Friday, December 10, 2004

Maxfield principal takes exception to column

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:51 AM |  

On the December 7th Pioneer Press Opinion Page, Zelma Wiley, principal of Maxfield Elementary School took exception to my column of November 24, “The moral imperative for school choice.” In that column, I reported and expanded on comments made by senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute Sol Stern about a Nick Coleman column in the November 14 Star Tribune.

In his column, Nick Coleman painted a dismal picture of Maxfield as a school without adequate textbooks and library books for its students. He blamed taxpayers and the legislature for not providing funding to the schools. Mr. Stern, based on his experience researching school districts across the country, took exception to Mr. Coleman’s contention saying that the problem was not that there was not enough money being spent on public education; the problem is not holding public schools accountable.

In her opinion piece, Principal Wiley takes exception to my column by saying that Maxfield is a successful school with adequate textbooks. She takes Mr. Stern and I to task for not visiting Maxfield before commenting on Mr. Coleman’s remarks.

Principal Wiley is quoted in Mr. Coleman’s November 14 article supporting his assessment of the situation at Maxfield. She is quoted again in a December 4 column by Mr. Coleman on the topic of the Maxfield book drive with no indication that she took any exception to his November 14 assessment of Maxfield.

Below is my letter sent to Principal Wiley.

December 8, 2004

Principal Zelma Wiley
Maxfield Magnet Elementary School
380 N. Victoria St.
St. Paul, MN.

Dear Principal Wiley --

Imagine my surprise when I opened the Pioneer Press on December 7 to find your letter portraying the book drive at your school as an effort to “collect books for students to borrow, take home or keep,” and I read that “all of [y]our classrooms have the text books they need.” That characterization is a sharp contrast to Nick Coleman’s November 14th Star Tribune column about Maxfield -- “School’s lack of books draws donors, dismay.”

In his column Mr. Coleman states “When Zelma Wiley walked into Maxfield Magnet School in St. Paul and took over as principal a couple years ago, there were hardly any books on the shelves of the school’s 21 classrooms and not nearly enough books -- or the right mix of reading levels and subject matters -- in the school library.”

Mr. Coleman also quotes “literacy coach” Sarah Carlsson as saying “And a lot of books we did have were at the wrong level, like first-grade books in a fifth-grade class.” He describes Ms. Carlsson as “ previously a classroom teacher who was unaware that the other classrooms were as sparsely furnished as her own,” an unflattering implication by Mr. Coleman that there is a lack of communication among Maxfield teachers and staff and inactivity addressing the “book shortage.”

Mr. Coleman further notes that “the battle [for Maxfield] to achieve success will come down to reading scores -- a problem when there aren’t enough books.” Later he writes of the book drive “while the book shortage is far from over, books are coming in.”

Mr. Coleman quotes you in context of the questions “How could this happen? A school with not enough books?” He put you on record as saying, “I don’t want to go on record with what I really think . . . But I’ve never seen anything like this before. We haven’t been adequately furnished. We don’t have enough books.”

Can you understand my surprise and confusion?

Mr. Coleman’s column describes a situation polar opposite to your Pioneer Press Opinion Page characterization of the book drive as a project for supplemental books for your students beyond necessary textbooks. Saying in your OP-ED piece that all of your classrooms have the textbooks they need contradicts Mr. Coleman’s contention that classroom books are few and at the wrong grade level, that the school has been inadequately furnished and you “don’t have enough books.”

Unfortunately, the Pioneer Press has a policy that it does not directly respond to articles appearing in the Star Tribune. I was asked to delete direct references to Nick Coleman and the Star Tribune from my column, which I did. Nonetheless, it is obvious from my column that Mr. Stern is taking exception to the opinion of a well-known local journalist reporting on a book shortage at Maxfield. Mr. Stern was commenting on what was reported in the Star Tribune, not on the validity of the journalist’s reporting.

In the context of his experience researching public school systems across the country, Mr. Stern was observing that Mr. Coleman’s explanation of not enough money [for schools] doesn't make sense. Operating on the assumption that Mr. Coleman’s reporting of the situation at Maxfield was accurate, I expanded on Mr. Stern’s opinion that school administrators should be accountable for a shortage of textbooks, especially when, as Mr. Coleman stated, the problem had been growing for several years.

At the time of writing my column, I saw no need to visit Maxwell because Mr. Stern’s remarks and my comments were directed at Mr. Coleman’s “solution” of pumping more money into schools without holding them accountable for academic results and fiduciary responsibilities. You might take exception to that position; however, it was Mr. Coleman who set Maxfield’s situation as context of the debate, not Mr. Stern or myself.

In that context, however, I would be happy to visit your school to help you refute the dismal and inaccurate picture Mr. Coleman painted of Maxfield Elementary. I will be visiting a number of area schools after the holiday break and would be happy to visit Maxfield at that time, at your convenience.

Sincerely --

Craig Westover
UPDATE: From a reader who called the Star Tribune to ask if it would print a retraction ofNick Coleman's column -- "I found it interesting that the guy I talked to at the Strib [a news editor] seemed to think that a reader’s concern with veracity was a non-actionable (and victimless) concern. "

UPDATE: Many thanks to the bloggers who have followed up on this story for their support -- Brian "Saint Paul" Ward at Fraters Libertas, Mitch Berg at Shot in the Dark, and Tom Swift at Pair O' Dice. Read what they have to say -- and if so inclined, let both the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune know how you feel. "All it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing."

UPDATE: Nick Coleman responds to the controversy here.