U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

Few things are worse than mainstream media coverage of education.

Except for that sentence above, which stretches hyperbole beyond credibility.

But that is exactly where the mainstream media finds itself when covering education. Journalists, in their quest to maintain the traditional commitment to “fair and balanced” journalism [1], consistently endorse and perpetuate organizations without credibility (such as NCTQ) and baseless claims (such as cries of “bad” teacher, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions).

With yet another report released by NCTQ, that failure of the mainstream media has been highlighted once again—notably at NPR [2] and Education Week: Study Delivers Failing Grades For Many Programs Training Teachers, Claudio Sanchez and Juana Summers; Alternative Certification Deemed Weak by NCTQ in New Teacher-Prep Report, Stephen Sawchuk; Most Teacher Preparation Falls Short on Strategies for ELLs, NCTQ Finds, Lesli A. Maxwell.

First, the mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports remains trapped inside assumed crises that have no basis in fact; NCTQ’s reports and then the media begin with the givens that education suffers under the burden of “bad” teachers, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions. However, at the very least, these claims are disproportional, if not outright erroneous:

  • If we maintain the current context that student achievement is accurately reflected in test scores (and it isn’t), then we must acknowledge that teacher quality (10-15%) and school quality account for only about 20% of that measurement, but “60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty),” as Di Carlo details.
  • If we accept that value-added methods (VAM) can accurately and consistently identify “good” and “bad” teachers (and the evidence is that it cannot) and if we accept the much repeated claim by Chetty et al. that teacher quality can add $50,000 to the lifetime earning potential of a student (and that also is a significantly contested claim, as well as another example of advocacy and media hyperbole since that lifetime earning figure equates to about 1.5-2 tanks of gas per month), the enormity of the claims about “bad” teachers and the urgency expressed about creating and implementing huge and expensive test-based systems to address teacher quality are at best overstated. No rational person would endorse the cost-benefit analysis of such schemes.
  • Finally, claims that teachers unions are primary or significant negative influences on educational quality are powerfully refuted by the historical and current fact that the states in the U.S. with the lowest standardized test scores tend to be those that are right-to-work (non-union) states. Unionization correlates positively with measurable student achievement, in fact, while poverty is the greatest correlation with low measurable student outcomes (for the record, union bashing is a straw man because U.S. public education has a poverty problem, not a union problem).

Next, NCTQ has established a sort of immediate appearance of credibility through three strategies: partnering itself with U.S. News & World Report, garnering significant and influential sources of funding, and bombarding the mainstream media with a series of reports without vetting those reports as is common in traditional scholarship (which slows down and greatly harnesses higher-quality research from reaching the public [3]. But scholars don’t issue press releases, and apparently, journalists respond primarily to press releases instead of conducting investigative journalism [4].)

Finally, once I engaged Sawchuck (EdWeek) and then Summers (NPR) on Twitter, several key aspects of this phenomenon were highlighted. Both journalists argued that their pieces on NCTQ were fair, and even critical—which I will examine below—but even more significant is a comment on Twitter from Summers:

My two reactions to Summers deferring from examining the credibility of NCTQ are, first, to strongly disagree, and second, note that no journalists need to do any real investigative journalism to uncover that NCTQ has no credibility because all of that work has been done already by a number of scholars (see those critiques catalogued here and here).

As disturbing, however, as that stance is, examining carefully the coverage of NCTQ reveals that the mainstream media does in fact endorse NCTQ implicitly (despite claims of impartiality) and also marginalizes the credible critiques of NCTQ.

All three articles (see above) have headlines that establish immediately for any reader that NCTQ’s report is worthy of major media coverage. Next, all three articles have ledes that also present NCTQ positively:

The nation’s teacher-preparation programs have plenty of room for improvement, according to a new report. (Sanchez and Summers)

Alternative-certification programs for preparing teachers suffer from many of the same problems that the National Council on Teacher Quality has identified in traditional, university-based programs, the Washington-based group concludes in a new pilot study. (Sawchuk)

More than 75 percent of elementary teacher-preparation programs are failing when it comes to readying future teachers to work effectively with English-language learners, a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality contends. (Maxwell)

Sanchez and Summers (again, note that Summers argues it isn’t her job to assign credibility to the study) certainly imply that the study is credible by using this language: “The study is a dismal read, given that the U.S. spends more than $6 billion each year to prepare teachers for the classroom.”

The NCTQ study is only a “dismal read” if it is accurate (and it isn’t). NCTQ has been carefully discredited in scholarship (for example, see Fuller here and here) for serious conflicts of interest (Teach For America and KIPP leaders sit on the Advisory Board, for example), for a flawed study design, and for shoddy methodology [5].

So how are credible academic critiques of NCTQ characterized in the journalism that claims not to take evaluative positions?:

When NCTQ released a version of this report last year, it was met with some skepticism among educators and those responsible for preparing teachers. Critics said the advocacy group should have visited individual teacher-prep programs and talked to graduates and students, rather than relying on syllabi. (Sanchez and Summers)

Last year’s inaugural teacher-prep review was immediately rejected by most teacher colleges and, especially, by their main membership body, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Criticism focused on the NCTQ’s tack of reviewing syllabi and other course materials rather than visiting institutions; its use of open-records requests and current students to obtain documents; the complaint that its standards weren’t agreed to by the profession; and the fact that its research products aren’t peer reviewed. Additionally, critics have claimed that the project is ideologically driven, given NCTQ’s role as incubator of an alternative-certification group, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), which received federal funding from the George W. Bush administration.

