Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Road Warrior

Note:  D'Val Westphal is an assistant editor and columnist for the Albuquerque Journal.  She is best known as The Road Warrior, a monicker she adopted for a column she writes about road conditions in the city.  After the departure of Leslie Linthicum, a front page columnist whose tastes and perspectives were often diametrically opposed to Westphal's, she (Westphal) was promoted to the front page and began writing about topics that had little to due with potholes, orange barrels, and traffic jams.  One of those topics was education.  The e-mail below was written in response to articles she wrote in March and May of 2015.  The most recent article was about a middle school teacher who was retiring in disgust due to irresponsible and misguided school "reforms" that Ms. Westphal supports.  The article appeared on the front page on the last day of the school year.  

Hello D’Val:

I wrote to you last week after your article on [retiring middle school teacher] was published.  My e-mail was returned, so I thought I would write to you again.

After reading the article, I called Ellen Hur to see if she was really a teacher, as you state in your article.  As it turns out, she is not.  She was a teacher from 2001-2004 in a private school in Colorado.  She never made it past what in NM is considered beginner, probationary teacher status.  I don’t believe she is certified to teach in New Mexico.  She was never subject to the punitive regulations of NCLB or RTTT and was never evaluated by NMTeach or anything like it.  She has a masters degree in education, but she also has an MBA, the latter likely being the degree that got her the job at the NMPED.  She is a product of Michelle Rhee’s TNTP, a right wing group that promotes private and charter schools, fast-track teacher certification, and other practices antithetical to public education in the U.S.  She also worked for McKinsey & Co., a global financial management company for which David Coleman, principal author of the Common Core ELA standards, also worked.  Coleman is associated with some of the most destructive elements of the “reform” movement, including invalid and excessive high stakes testing, teacher evaluations linked to that testing, school privatization efforts, the PARCC consortium, and so on.  

I inform you of this because I believe your statement that she is “also a teacher” is disingenuous, misleading, and deceptive, at best.  Instead of referring to her as something she is not, perhaps to lend her credibility she does not have, an accomplished journalist of your stature should have taken five minutes to investigate her background and include what you found in her story.  Five minutes is all it took me to discover the information above.  If you had done that, you could have presented a more honest portrayal of Ms. Hur to your readers.  

After your story was published, [retiring middle school teacher] wrote me an unsolicited e-mail.  In that e-mail he made it clear that he felt you twisted his story in such a way as to make him and other teachers appear less favorable and the PED to appear more favorable to your readers.  He stated that he had written a letter to the editor in which he was critical of NMTeach.  Instead of publishing his letter, the Journal decided to do a story on him that essentially turned his critique of the system into a validation of it.  He was not happy about it, and I don’t blame him.

In addition to telling the truth about Ms. Hur’s credentials, I believe it is incumbent upon you to tell the truth about your own credentials, especially as they concern the field of education.  You are known in Albuquerque as “The Road Warrior,” a self proclaimed expert on road conditions and traffic issues.  Indeed, over the years you have earned some credibility in that area.  However, your lack of credibility in the area of education becomes more evident with every column you write.  

This was perhaps most evident in the column you wrote for the March 13, 2015 edition of the Journal.  For that column, you cherry-picked letters written in English to the PED by Santa Fe high school students.  It seemed to me and many other bilingual educators that many of the student letters you chose were written by English language learners.  They therefore contained errors the students may not have made had their first language been English.  To many of your readers it was apparent you used your position and power to publicly humiliate these students and their parents.  Could you write as well in Spanish?  Other educators and I considered the publication of these selected letters a malicious attempt to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of New Mexico teachers and to make fun of hard working students even as they demonstrated through their letters their desire to be educated.  In their letters they made it clear that excessive testing, not their teachers, was impeding their access to a quality education.  

In an e-mail to me recently, Mr. Walz stated that the Journal editorial board was not anti-teacher; it was pro student.  What you did to these students and their teachers makes a mockery of his assertion. 

Furthermore, I would be interested in knowing if you obtained the student letters from the PED by means of a FOIA or IPRA request?  If so, would you please send me copies of the correspondences between you and the PED in which you requested the students' letters?  How many student letters did you obtain and read?  What were the criteria you used to select letters to critique and publish in your column?  Did you contact the students whose letters you reproduced in the article?  If so, what sorts of questions did you ask them?  Did you ask their consent to publicly display their letters in your newspaper?  

