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Are Post authors biased? Give us your solutions.

A very thoughtful and persistent reader who signs in as bermanator4 has gone after me for not warning readers of my personal views whenever I address issues about which I have written extensively, particularly when I have written books on the topic. This is something that I and the many other Post writers who have done books have heard before, and it deserves consideration. Does producing a book that comes to strong conclusions---as many of our books do---make us biased, and untrustworthy when discussing the issue and presenting facts on it in the Post, and on washingtonpost.com?

I am not sure anyone but those readers who share my interest in schools are going to see this post, so I am going to suggest an exercise just for them. But if any of you politics or sports or healthcare or science wonks out there want to participate, feel free.

I am most often accused of bias in my views on two subjects---college level courses and tests in high school, particularly Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, and the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a network of 82 public charter schools in 19 states and the district. I have written two books, "Escalante" and "Class Struggle" about AP and one, "Supertest" about IB. My most recent book, "Work Hard. Be Nice." is about KIPP.

Another thoughtful and persistent reader who signs in as efavorite has suggested that people in my situation provide a little background memo, maybe just a few sentences, that explain my close relationship to topics like AP, IB or KIPP so that readers will be forewarned that I might have very strong views on them. I have often referred to my books, or at least the time I spent in schools reporting those books, in my columns. I often tell readers that I am coming back to a topic on which I have previously expressed strong views, like my doubts about the 21st century skills movement. I have also told the reader when a column represents a change of mind, like my deciding that elementary school homework was not so importatn.

But overall I think the reader would prefer not to have to wade through a lot of background. As a reader myself of topics on which I am not an expert, I would prefer that the writer get to the point, make his or her argument, state the facts that support it, give some sense of the counterarguments, and let me make up my own mind.

Getting to the point is also something that my editors want, particularly those that edit my columns in the newspaper, where space is limited. Only here in cyberspace do we have much room to get into the writers' backgrounds, but since the Web is the wave of the present, and probably the future, we ought to try to see how this might work.

I would sum up my views on these topics, and the books I have written about them, this way. I think AP and IB are the most beneficial programs in American high schools in the last 20 years, and have reported many studies and quoted many educators and students to that effect. Each year I rate high schools nationally and locally on AP and IB participation, which I think is a better measure of their academic strengths than the usual measure--test scores--that are so strongly influenced by family income. I have also quoted educators who think AP is overused and too hard for some students, and think my use of AP and IB to rate high schools too narrow. I have reported in detail how KIPP developed and noted data on KIPP schools showing them to be the most successful so far in raising the achievement level of low-income children. I have also quoted scholars who say that there is not enough data yet to decide if the KIPP model can be sustained, and raising concerns that KIPP schools are too few, and the pressure they put on teachers too great, to be a good example to follow.

Here is my challenge. Draft for me the words that you think I should insert at the top, or some relevant part, of a column I am doing on AP, IB or KIPP to warn readers of my views. Post it as a comment to this post, and let's see what we get. If you want to suggest a similar advisory for any other Post writer on any other favorite topic of theirs, send that in too and I will make sure it gets to them.

I will then consider the suggestions, show them to my editors and reveal in a future post what I am going to do about this, and why. And if you think this approach is clumsy and will only reduce the number of people who want to read anything I write, or if you want to address this issue in a different way, put in a comment on that too. Thanks for your help on this. Journalists have never had such an opportunity before to communicate directly with readers, and I don't think we should waste it.

By Jay Mathews  | October 31, 2009; 4:44 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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Next: Perils of rating teachers--Part one, the District

Comments

Of course Post authors are biased.
As am I
As is efavorite.
As is Jo Ann Armao.
But I ask myself, where is this writer coming from, and what might they be leaving out.
I take the view of Claud Cockburn who thought:
that facts and rumours were of equal significance, and warned against what he called ‘the factual heresy’ – the claim, dear to journalists with a saint-like idea of their own mission, that lumps of truth lie about like gold nuggets waiting to be picked up. He did not think journalism was either saintly or fact-bound. ‘All stories are written backwards,’ he once observed. ‘They are supposed to begin with the facts and develop from there, but in reality they begin with a journalist’s point of view from which the facts are subsequently organised.’