The latter complaint seems less viable now that the NCTQ has turned its green eyeshade toward alternative-certification programs. (Sawchuk)

“Some skepticism” and “critics” clearly position credible scholarship negatively while maintaining the implied endorsement of NCTQ as an organization and NCTQ’s reports. And while Sawchuk appears to address more directly NCTQ’s lack of credibility, he still marginalizes scholars as “critics” and then in the last paragraph above, simply discounts the criticism [6].

Further in Sawchuk’s piece, the contrast between lacking credibility (NCTQ) and credibility (scholarship discrediting NCTQ) is reduced to a simple misunderstanding and a matter of tone (not substance):

Notably, the report’s introduction this year contains a number of mea culpas regarding the bad blood between the NCTQ and teacher colleges. And Walsh agreed that her group bore some of the blame.

“At times we were a bit arrogant about what it is we think teacher education should be doing,” she said. “Even if we agree to disagree, we can be more respectful.”

Again, this trivializes criticism of NCTQ and further equates NCTQ (an advocacy think tank) with scholarship—while also painting NCTQ as apologetic (despite the organization maintaining its threat of ranking programs whether they cooperate or not; a powerful tool afforded NCTQ because of its media partnership with U.S. News & World Report).

One of my strongest criticisms of teachers is that we far too often allow ourselves to be trapped within traditional calls that we take neutral stances; however, the U.S. needs critical teachers (political teachers) if our public schools are to be a foundation for our democracy.

What I have detailed above is that journalists in the U.S. have bowed to the same call for neutrality, one that cannot be accomplished but can serve as a shield for maintaining the status quo.

The U.S. needs critical journalists, ones who see their job as maintaining a commitment to seeking out and identifying the credibility of things they report. Only those in power benefit when the free press is mostly free of taking to task those in power.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in how the mainstream media fails the education reform debate.

[1] Journalists and teachers share the burden of traditional expectations that they should never be “political,” but taking a neutral stance is, in fact, taking a passive stance endorsing the status quo. In other words, taking a dispassionate pose is a political stance (see The Politics of Calling for No Politics).

[2] See a similar example with NPR’s coverage of “grit.”

[3] See the following in terms of how the mainstream media disproportionately reports on think tank (non-peer reviewed) reports as compared to peer-reviewed and university-based research:

Molnar, A. (2001, April 11). The media and educational research: What we know vs. what the public hears. Milwaukee, WI: Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation. Retrieved from http://epsl.asu.edu/epru/documents/cerai-01-14.htm

Yettick, H. (2009). The research that reaches the public: Who produces the educational research mentioned in the news media? Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/research-that-reaches

[4] I make this claim not as a direct attack on any journalists, but teachers and journalists now experience very similar and negative influences on their ability to conduct their professions. While education reform tends to impeded good teaching, the contracting media market has tended to overburden journalists. As a result of newspapers and magazines disappearing and contracting their staffs, many journalists resort to press-release journalism as a survival technique, similar to teachers teaching to the tests. The conditions of both professions, teaching and journalism, are stark reasons why both teachers and journalists must exert their political selves in their professional work.

[5] As a brief glimpse into NCTQ’s accidental admission of their methodology, in an effort to twist criticism of their practices, this post adds at the end “As one teacher candidate who is working on our office this summer said,” highlighting that anecdote is enough for NCTQ, as long as it matches their advocacy.

[6] Sawchuk fails to recognize that NCTQ is working within a scorched-earth policy as part of the large disaster capitalism driving education reform in the U.S. For a vivid example of how this works, and why NCTQ, TFA, and KIPP benefit once the traditional education system is dismantled, see the events that have occurred since Katrina in New Orleans where the public school system has been replaced by charters schools, many KIPP and many staffed by TFA recruits.

Et tu, Liberal Media?

The erosion of support for the Commons is most distinct in the failure of foundational support for universal public education in favor of the more powerful interests of corporate America. Just as public schools and teachers have no political party, the so-called liberal media have also abandoned public education and America’s workers, teachers.

Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert have fallen into the corporate education reform trap by buying into and thus selling the “bad” teacher myth, the charter school scam, the Michelle Rhee self-promotion tour, and the Teach for America masquerade. NBC and MSNBC, along with CNN, have long been marginalized by the Right as shining examples of the liberal media, but all have fallen in line with the corporate education reform agenda through programming such as Education Nation—corporate reform propaganda pretending to be investigative media.

This week, PBS (certainly the gold-standard of liberal media, if we believe public perception) ran an episode of Frontline examining once again Michelle Rhee: “The Education of Michelle Rhee.”

Teachers, scholars, and education activists—including education historian Diane Ravitch—held onto the slimmest glimmer of hope that the unmasking of Rhee would finally come in the form of genuinely democratic media, free of corporate agendas.

However, the program with the tagline “FRONTLINE examines the legacy of one of America’s most admired & reviled school reformers” left educators and public school advocates saying, “Et tu, liberal media?”

On balance, PBS provided Rhee yet more media coverage, satisfying her self-promotion, but leaving a tremendous vacuum of things unsaid as well as truly accurate and confrontational responses to Rhee on the cutting room floor.

John Merrow and American journalism have once again failed the democratic purposes of public media and the promise of universal public education.

Merrow, however, has chosen to run a much more detailed and enlightening piece online, in writing, about Adelle Cothorne, leading many to wonder: Why offer the larger and more powerful TV audience Rhee propaganda-lite and bury something closer to Rhee confrontation in an online blog?

The answer is ugly.

The Commons in the form of journalism and education have been consumed by the consumer culture that feeds the Corporate Greed pooling America’s resources in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

Public education, its students, and its teachers have no political party and have no media to fight for the truths that must be revealed if democracy, and not corporate interests, is our goal.