Miami/NYT Followup: A Correction Request, An Apology, & A Remaining Mystery

Three more things about that post (NYT Includes Squishy Miami-Dade Layoff Figures) I wrote the other day: a request for a correction, an apology, and a remaining mystery over staffing numbers.

THE BACKSTORY

As you may recall, it highlighted how some of the Miami-Dade County school employment numbers cited in a New York Times article about public sector employment didn’t match up with federal and local figures I’d been sent and raised questions about whether the numbers were right or had been appropriately verified.

The district claimed to have laid off only 2,479 teachers and 711 classified workers over the past seven years, due to a 50,000 student drop in enrollment.  The union claimed to have lost 3,000 of each category even as the district enrollment has gone up 10,000. 

The union’s claim of decreased membership during a time of enrollment increases didn’t match up with the federal and local staffing figures I got from NCES and the district itself showing moderate staffing and enrollment decreases. It also appeared to me from the way it was written that the Times story was passing along the union’s layoff narrative without having checked out the numbers.

CORRECTION REQUEST

Well, it turns out that NYT writer Patricia Cohen did attempt to verify the numbers she was given — at least, with the union — and didn’t appreciate my calling them into question (especially without having asked her about it first).

In a tweet and an email to me and Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris asking for a correction, she said she stood by her numbers and that United Teachers of Dade would back her up. 

But here’s the thing: Cohen (and the union) may well be correct. Union membership may be down. And overall student enrollment may be up. (According to numbers Cohen sent me, overall enrollment including charters and district schools has gone up roughly 10,000 students — from 345,458 in 2009-2010 to 355,268.) But student enrollment is only up if you include charter school students.

If you’re going to include charter school students like Cohen does, then you need to include charter school hiring. There are now nearly 14,000 charter school educators in Florida, according to this article in a pro-charter publication called RedefinED, including 2,752 charter school teachers in Miami-Dade County.

If charter school numbers are an important part of the story when it comes to student enrollment then they should also be part of the public sector employment story, too. There’s no mention of charter school hiring in Cohen’s piece, but I think we both agree that it would have been best to include those figures as well.

This is a good reminder to all of us to keep this in mind when reading or writing stories about teachers and staffing. And it highlights the fact that it’s not enough to verify the numbers; you have to verify the logic or argument behind the use of those numbers. 

AN APOLOGY

In addition to the substantive disagreement over staffing numbers, Cohen criticizes me for not having emailed her ahead of time. On this one, she’s entirely right. I apologize to Cohen for not having reached out to her before posting the original piece, and for mistakenly telling her that I thought I’d done so. It turns out I’d only gone as far as looking up her email but hadn’t gotten past that stage. I tweeted the story to her (see above) but only after the story was posted.

My focus was on getting responses from the district and the union, but the piece would have been better if I’d asked whether she tried to vet the staffing figures (she had) and whether she should have included the charter school staffing numbers (she should have). I need to remember that the people who write the stories I’m examining are just as important (and useful) as the experts and advocates I’m talking to about whether the stories make any sense.

So, again, sincere apologies to Cohen.

ONE BIG MYSTERY

There’s still a big and mysterious difference in staffing figures between the district and the union. The district says that the figures for student enrollment and staffing it gave me previously don’t include charter students or staff. I reached out to them several times but have still not gotten any real response.

I’m not clear about how a district and union can be working off such different numbers. My best guess is that they’re using the numbers that work best for them.  That is, the district uses numbers that make it look like they’re not laying people off in droves, and the union does the opposite.

I’ll let you know if and when I find out more. 

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.