I'll see if I can think of a blurb for the top by the end of this weekend.

But I would like to say I appreciate your reading and responding to these comments.
(unlike Robert Samuelson, who told Ron Smith of WBAL radio in April 2008, that he doesn't read the comments because he has a job.)

Posted by: edlharris | October 31, 2009 5:53 PM | Report abuse

Your strong views about a topic are irrelevant when you write about it. There are plenty of your readers who will challenge you and present the other side when you insist that a good way to evaluate America's best high schools is by the number of tests the hs gives.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | November 1, 2009 2:39 AM | Report abuse

I never thought bias would be an issue. That is what comments are for: people write in to tell you whether you are right or wrong or whether they agree or disagree.

Posted by: ericpollock | November 1, 2009 7:15 AM | Report abuse

I think one of the issues here is that hybrid nature of what the Post is doing. Is this a column, an impartial analysis of education policy? When you looked at a print newspaper the geography of the layout told the reader how much to assume a given set of newsprint would be news versus opinion. What are these blogs the Post is putting together? They are not quite column's in the sense I think they used to have. I think you are constantly crossing the line between opinion and news reporting. This is what the blogosphere does, but the Post blogs don't quite look like the blogosphere. In the blogosphere usually there is a link that allows the reader to learn about the perspective of the writer, all yours says is that you are a columnist. This section should include at least a link to your books and potentially what you think may be your bias's.

Posted by: Brooklander | November 1, 2009 8:05 AM | Report abuse

Jay - Now I understand why you were pressing me yesterday to expand on my comment. You wanted to use it in your column today. Because I had no more to say, and thought I had made myself very clear, despite your expressed lack of understanding, I twice referred you back to my original comment. Apparently that didn’t dissuade you from providing your own interpretation today of what I meant (which of course, is not what I meant, or I would have said it.)

The whole conversation, interspersed with other comments, can be found here: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/2009/10/rhee_is_right--summer_learning.html#more

Here are my main comments on the subject:
“Ways to handle the lack-of-space issue:

>Just include a short "full-disclosure" statement in the article. Such a statement simply provides important information to the reader and does not serve as a free advertisement.

> There seems to be plenty of space in the comments section. You could write the first comment to your own article, stating your relationship to KIPP schools. I think this would be better than having a reader accuse you of conflict of interest, which you then take a lot of space to defend yourself against.”

When you wondered what I meant, I said:
“Jay, no need to rely on your impression of what I said. Just re-read my comment of 4:15 yesterday. It’s all right there.”

Later, when you asked me to apply my remarks to other journalists, I reiterated:
“Jay - Regarding my comment of 4:15 yesterday, it was intended for you, not any other post authors. It was you who brought them up, not I. I just offered suggestions for how you could solve the problem you mentioned of acknowledging your relationship to an issue you’re writing about without taking up too much space in your column.”
-------

Even though I was steadfast in not expanding my remarks beyond the situation, here is how you present my thoughts in your column today:
“Another thoughtful and persistent reader who signs in as efavorite has suggested that people in my situation provide a little background memo, maybe just a few sentences, that explain my close relationship to topics like AP, IB or KIPP so that readers will be forewarned that I might have very strong views on them.”

I find this stunning, considering our conversation is in black and white for you and others to see.

It makes me extremely wary about the journalistic accuracy of reports based on strictly on private interviews and interpretation of data not available to readers.

Posted by: efavorite | November 1, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

correction: "...reports based strictly on...."

Posted by: efavorite | November 1, 2009 8:49 AM | Report abuse

Jay,
I'd preface your work with something like this:

"Readers should take into account my assumption that the traditional, familiar approach to educating, based as it is on the "core curriculum" adopted in 1893, is sound, from which follows logically my support for "rigor" -- for programs such as IB, AP, and KIPP."