Finally, I urge you to issue a correction or retraction regarding your portrayal of Ms. Hur as well and [retiring middle school teacher] in the May 22 article.  I requested as much of Mr. Walz over the Memorial Day weekend.  He stated that no correction or retraction was in order.  Since you are a member of the editorial staff and must therefore bow to his authority, I doubt you can overrule him.  Nonetheless, he did promise me you would respond to me as soon as you returned from your vacation.

I await that response.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Up in Smoke

The fate of all levels of teacher evaluations.
Main entrance, APS Central Office.
May 20, 2015.
[Click to enlarge]
           A day after a large group of Albuquerque teachers made bold statements before burning their evaluations at Central Office, the Albuquerque Journal published an article about a local teacher who was retiring.  He was retiring in part because, in less than a year, the Public Education Department (PED) dropped him from "highly effective" to "minimally effective" on his annual evaluation.  The article, written by editorial board member D'Val Westphal (aka the Road Warrior:  self professed expert on asphalt, potholes, and traffic jams) turned out to be more about Ellen Hur, the chief of staff of Education Secretary Hanna Skandera, than the retiring teacher.  Ms. Westphal (505-823-3858) had contacted Ms. Hur in an effort to explain to readers the discrepancy between the teacher's 2014 and 2015 evaluations.  Her effort was minimally effective, at best.
           In the article, Ms. Westphal states that Ms. Hur "is also a teacher."  Given the fact that Ms. Hur works full time for the PED, I felt this was a dubious assertion.  So I called Ms. Hur (505-827-3817) and asked her myself.  As it turns out, Ms. Hur is not a teacher.  Her entire teaching experience consists of three years in a private school in Colorado between 2001-2004.  What's more, she is a product of disgraced former Washington D. C. school commissioner Michelle Rhee's TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project).  She also worked for McKinsey & Company, the same global management consulting firm that brought us David Coleman, the main author of the Common Core language arts standards and, by extension, PARCC testing.   Finally, although Hur has a masters in education, she quickly followed that with an MBA. Guess which degree got her the job  at the PED? 
         I wrote to Ms. Westphal and urged her to issue a retraction or correction to her story.  Unfortunately, she had already left town for the Memorial Day weekend.  So I wrote to Kent Walz (505-823-3802) the editor of the Albuquerque Journal (or Jurinal, if you prefer).  He responded, and what ensued was a short exchange of e-mails.  What follows is that exchange.  Read to the very end.

Dear Mr. Walz:

I am writing to ask you to issue a retraction or correction to the article Ms. Westphal wrote recently about the middle school teacher who received an evaluation of minimally effective after receiving highly effective last year.  I have written to Ms. Westphal regarding this matter.  Unfortunately, I received an automated response explaining that she was out of town.

In your retraction or correction, please state that, contrary to what Ms. Westphal stated in her article, Ms. Hur, chief of staff of Ed Sect’y Skandera, is not a teacher.  If you state that she was once a teacher, be sure to include the fact that she taught for only three years, from 2001-2004.  In the state of NM, a teacher with only 3 years experience is considered a beginning, relatively inexperienced teacher, still in her probationary period.  

Please also include the fact that her three years of teaching experience were in a private school, not a public school, and that she was therefore never subject to the high teaching standards historically applied to public school teachers.  Include the fact that she has never been evaluated by NMTeach and has never taught under the requirements of NCLB and RTTT.   

It would also be forthright of you to point out that Ms. Hur has never been certified to teach in the state of New Mexico and may also no longer be certified to teach in Colorado.  

Finally, you might consider mentioning that Ms. Hur worked for Michelle Rhee’s The New Teacher Project (TNTP) and for David Coleman's McKinsey & Co., two private organizations that continue to work feverishly to undermine America’s public schools by discrediting and demonizing public school teachers, privatizing our public institutions, and turning our students into perpetual test takers.   

I urge you do have Ms. Westphal write a follow up article in which she investigates the extent of teaching experience and pedagogical knowledge of other PED staff, specifically those who are instrumental in developing and implementing Skandera’s education “reforms.”  This is what a true American newspaper would do.  Ms. Westphal might also divulge her own lack of experience in education and explain why her alter ego, The Road Warrior—an apparent expert on asphalt, traffic, and potholes—is suddenly an expert on education. 

