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September 15, 2010

Trutanich: Another Riordan, happily out of place in city hall?

As I watched Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich for the first time, he reminded me of Richard Riordan—more articulate but just as out of place in the city hall culture.

That particular culture is one of “get along, go along.” It has a surface “have a nice day” pleasantness masking the back-stabbing non-elected business and labor representatives who call the real shots. Going along and getting along, plus dealing with the backroom powers, takes an inordinate amount of time, explaining why little is done at city hall. This frustrated Riordan in his eight years as mayor. On some days it drove him nuts.

City hall is also vaguely liberal in its own strange way. While permitting developers and landlords to rule, for example, the City Council banned future municipal dealing with Arizona, after the state passed its punitive and probably unconstitutional anti immigrant law.

I caught up with Trutanich at a luncheon of the Current Affairs Forum, which is run by Emma Schafer, a public affairs consultant, who also blogs about city affairs on her Emma’s Memos site. There was a good-sized crowd at the Wilshire Grand for the event, including several lawyers obviously curious about Trutanich, who was elected last year.

He’s definitely not liberal.

He wants a city grand jury created to investigate whoever or whatever. One target would be hospital administrators who dump poor patients on Skid Row or send them out of state. “Who’s the hospital administrator who makes that decision?” he asked. “I’d like to get my hands on that guy..,but I can’t because I don’t have grand jury authority.”

He doesn’t like civil disobedience. Protest is OK. “There’s a difference between protest and civil disobedience,” he said. “When you engage in civil disobedience because you don’t like something, that’s a violation of the law.”

He also defended with considerable pride his stand on illegal billboards. Where the City Council dithered about getting rid of illegal billboards, Trutanich had a businessman arrested and held on $1 million bail for putting up an eight-story super graphic . “The rules of the game had to change,” he said.

He doesn’t like medical marijuana, worrying that the business is dominated by Mexican drug cartels, and the product is polluted with cancer causing pesticides.

All this is delivered in a pleasant, average guy, non-threatening way. Square as a shoebox, as they used to say.

It will be interesting to watch his journey through city hall. A lot of people want to take him down. But like Riordan, he seems oblivious to them.

September 8, 2010

Conrad obit: not the whole story

In the Los Angeles Times obituary on Paul Conrad, editor Russ Stanton said, “we have missed him since the day he retired.” But it wasn’t quite like that. Conrad had been angry at the paper since his 1993 retirement—at the unforgivable way he had been treated and, most important, at the direction the paper had taken.

First, a few words about the great cartoonist and what he meant to the Times staff.

The workers on the newsroom floor admired his fierce independence, courage and idealism. We liked the way that our publishers, first Otis Chandler and then Tom Johnson, and editor Bill Thomas stood up against those who complained about Conrad’s savage satirizing of the big shots’ failings. We felt that if they stood behind Conrad and his excellent work, they would stand behind us and our journalism. And they did.

I lived through that era and the downhill slide that followed it. Then I relived it when I wrote my book “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times.” Researching the book, I learned a lot about Conrad, how he came to the Times and of the circumstances that led to his departure and to what amounted to exile.

After taking over as publisher in 1960, Chandler decided to hire Conrad, the liberal cartoonist for the Denver Post. Conrad would become the most visible symbol of the Otis Chandler Times, a daily signal that the paper was no longer a right wing Republican rag.

Some lovers of the old Times hated his cartoons, among them Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Cardinal Roger Mahony and many powerful business tycoons.

While he attacked those people with anger—and a satiric skill that drove them crazy—Conrad also was a man of considerable charm and humor capable of empathy with those who disagreed with him. At lunchtime, he ate in the Picasso Room, the executive dining room, sitting with the conservative Times business executives rather than the editors. They argued through lunch in a good-natured way, and it was obvious that the executives took great pleasure in his company.

Conrad recalled a plane flight to Los Angeles with Norman Chandler, Otis Chandler’s father, and publisher of the paper in its conservative days. “We were the only ones in first class,” Conrad recalled. “I thought, what do I do now? Pretty soon I get. ‘Hey Paul, come on up. We can chat…we talked kind of all the way, I with my vodka, he with his gin…he was just marvelous. Not putting me down but suggesting where in a particular situation, why I’d go the way I went (in a cartoon). So I’d explain it to him…He just flat out didn’t understand liberals. I don’t blame him; there are a whole lot of conservatives who don’t understand liberals.”

Otis Chandler steadfastly protected Conrad from criticisms from conservative Chandler family members and Times Mirror executives, who didn’t feel the camaraderie that Conrad shared with his Times business-side luncheon companions. Tom Johnson said one person enraged by Conrad was Dr. Franklin Murphy, the chairman of Times Mirror. “He would come down to Otis’s office with the tear sheet of Conrad’s cartoon in hand. But to the best of my knowledge, Otis never, never told Paul Conrad he should back off.”

After Otis Chandler retired as publisher in 1980 and moved into the leadership of Times Mirror, Conrad’s troubles began. In 1986, the conservative Chandler family members forced Otis out as editor-in-chief and chairman of Times Mirror. Three years later, Johnson, who had succeeded him as publisher, was ordered to fire the editor of the editorial pages, Tony Day, a moderate who was liberal on social issues and a steadfast Conrad supporter. Johnson refused and was fired. That year, Bill Thomas, who stood up for Conrad, retired as editor. The editorial page became bland and more conservative. Conrad, the opposite of bland and conservative, was out of place and out of highly placed friends and supporters.