Marion Brady

Posted by: mbrady22 | November 1, 2009 8:54 AM | Report abuse

I don't expect this comment to get past the blogmaster either, but it doesn't include the title of my post or the blog site, or even my name.

"Jay Mathews, not to mention this post) has started a discussion on the “uncomfortable topic” of whether teaching candidates should be rejected because they believe that “schools alone” can not reverse home effects. Mathews writes, “the issue can get very personal, which might explain why I rarely hear discussions of it. It is too easy to make one side think they are being called racists and the other side think they are being called bullies.”

Some non-teachers may not realize that the thought police (who argue that out-of-school issues should be ignored) would not conclude, "a difference of opinion makes someone wrong and unhireable." But Paul Hill, of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, asserted “coherency and consistency ... should trump any teacher's or administrator's right to be different.” Michelle Rhee agreed, “if a teacher doesn't believe it's possible for a teacher or school to overcome those factors ... those teachers should teach in Fairfax County ...”

In an e-mail, Mathews made the profound point that because "life is short ... I decided some years ago to focus on those few schools that were actually making headway in the inner city." Similarly, we can choose to consider or disregard Mathews’ methodology. But it is his honesty and openness that helps make Matthews such a highly respected columnist. School systems where diversity of opinion is discouraged will pay the price for ill-conceived policies that burn out its people.

I chose to buy a house, invest in a community, and dedicate myself to teenagers with the assumption that certain principles of public education would be respected. If my School Board were to engage in an open debate and then mandate an aligned and paced curriculum, I would be gracious as I resigned. When such policies were previously imposed on my colleagues, however, the process was not so transparent.

If a curriculum was mandated after I renewed my annual contract, and it offended my ethics and professional judgment, I would use my every political, due process, and 1st Amendment right to resist. Hill, Rhee, and other advocates of litmus tests for teachers should be aware that they are not just battling against the principles of collective bargaining and the liberal arts. They are attacking the fundamental principles of American constitutional democracy."

Posted by: johnt4853 | November 1, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Everyone is biased, period. It seems that people are just recently beginning to note that what is supposed to be news is biased. News has always been biased. Americans have a history of representing their views as the truth and all others as less than accurate. Usually, people scream bias when they don't agree with the content being presented.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | November 1, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for posting my second comment. I thought my first comment would have been even more likely to be posted. To each his own.

So since I'm repeatedly asking a writer for a national and world-class newspaper to look at the big picture and not just the Metro, when you visit Dunbar, please remember that a school with 60% poverty is not poor. Similarly, Shaw may claim to be focusing on instruction, they also has resources for addressing the socio-emotional that beyond the dreams of most advocates of the Bolder Broader approach.

Had Rhee just tried to improve DC, without trying to be a battering ram against unions and community schools across the nation where we don't have a fraction of DC's resources, she wouldn't be in this mess.

Rhee and her supporters may see this as just a moral and political fight but teachers have to also view it as a legal issue. If Rhee doesn't understand the legal concept of a "precedent," then Jay, maybe you and/or your commenters can explain it to her.

Posted by: johnt4853 | November 1, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

john4853 - your comment that was not posted may simply have been too long.

That "your comment is awating approval" notice is not about the content of your comment, just the length or some other logistical issue, such as number of links.

I wish the Post's system would make this clear, e.g., "Your comment could not be posted because of length. Please shorten it and post again."

Posted by: efavorite | November 1, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, I abuse "cut and paste" because it is so much quicker than writing a short one. Also I'm relieved that it wasn't censorship. So now I can get out and enjoy the fall colors.

But efavorite if your posts and other commenters' post weren't so good, and quotable, and wouldn't be so tempted by cut and paste.

Also, I quoted a draft of my blog post. It should have read "reformers" do conclude, "a difference of opinion makes someone wrong and unhireable."

Posted by: johnt4853 | November 1, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Hi Jay,

Just to be clear, I never said that I thought you needed a disclaimer atop the column. That probably goes too far in the direction of insulting the reader's intelligence.

