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

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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,  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-Q-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. [See correction below.] 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 — are 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.

Correction: Bari Erlichson’s husband doesn’t own MongoDB. He’s Vice President of Engineering.

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  • Adele Bee Ann Patterns, March 19, 2015 @ 1:01 pm Reply

    'PARCC testing in N.J. which, by the way, has been going just fine…' Check your facts. PARCC tests are not going well and for you to say that they are discredits all you say. Had you writen the truth about the progress (or lack thereof) the PARCC test is making I may have considered your article to have some validity but when you make a comment that is blantantly false, the rest of your words become meaningless.

  • Melificent, March 19, 2015 @ 1:28 pm Reply

    Propaganda? Gee Laura, I guess all of the Superintendents and board members that are against the PARCC and common core are conspiracy theorists as well. I have been an opponent of the ever-increasing standardized test time in NJ and have refused them for the last 3 years. When a balanced education goes out the window in order to make time to prep for several tests a year, you better believe I am going to have a problem with that. If throughout history people did not take a stand when something seemed amiss, the course of history would have been altered greatly. Maybe rather than penning a post before you had your morning coffee, you should have taken the time to research the entire story before spewing YOUR propaganda. “When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow.” Anais Nin

  • Michelle W, March 19, 2015 @ 1:42 pm Reply

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Allison Frasch, March 19, 2015 @ 1:50 pm Reply

    I guess MongoDB is misinformed about the connection as well. Keep drinking the Bari Kool-aid and I'll keep listening to my children and fighting for their EDUCATION and not turning them into corporate robots without creative, UNIQUE abilities.

  • NJ Left Behind, March 19, 2015 @ 3:34 pm Reply

    Hi, Adele. From the Columbia Journalism Review (that I linked to in the post):
    “There’s no question that something big is happening in New Jersey and around the country, but it’s not what most reporters are describing. Kids in New Jersey will take an estimated 90 extra minutes of testing compared to previous years. Roughly 250,000 kids are taking the tests every day. For the most part, the large-scale snafus that have been predicted do not seem to have occurred, did not take place last year during the trial run process, and should not continue to be reported until they actually take place.”

  • Mother Crusader, March 19, 2015 @ 5:14 pm Reply

    I can't help but chuckle at this somewhat self righteous rant on journalistic integrity and parental responsibility coming from someone who put words in the mouth of a DEAD MAN in a feeble attempt to support her own misguided opinion, and then when she was corrected by the DAUGHTER of the dearly departed, failed to print a correction. Please Ms. Waters, spare us your lecture, you have no moral high ground from which to offer this diatribe. You are on VERY shaky ground here.

  • concernedcitizen, March 19, 2015 @ 7:24 pm Reply

    Bravo, Laura. At last someone holds Bob Braun accountable for his misstatements of fact and his vicious ad hominem attacks. Keep up the good work!

  • Mike Harris, March 19, 2015 @ 7:50 pm Reply

    I feel so so sorry for the children, parents, administration, teachers and ESP's that are under your governance as a BOE member……so so sorry………… ^0^

  • Adele Bee Ann Patterns, March 19, 2015 @ 8:01 pm Reply

    Indeed there is something very big happening in NJ centered around the PARCC/CC we agree on that, it is undeniable. However, 'not what most reporters are describing…', my information about the 'snafus' (I will acquiesce to calling these major screw-ups 'snafus') is coming to me from the frontline, from students, teachers and parents. I can cite many instances where 'snafus' have drastically interfered with testing enough so that it will impact the results. Not to mention the numerous bogus answers that you will find once the tests are 'graded'.

    The well is poisoned, whether it's just a drop of poison or a bucket full, you wouldn't drink from a poisoned well. The statement, '…the large-scale snafus that have been predicted do not seem to have occurred…' is ridiculous. The 'snafus' are not predictions, they are happening. Furthermore, to finish off this statement with 'do not seem to have occurred' actually makes me feel embarrashed for you. Be a real reporter, dig deeper, you'll find what doesn't 'seem' to have occurred is in fact occurring.

  • Michelle W, March 20, 2015 @ 2:21 am Reply

    I'm not a real big conspiracy theorist, and not even speaking to the issue of social media monitoring and data mining, but if you don't see a conflict of interest and impropriety when an assistant to the NJ DOE is married to an employee of a Pearson subsidiary, you're just turning a blind eye.

  • Allison Frasch, March 20, 2015 @ 12:28 pm Reply

    Clearly, as evident by the General Assembly votes yesterday, in unanimous decision…they agree with the parents. This test was rolled out way too early, with many errors and security glitches, and our children are guinea pigs to hedge funders and corrupt corporations that are trying to abolish public education. Pearson and the NJ DOE are making stuff up as they go along and it's hurting our children. Bring NJASK back and upgrade it to higher standards. The only reason our Govorner signed on to PARCC was for $$, he admitted that. Stop selling our children's data to the highest bidder, stop allowing 3rd parties to monitor our children without our knowledge. Including taking webcam photos of them! The fact that you cannot comprehend the conflict of interest in the relationship between Bari and Pearson subcontractors is troubling. I also feel sorry for the children, parents, administration, teachers and ESP's that are under your governance as a BOE member.

  • Dan Masi, March 20, 2015 @ 1:09 pm Reply

    I hate myself. Because I swore I wouldn't read any more of your tripe, and this title just got me, and I started reading.

    You're not going to believe this. And that's fine. But the truth is, I've spent about two minutes on this so far, literally. I read less than half the article, did a quick Google search, and found this job posting with Pearson for a PARCC software developer. One of the requirements: experience with MongoDB.

    I hope the rest of your article went better.

    Glass houses, stones, etc.


  • David, March 20, 2015 @ 4:10 pm Reply

    MongoDB is free software, so the fact that Pearson is using MongoDB does not imply a business relationship. I also use MongoDB and I've never given them a dime.

  • Dan Masi, March 20, 2015 @ 5:41 pm Reply

    MongoDB is not “free software”. It is licensed under the GNU GPL, and for a commercial license, you'd need to pay the good folks at MongoDB.

  • Erika Sanzi, March 21, 2015 @ 10:47 pm Reply

    Keep up the great work! You are speaking truth to organized interests — glad to know NJ students have an advocate in you. Sending support from RI. -Erika

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