In 1993, Conrad accepted a buyout and was replaced by a conservative cartoonist, Michael Ramirez.

Conrad and readers were told that he would continue to appear in the Times. But as it turned out, he ran only sporadically. The impact of his daily cartoons was gone. He was just another of the syndicated cartoonists the paper occasionally used. Readers didn’t know when he would appear, or where on the pages his cartoons would run. Angry, he often called the editors, demanding to know why his cartoons weren’t being run. He couldn’t get straight answers. America’s greatest political cartoonist was being treated as if he were a rookie freelancer.

His last cartoon, according to the Times database, appeared in 2005. That same year, Robert Scheer, the popular liberal columnist, was dumped from the op ed page.

By then, the paper had long since turned away from the direction set by Otis Chandler. Gone was his commitment to a staff, including a crusading cartoonist, encouraged to pursue their craft and their obligation to society without interference, as long as they did their job well.

“Take a look at the paper, read some editorials that we’ve been working on and some we’ve printed,” Chandler told Conrad as he persuaded him to come to the Times. Conrad did. “It was marvelous, marvelous stuff,” he said. That began a great partnership that ended long before Conrad’s death.

September 2, 2010

Accuracy and disclosure: the issues in values-added dispute

Since the Los Angeles Times began publishing its value-added series and making available the evaluations of 6,000 elementary school teachers, the journalistic effort has become the nation’s hottest educational story and the system the source of national debate.

Meanwhile the paper and several commentators have portrayed the issue in an overly simplistic way. It goes like this: On one side are the teachers and their obstructionist union, on the other are reformers, parents, students and a gutty newspaper.

Actually, it’s much more ambiguous. An important part of the dispute is whether the evaluations are accurate and whether the Times has done enough to make the readers aware of the limitations of the concept of value-added. These points have been raised by independent academic researchers.

In the value-added system, a student's past performance on tests is used to project his or her future results. The difference between the prediction and the student's actual performance after a year is the "value" that the teacher added or subtracted.

A warning on value-added was given by Mathematica Policy Research an organization working for the U.S. Education Department, which is headed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a supporter of the method. Mathematica said the value-added system was a useful evaluation tool but:

“Our results strongly support the notion that policymakers must carefully consider system error rates in designing and implementing teacher performance measurement systems that are based on value-added models… Consideration of error rates is especially important when evaluating whether and how to use value-added estimates for making high-stakes decisions regarding teachers (such as tenure and firing decisions)...

“Using rigorous statistical methods and realistic performance measurement schemes, (this) paper presents evidence that value-added estimates for teacher-level analyses are subject to a considerable degree of random error…”

In the Times’s evaluation system, the possibility of error is expressed as confidence levels, in terms of plus and minus. The margin of error for English scores is plus or minus five for the highest and lowest scorers. For math, it is plus or minus seven. Accuracy is even lower for teachers in the middle. I checked the evaluation of a teacher I know to be outstanding. Like the others, his name was listed with a colored bar, divided up into sections ranging from “least effective” to “most effective.” A diamond marked his position on the chart. I looked at the chart and read the brief text but saw no reference to confidence levels, or possibility of error.

The teacher was rated “more effective.” He was on the line between “more effective” and “most effective” in math. He was near the line on English and in overall standing. Because of the error factor, he could well have crossed the line on math and actually be in the “most effective” category. That is because of the plus or minus factor in the confidence level. The same could be true in English and in the overall standing. A parent looking at the evaluation could wrongly conclude that he was not as good as a “most effective” teacher when actually he might have been robbed of being in that top category by an error.

I asked Times Asst. Managing Editor David Lauter about this. “We took several steps to deal with the inherent error rate that is involved in any statistical measure,” he said in e-mail. “First and most importantly we did not publish any individual score…Instead, we reported the scores only in broad categories.”

True, no individual numbers were published. But the sharp looking color bar and the text gave as powerful a message as publishing the actual ratings. And while the Times explained the possibility of sampling error, it did so in an article found elsewhere on the web site in its teacher evaluation package. It would take a dedicated reader to dig out this important bit of information. Lauter disagreed, saying the information was accessible. He has more faith than I do in readers rooting out information from the Times web site.

Another research organization, the Economic Policy Institute, also raised a point about the sampling. Such test results, EPI said, usually do not come from classes where students were enrolled at random or by chance. Random sampling is important in statistical reporting. EPI said classes usually are formed by “non-random selection.” Examples of such classroom assignment are: principals spreading high and low achievers among classrooms; separating troublemaking friends; rewarding or punishing teachers with “good” or “bad” classes and yielding to parental pressure.

Lauter said some researchers “have made a considerable point” of the non- random selection issue but he said the Times’s analysis “reliably takes into account differences among students and produces unbiased results.”
He said the paper explained the error factor to its readers and that its articles repeatedly said, “value-added is just one measure” of a teacher’s work.

The Times should have done much better in filling out the story of this controversial evaluation measure and emphasizing the chance for error. It should have made a greater point of value-added being just one factor in judging a teacher. Most experts figure it should be about 30 per cent. The on-line evaluation of the teacher I know has no mention of the many other qualities he brings to the classroom. All anyone sees is his value-added score.

From the powerful first story featuring two “least effective” teachers to the posted data base of the elementary teachers’ scores, the package suggests that that value-added was the decisive factor in the Times evaluation of teachers. In fact, the construction and play of the stories and the charts told readers that this was THE evaluation.

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