However, I do think that you, and other Post authors, could do better at acknowledging potential conflict of interest (perhaps in the way that your ex-colleague Tony Kornheiser tosses in throwaway jokes on the radio -- and I believe in the columns -- about how he's 'in the tank for Gary Williams' when he writes or talks about him). Or in the way that reporters writing about a company that the Post owns or has a stake in will mention that fact in the story. When you write about KIPP, I do not think it is too much to ask that you add a sentence somewhere like "Author's note: I wrote a book detailing the effectiveness of the KIPP approach in 2009." Short, quick, and honest.

Posted by: bermanator34 | November 1, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

===============
"I would sum up my views on these topics, and the books I have written about them, this way. I think AP and IB are the most beneficial programs in American high schools in the last 20 years, and have reported many studies and quoted many educators and students to that effect. Each year I rate high schools nationally and locally on AP and IB participation, which I think is a better measure of their academic strengths than the usual measure--test scores--that are so strongly influenced by family income. I have also quoted educators who think AP is overused and too hard for some students, and think my use of AP and IB to rate high schools too narrow."

====

It's hard to argue that you haven't quoted educators who disagree with your premise -- but for the most part I think that is simply paying lip service to their disagreements. What you mostly do, I think, is quote them and then respond with a paragraph that is the literary equivalent of "Whatever -- I disagree and they are wrong" without getting too deeply into the substance of the disagreement. Question 16 on this year's Newsweek FAQ (http://www.newsweek.com/id/201139/page/3) is a good example of what I am talking about.

You rate high schools based on their AP and IB programs -- excluding all other factors to focus on college prep, and excluding every other metric that could answer how well students are prepared for college (like, for example, how many students at each school apply to/attend/graduate from college). You also look at how many tests are taken, but not the scores, which makes it very easy for a school to game the system if it really cares about how it ranks.

You have a very large platform and a lot of influence based on your Newsweek and Washington Post audience, because that is the spot where that strong personal bias in favor of the AP and IB courses as the sole measure of a high school's ability have an impact. The kind of disclaimer I would like to see is not something that would appear on everything you write, but for major projects like that rankings list, really explaining why the methodology behind the rankings isn't more rigorous -- not simply explaining the decision to rank the AP and IB so highly, but why they are the ONLY thing considered.

It's hard for me as a reader to see that as anything more than a heavy-handed sales pitch for AP and IB courses. If most studies out there really say that the only indicator of a student's preparation for college are the amount of AP courses take, and no other factor at all correlates, that makes sense. But I have a hard time believing that that is the case, and if it is not you do your readers a disservice by ignoring everything besides those AP and IB test numbers in your rankings. That is the kind of thing I would like to see a disclaimer for, not your everyday columns and blog posts.

Posted by: bermanator34 | November 1, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Edlharris – I’d say I’m strongly opinionated against Rhee’s school reform, not biased. My negative opinion is based on voluminous factual information.

Here’s how I’d express the difference between bias and opinion:
Two people can form very different opinions based on the same set of facts. Learning additional facts can to a change of opinion. For instance, I originally supported Mayor Fenty based on a few facts I had about him and the opinions of some people I trusted. I no longer support him, based on facts I have since learned and my own opinion based on my own observations.

Bias doesn’t require facts. Bias can be based on a gut reaction (she looks sneaky; I don’t trust her), or prejudice (I believe my dad who says boys are smarter than girls).

