, if PBS’ statement is true, then Moskowitz is a tad off-target in calling Merrow’s move an effort in home-brewing. Reporters such as Merrow are within their rights to conduct their own analyses of data, and in fact, should do so. But in the process, they should make clear how they conducted the reviews, including explaining the factors that may have led to adjustments.
Merrow and PBS should have provided a long explanation of what was done, either as part of the broadcast or in a separate piece detailing whatever adjustments may have had to have been done. This may have not stopped Moskowitz from demanding an apology. [Of course, it wouldn’t; Eva has a lot at stake.] But it would have given Moskowitz fewer grounds for demanding a retraction. It is unfortunate that Merrow, whose long and otherwise-distinguished career in reporting on education deserves great praise, finds his work being questioned because of his own sloppiness. It shouldn’t be this way.
Meanwhile Moskowitz has some explaining to do on her end — and not just about Success’ use of traditional school discipline policies that are damaging to the futures of children. As I intimated yesterday, Moskowitz crossed a line, probably legally and definitely ethically as both a school leader and a reformer, when she mentioned the school discipline record of the son of Fatima Geidi as part of the public statement issued on Monday demanding Merrow and PBS to apologize.
As you may remember, Moskowitz complained in her statement that Geidi failed to fully disclose the reasons why her son, a former student at one of Success’ schools, was suspended three times over a two year period. As part of her defense, Moskowitz noted that the young man had allegedly engaged in incidents such as “throwing another student against the bathroom wall”, “kicking, scratching, and punching a teacher”, and “stabbing the walls with pencils”. While Moskowitz doesn’t name Geidi or her son by name (instead referring to the mother as Jane Doe), the fact that Geidi and her son had appeared on the broadcast essentially made the reference a mere fig leaf.
By mentioning this information — even without actually releasing the actual discipline record — to the public, Moskowitz may have violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal law that governs the privacy of student records. Success is allowed to provide student health records to law enforcement officials and public health agencies in emergency situations — including cases in which the lives of students and others are endangered. If charter operator was a university or other postsecondary institution, it could provide discipline data to law enforcement when it involves violent crimes and sexual assault. But FERPA doesn’t allow for school operators to release individually-identifiable school discipline records to public unless the family of the child authorizes it. This is a fact Moskowitz admitted in one of her correspondences to Merrow about the claims being made by Geidi on the broadcast.
Perhaps Moskowitz’s lawyers and public relations staff told her that she was in some kind of safe harbor because Geidi and her son discussed his experience in a Success school on camera. But FERPA doesn’t provide for such extenuating circumstances. [This, by the way, is why the Irving Independent School District could not comment further about the circumstances surrounding the suspension and arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, who was wrongly suspected by a teacher of building a bomb when it was actually a clock for a science project.] By going rogue, Moskowitz may have opened up Success to a federal investigation if Geidi decides to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office.
From a public relations perspective, Moskowitz’s disclosure was also a blunder. By exposing an innocent bystander, a child who cannot make decisions on his own, to a public relations barrage otherwise aimed at an adult, she betrays her own reputation as a champion for children. Any parent would shutter at the very thought that their child’s privacy, in fact, their right to be able to grow up as a child, was being violated by someone charged with nurturing them educationally and otherwise.
Most importantly of all, by citing the discipline record of Geidi’s son, Moskowitz betrayed the school reform movement’s mission of nurturing and protecting the lives and futures of children. She used the life of a child who may be in need of real help as ammunition against a negative media report. This is wrong. She unethically disclosed information about a child that she is not allowed to do, legally or otherwise, as a school leader. That is wrong. She took the child’s information for use in deflecting from the indefensible school discipline practices in which her institution engages. This is wrong. And she remains unapologetic about it. That is just plain wrong.
Some would say what Moskowitz did was deliberate. Your editor is willing to give Moskowitz some benefit of a doubt; people say and do the wrong things in anger. All that said, Moskowitz should immediately offer her own apology to Geidi and her son. The innocent child didn’t deserve to be harmed by her effort at crisis management.
Moskowitz was right to call out Merrow for sloppiness. But her approach in seeking redress is deplorable. Merrow is right in putting Moskowitz and Success on blast for practices that harm children. But the reporting was not his finest hour. All in all, there’s hardly a good actor in this fracas. Meanwhile the overuse of suspensions and other discipline approaches that damage children still continue.