As for future articles, I recommend you have Ms. Westphal write her pieces with full disclosure regarding her views on education and how they echo those of the editorial board at the Journal.  Ask her to state that, in addition to being a reporter, she is also an assistant editor who sits on the editorial board and that, consequently, her views on education are consistent with the anti teacher, anti public education views the rest of the board regularly promotes in its editorials.  


David A. Wilson, MA
APS Teacher and PhD Candidate at UNM
28 years of continuous classroom teaching

Mr. Wilson, 
Thank you for your letter. Ms. Westphal will respond to you when she returns.
Meanwhile, having reviewed your communication, I do not agree a retraction is in order. You are free to submit a letter for consideration challenging Ms. Hur's credentials.
Nor do I agree with your characterization of the Journal's editorial position as being anti-teacher and anti-public education. We view our positions as pro student and pro student success during a challenging time when many students drop out and many who graduate are woefully unprepared for either college or the workforce.
That is not assigning blame, it is stating fact.
Have a good weekend.

Kent Walz

Mr. Walz:

Thanks for responding.

You and I know we will always disagree on issues related to education.  This is due to primarily to the fact that I have dedicated my life and career to education; you, to journalism.  Thousands of educators in New Mexico and I know what we’re talking about.  Unfortunately, those with money, political power, and disproportional control of the media, do not.  Considering your access to Ms. Skandera and others in the PED, you have all three.  This explains much of what is “wrong” with education:  Those who don't know what we know, nor can do what we do, have the audacity to tell us what to do and how to do it.  This is indeed a shameful state of affairs.

As for Ms. Westphal, well, she is a member of the editorial staff.  She is therefore obligated to toe the editorial line. What’s more, it’s not so much Ms. Hur’s credentials that must be called into question, as you suggest; it is Ms. Westphal’s reporting.  If Ms. Westphal had asked Ms. Hur the same questions I asked Ms. Hur this morning, she would have received the same answers.  Ms. Hur was unabashed about admitting to me that she taught for only three years in a private school in Colorado between 2001-2004; that she never taught under NCLB or RTTT; and that she was never subject to any statewide, quantitative and punitive teacher evaluation system.  Investigating the credentials of the people Ms. Westphal interviews is not my job; it is hers.  And in that, she failed.  Willingly, I suppose.  I would say "minimally effective” would be an apt descriptor for the quality of the reporting displayed in today’s article.

I know half a dozen of your news staff personally.  Their view on the inordinate control the editorial staff exercises over its reporters is not positive.  I know why [former Journal education reporter] left the paper, and I know why others are preparing to do so, too.  It won’t be long before the newsroom reflects the monolithic views of the editorial staff.  When this happens, the “crisis” New Mexicans will be talking about will be journalism, not education.

With all of this in mind, I challenge you, Mr. Herrera, and Ms. Westphal to print letters and op ed pieces that strongly challenge your views.  I have sent at least three letters to the Journal over the last 12 months that did just that.  None were published.  If I have time, I will send another, and perhaps resend others, then wait to see if they pass the test to be printed in your hallowed pages.

Finally, I feel obliged to respond to your assertion that the ABQ Journal is pro student and pro student success.  

The Journal is not pro student when it favors subjecting them to months of abusive and meaningless standardized tests that rob of them of hundreds of hours of the very instruction they will need in order to do well enough to not drop out and to succeed after graduation.  Furthermore, the Journal is not pro student when it abets the PED in its efforts to drive unprecedented numbers of NM’s best teachers out of the profession with its misguided and uninformed corporate education agenda.  Accomplished and dedicated veteran teachers, along with more hours of quality instruction, are what many of NM students need most.  Yet these are the very things you and the PED are attempting to take away from them.  This is unconscionable, Mr. Walz; and deep inside, you know it. 

The smoke from the burned evaluations on Wednesday floated from APS Central Office in a northwesterly direction.  We can only hope they reached the Journal so that at least some of your employees could catch a whiff of what is really wrong with education in New Mexico.

I hope you enjoy your weekend, too.


David A. Wilson
Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
Elevation:  5,220 feet

Mr. Wilson,

           I am well aware of your views.  I could not disagree more. Good night.

           [Kent Walz]