Response to Bob Braun and His Attacks on N.J. D.O.E.'s Bari Erlichson

Opinion by Laura Waters on NJ Left Behind blog


 Yesterday Bob Braun, erstwhile journalist, wrote a blog that accuses the N.J. Department of Education, and specifically Asst. Commissioner Bari Erlichson, of conspiring with Pearson, publisher of PARCC,  along with a “subcontractor” of Pearson called MongoDB,  along with a an investor in Pearson called  In-Q-Tel, of conspiring to invade your children’s privacy. This is Joe McCarthy country, folks, if Joe McCarthy knew what a twitter account was.

Writes Bob, “[In-Q-Tel] is a CIA company. So says the Washington Post. So says MongoDB. The CIA funds In-Q-Tel. In-!-Tel funds MongoDB. MongoDB services Pearson. And Pearson spies on our children.”

In other words, people, Dick Cheney is sitting at your kitchen table right now.

Seriously, Braun says this, but that’s not the point, or not mine anyway. But let’s back up just a tiny bit.

Full disclosure: I try really hard not to write about Bob Braun. I used to read him regularly when he was an editor at the Star Ledger; while I didn’t always agree with him, I respected his point of view. Now I read him because, frankly, he’s a great distillation of the crazies out there who see conspiracies in every tea leaf. Usually I groan and move on. However, his last diatribe has pushed me over the edge and I feel compelled to respond.

I have two problems with Bob this morning. First is his lack of veracity, which seems like a violation of Journalism 101 to me, even for bloggers. The second, which would be ironic if it wasn’t so awful, is his harassment of a highly-respected and hard-working  public servant. If he were a student in a New Jersey school, he'd  get  thrown out on his ear.

So, first, the facts. It’s early in the morning and I won’t pretend to have fact-checked every one of Bob’s allegations against the N.J. D.O.E., Pearson, MongoDB, and yes the CIA. (Do people really take this stuff seriously? They do: that’s what’s scary.)

But think of a blog post as a sweater. If one piece starts unraveling, then most likely the whole outfit is flimsy. Here’s a couple of twisted yarns that anyone can find through the glories of google, which is how we got here, right?

The brunt of Bob’s attack is on D.O.E. Assistant Commissioner Bari Erlichson because she is responsible for PARCC testing and also happens to be married to a man who owns a company called MongoDB. MongoDB builds applications for databases. Bob says that MongoDB had a contract with Pearson, which produces the PARCC tests, and this connection between Bari and her husband is actually a ploy to enrich themselves. (He makes this point by printing their address in Princeton, as well as family pictures.) This allegation is also useful to Bob because he’s been trying to discredit PARCC testing in N.J. which, by the way, has been going  just fine, despite a $15 million TV ad buy by NJEA to urge parents to opt-out their kids.

But here’s the thing, Bob: there’s no contract between MongoDB and Pearson. There’s no subcontract between MongoDB and Pearson. (All contracts would be online: don’t you love the internet? And I did check that.) Saying Pearson and MongoDB have a contract is like saying that Pearson and Microsoft have a contract because Pearson uses computers that run applications like Windows and Excel.  That’s not a contract. Facts, Bob, facts.

Plus, Pearson doesn’t even use  MongoDB's National Transcript Center anymore,

So, the first point, Bob’s facts are wrong. The sweater is a heap of mangled yarn.

My second point is that Bob's blog inverts the lessons that responsible parents teach to their children. I don’t know if Bob has children (and I won’t google it because that would be an invasion of his privacy). But my husband and I have four, and some of the primary lessons we teach them are these:

Verify facts. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet (or anywhere else, for that matter). Discern fact from fiction and opinion from speculation when doing research online or elsewhere.

Don’t invade people’s privacy. That’s just bad manners, and unethical to boot. And the internet is not private: tweeting something to your friends, posting something on Facebook is akin, to use an obsolete example, to carving it on Mt. Rushmore. There’s no privacy, and no transience, in the digital stream.

Don’t cheat.  In my days, that meant looking over the shoulder at someone’s test paper. For my kids it means snapping a screenshot of a question and tweeting it out to your twitter followers. In pre-digital days, teachers wandered the room looking for wandering eyes and passed notes. Now they look for cameras. In either case, cheating is punished as an infraction. And, kids, if you get caught cheating you suffer consequences.

Don’t bully other kids, or anyone for that matter, because that’s the worst kind of cowardice. One benefit of Bob's diatribe is that we'll  tuck away his  harassment of Ms. Erlichson as an object lesson in how not to treat someone. In fact, this is the kind of behavior that schools strive to keep in check through the Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying Act enacted by the Legislature after the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.

Just as disheartening for parents, for teachers, for anyone who cares about kids and education is the vicious tweets incited by Bob's scurrilous discourse, most of them, sadly, from parents and teachers. They might want to take a moment to read a memo sent out by Bari Erlichson. She notes that last Friday was "Digital Learning Day" in N.J. and then writes,

 In New Jersey, concerns arose about the way students’ public postings on social media were being monitored for divulging PARCC test content ...[I'd] remind everyone that public social-media posts are, by definition, public. We urge parents who are concerned about their child’s participation in social media to reach out to their schools for guidance.

It is more important than ever to highlight the issue of responsible digital citizenship as our students take the new assessments. Today alone, approximately a quarter million New Jersey students participated in a PARCC exam. To date, more than 930,000 performance-based assessments in either English Language Arts or math have been completed without widespread technical problems. Truly, this should be seen as a tribute to the hard work and preparation done by you, and each and every dedicated member of your staff.  Thank you for your hard work in your school and in your community.

Maybe that's the real object of Bob's ire: PARCC tests in N.J. are going just fine, contrary to propaganda from NJEA and Save Our Schools-NJ (see this piece from the Columbia Journalism Review), a tribute to Ms. Erlichson, N.J. school administrators, teachers, and students. Bob can't attack the tests themselves, or their implementation, so he's sinking to personal attacks. This mean-spirited bottom-feeding undermines his commentary and his intentions. Maybe  he needs to take a step back and learn or re-learn some basic lessons about integrity.

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