Posted by: efavorite | November 1, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

It is very unfortunate that the school reform in DCPS has come to such scrutiny. We have allowed policies to come into place that have ruined the potential of many students attending DCPS. One major policy has had the greatest impact on students failure in DCPS (passing students on to the next grade who are not academically prepared to succeed in that grade level). Special Education Inclusion of children who need specialized intervention. It is expected that a teacher can move students who are two and three grade levels behind, up to proficient in their classrooms, while simultaneously teaching students who are ready. This policy has not worked in 25 years, and has set the stage for failure among inner school students. Problems such as severe disciplinary problems and social issues have not truly been addressed. The majority of students are eating inferior pre-packaged breakfast and lunch (not real food). Rhee's reform efforts will only increase failure among students by replacing teachers and creating the same problems with a different set of teachers. No Child left Behind was design for failure severely impacting inner city students. Rhee and Fenty should commit to teaching for a month in a tough neighborhood school, applying all the new initiatives put on teachers along with visitors continually coming in the classroom to evaluate their performance with teaching students.

Posted by: esmerelda843 | November 1, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Jay, I don't see you as being biased. You just hold strong opinions as to the efficacy of AP, IB, KIPP, etc. I tend to agree with you.

However, I would suggest that you include more points of view in your columns from such front line stalwart's as Patrick Welsh, whose occasional articles in the WP Outlook section are always so prescient. Also, you would do well to look at the success of parochial schools. Parochial schools are able to accomplish near miracles with many students who no doubt fail miserably in the public schools available to them.

Don't be afraid to ask the question, "How do these parochial schools do so well for so many at such a relatively low cost when local public schools do so poorly at such high cost?" It would also be interesting to see how the achievement gap between parochial schools and a high performing school system like Fairfax County is rather small.

There are important things to be learned from such comparisons that transcend AP, NCLB, etc.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 1, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I myself don't think you need to preface a blog post with the sort of disclaimer you mentioned. You're a columnist, so you're assumed to have a point of view. You're paid for an opinion. Anyone who follows your work knows of your books.

My only real point of disagreement with you is that your measure based on AP/IB tests fails to take into account the depth and breadth of instruction surrounding the content of these courses. I know you've heard this before, but many Montgomery County parents believe there is a strong "red zone"/"green zone" divide in this regard, and that green zone kids get much richer instruction in what is supposedly an equivalent AP class. I fully realize this isn't something your measure can take into account, but it's a frustration for me.

Back to bias: If you could do something about the bias in some of the Post's reportage (not opinion columns), that would be magical. I often wonder whether these reporters actually went to journalism school, or whether they just slept through ethics class. And where have the copy editors gone? Sheesh.

Posted by: ezr1 | November 1, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

I am constantly amazed at the high quality of the comments I get, particularly after reading comments on political stories on other blogs, often so full of venom. These remarks are particularly impressive, and lead me to think I should note more consistently if I have written a book or other big projects on a topic. That seems to be the trend of opinions here, and nobody is doing what I feared, suggesting a mention of the book would be an unwelcome plug. I had a thought at 5 am today, the time my brain chooses to post its on blog items on my consciousness, for bermanator34, who started this train of thought: Am I wrong to think it is somewhat screwy to express some doubt about a story by a reporter who has spent years researching the topic, and not have the same concerns about the common news story that is written by a reporter who only started researching the story the day before? That latter is the kind of story I was writing when I was young. The sort of stories I write now seem to me to be better because they have so much more time and research behind them.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 1, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

"Am I wrong to think it is somewhat screwy to express some doubt about a story by a reporter who has spent years researching the topic, and not have the same concerns about the common news story that is written by a reporter who only started researching the story the day before? That latter is the kind of story I was writing when I was young. The sort of stories I write now seem to me to be better because they have so much more time and research behind them."
===========

There are a couple of differences. The first (and foremost) is that of influence. I don't think the Jay Matthews byline carried as much weight when you were just starting out as it does now, and for me it is the writers with the biggest voices that get the most scrutiny. It's not Pat Newcomer who's creating the high school rankings, it's you, and with that influence comes more scrutiny that that faced by a typical education reporter.

The other thing is that as a reporter or columnist gets more deep into a subject (like in the course of writing a book), I think that reporter/columnist starts to see the world through that prism, and it affects what they write from that point forward. You have much more experience with KIPP than you do other alternative educational programs, for example -- do you not think that affects how (and how often) it gets mentioned here?

