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On the limits, and possibilities, of op-eds in the digital age

The media issue here is a simple one: Shouldn’t a healthy debate about public policy include a broad spectrum of views, including those by argumentative and tendentious characters?

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

The editorial pages of daily newspapers have only so much available acreage. First, the paper itself has something to say. Then, room must be provided for a fair (enough) sampling of thoughts from readers, an editorial cartoon and — on a good day — maybe three or so guest commentaries, some local. (On a really good day, the latter won’t be dominated by musty centrists arguing politely for the conventional wisdom.)

It is therefore not surprising that Rob Levine’s commentary on the Star Tribune’s now-established characterization of teacher evaluations was, uh, not accepted for publication in the dead-tree edition of the paper.

For those of you unfamiliar with Levine, it’s fair to describe him as a firebrand liberal of the confrontational variety. More to the point, Levine is a persistent critic of what he sees as the quasi- and not-so-quasi-corporatization of America’s classrooms. (For the record, Levine is not a fan of MinnPost’s educational coverage, either.)

The formula for evaluating teachers, passed in 2011, involves what to the civilian eye appears to be a convoluted, if eminently debatable, process, though one that Levine’s considers dominated by well-funded anti-teacher-union activists.

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Levine’s displeasure with his rejection by the Strib’s editorial page was aggravated by the paper’s acceptance, around the same time, of a commentary by Lynnell Mickelsen, a familiar figure among local education reformers, arguing in favor of standardized testing and test-based teacher evaluations. (Mickelsen is regularly described as both a Democrat and a progressive. Her bona fides as a reformer were argued here at MinnPost in a recent commentary by GOP deputy chair, Chris Fields.) 

Without wading into a deeply arcane debate, I will add only — by way of disclosure — that my wife taught English in a public high school for over 30 years and is intensely skeptical of the various reforms designed, implicitly or otherwise, to weaken teachers unions. As for the alleged epidemic of poor teachers? She remembers very few truly lousy colleagues who survived the classroom more than a couple years, and if they did/do, there are well-paid administrators for whom dealing with incompetent employees is part of their job description.

Yet the media issue here is a simple one: public education is a vital social concern consuming an enormous portion of the state’s annual budget. A healthy debate over how to achieve maximum effectiveness and who may be gaming the system should include a broad spectrum of views, which you’d think would mean informed, albeit argumentative and tendentious characters like Mickelsen — and Levine.

Doug Tice, the Strib’s man in charge of the commentary page, says, “Certainly, [Levine’s] argument has relevance. But I think we’ve been giving it, as you say a ‘full spectrum,’ airing for quite a while.”

Off the top of his head, he couldn’t recall another piece in precisely the same vein as Levine’s, but, half-joking he concedes, “I force myself to continue running this stuff. Clearly there are people who live and breathe education reform. But we need to be interesting to a wide range of readers, and we’ve only got so much space.”  Tice later kicked over a tongue-in-cheek piece by educator Steve Watson and a very popular piece by teacher Greta Callahan as examples of Levine-like counterweights.

Tice also noted that Levine’s 1,232-word submission was well over the 700-word limit the paper imposes for submissions. “I don’t have the time to deal with and [i.e. edit] those pieces into shape.”

In an average week, Tice says, the paper receives something on the order of 80 to 100 over-the-transom submissions. “So you do the math,” he said. “At 10 minutes apiece there’s no time to even go to the bathroom.”

But in the inexorable march toward full-digitalization, why can’t the paper create more space on the website, if not the dead-tree version, for debates like this, where there’s the possibility potent combination of large citizen interest and tax dollar involvement?

Again, said Tice, it comes down to time  and staffing. “What do we not do while we put that together?” he asks. “As the digital revolution rolls out, I could see where we could provide a kind of module for a debate like education reform — an interactive debate that could run night and day for those who can’t get enough of it.”