On a similar vein, you have years of experience ranking high schools by their AP and IB exams -- is that because it is still the best way, after all these years, or is it simply because your own views haven't changed and this is the way you have always done it? That is a question I am asking as a reader, particularly in your response to critics (which a lot of times, in my opinion, boils down to “well, I think you’re wrong”). Why do other rankings use different metrics, and why are those metrics irrelevant? If some of the issue is that you lack some data that you would like to have, what would that data be?

When there is a new reporter covering education here, the concern is that they will be more vulnerable to spin. With a veteran reporter or columnist, the concern is that they can impart their own views on others, and you’re in the latter category.

The challenges columnists face is getting their expertise and viewpoints out there without becoming stale and predictable (I like Tom Friedman’s columns in the Times, but I can also tell two sentences in exactly what he’s going to write for the rest of his 800 words). I would guess that is a big challenge for you as well, but re-examining issues like the high school ratings system (as you did with homework in a recent column) could be a great way of keeping things fresh.

I think we're starting to see some movement in the coverage of D.C. schools, with Michelle Rhee getting more scrutiny, which is a welcome change.

Media critic, signing off for dinner!

Posted by: bermanator34 | November 1, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

As someone you've actually written about, I can attest to your lack of bias and your determination as a *reporter* to get the story right. You swallowed a metric ton of information from me, checked it all out, double checked it, and then sent it out for confirmation.

However, when you switch to pure op-ed, I think you should always remember to mention that you have a financial interest in stirring up interest in KIPP, for example (after all, people who are interested could do worse than read your book). I don't for a moment think you hold your views for your own benefit, but I think it's the responsible thing to do. You routinely mention Kaplan's influence on your pension, so why not mention your equally minimal financial relationship vis a vis KIPP and AP?

But my much bigger beef with you, the one I return to time and again, is your lamentable tendency assert opinion as fact. You have really got to stop making unfounded claims about the *cause* of low income student test scores, for example. You have no evidence that teacher quality will eliminate the performance gap, no evidence that wealthier kids do better because their parents give them enrichment, and so on. None. But that never seems to stop you from making bald causal associations.

Repeat after me: poor whites have higher test scores than wealthy African Americans (and, I believe, Hispanics, but you should look that up). Add that into EVERY piece you write about low income student test scores.

I'm not arguing cause, either. I don't know what's behind that difficult factoid. But it wreaks havoc on all of your assumptions, and repeating it will keep you honest.

Another thing that drives me nuts is your utter indifference to the enormous financial gain your Challenge Index provides to the College Board, and what that means. Again, I don't think you personally benefit, but your failure to understand the financial incentive that the College Board has in pushing your "AP FOR ALL" mantra is really a big blind spot.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 2, 2009 2:52 AM | Report abuse

Thanks Cal - for all the information and insights. Could you provide evidence for your statement that poor whites score [on average, I presume] higher than wealthy blacks?

I wish my recent experience with Jay had been similar to yours. Instead, he disregarded what I said – or actually failed to say – and made up something. This after I steadfastly declined to elaborate on my remarks. (See above)

Still, on another issue, when I questioned his and Chancellor Rhee’s interpretation of Shaw Middle School’s scores, Jay published an email conversation we had in which I provided the official data and evidence of Chancellor Rhee’s misstating of the data.

Jay - I’d say your relationship to factual information is erratic.

Posted by: efavorite | November 2, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Jay-

Everyone is biased. You seem to be pretty open and honest about your personal beliefs, so I don't see a problem with it.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | November 2, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Jay, You do a good job of implicitly or explicitly signalling readers your connections to subjects in your articles.

As long as there is information either in your article, or posted on your bio page, that offers relevant disclosures then I think an author meets the very buzzed about yardstick called transparency..

In my view, it comes down to method. If a reporter goes out of his or her way to present both sides of a debate, or multiple points of view, then that is what really boosts a piece's credibility. That should minimize any inherent biases which we all have..

Best,
Paul D

Posted by: pd_wpa21 | November 3, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

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