How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled”—this quotable is now common on memes across the Internet, always attributed to Mark Twain:

Why we cannot trust meme-truth.

The problem, however, is no one can find any evidence Twain ever uttered or wrote these words.

But the premise of the saying against the momentum of online of misattribution [1] prompts me to offer a line from Airplane II: The Sequel, by Buck Murdock (William Shatner): “Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.”

That Twain didn’t write that doesn’t discount the credibility of the claim, and thus, that leads to my never-ending (it seems) disappointment about how the mainstream media addresses education.

Part of the problem is that journalists and others in the media are simply uninformed about disciplinary fields, such as education, that have rich research bases and histories. Another large component of the problem is that journalists and the media have little to check them since the public often shares the same misconceptions journalists and the media promote and work within.

David Dunning highlights that many people are “confident idiots”:

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

Dunning adds that being uninformed has an odd effect, one confirmed by research:

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

And thus, as Alamy Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett report: Today’s key fact: you are probably wrong about almost everything:

People from the UK also think immigrants make up twice the proportion of the population as is really the case – and that many more people are unemployed than actually are.

Such misconceptions are typical around the world, but they can have a significant impact as politicians aim to focus on voter perceptions, not on the actual data….

It is one thing for public opinion to be shaped by the perception of issues and another when politicians choose to make promises and write policies to feed and satisfy misconceptions.

While not unique to media coverage of education, we must face that both the media and the general public feed a tremendous amount of misinformation about education policy and research, school effectiveness, student achievement, and teacher quality.

How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

Public education has been battered for over 150 years in the U.S., but the most recent thirty years of accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing have increased that negative scrutiny; as well, the media now uses its flawed formula of showing both sides to give a fair-and-balanced view of how education is failing (no space for any other view than failure, by the way).

But just as the objective pose of journalism fails how education is covered in the mainstream press, a wide variety of equally misinformed assumptions about teaching, learning, and schooling tend to tarnish nearly all coverage of education.

I want here to examine an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal to highlight that pattern and examine how to anticipate and navigate those patterns: How I Learned Not to Hate School: Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program saved me. So why are teachers trying to kill it?

First, common in media coverage of education is an assumptive negative claim; in this title and subtitle we see “hate school” and “kill,” associated with public school and teachers. The positives are by implication and then directly related to market forces; being able to choose another school and the tax-credit scholarship “save” the writer.

Immediately, the piece embraces and speaks to a cultural distrust of government (publicly funded) and faith in the market throughout the U.S.—all of which is sparked in Denisha Merriweather’s opening paragraph:

By the time I was in the fourth grade, I had been held back twice, disliked school, and honestly believed I’d end up a high-school dropout. Instead, three months ago, I earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida in interdisciplinary social science with a minor in juvenile justice. I am the first member of my family to go to college, let alone graduate. But this didn’t happen by chance, or by hard work alone. It happened because I was given an opportunity.

Merriweather’s story proves to be compelling, and I believe anyone would support that her single experience is something to support. But that this is a personal story raises several issues.

First, an anecdote, one that may well be an outlier example, cannot prove or disprove a generalization; thus, if the generalization is that Florida’s tax-credit scholarship is flawed education policy, Merriweather’s story simply offers no evidence to reject that premise—one that may well be based on research of the entire program against the good of all people in Florida and the health of the education system in the state.

The only power that Merriweather’s anecdote has is that prompts an emotional response and triggers assumptions that may (or may not) be grounded in credible claims.

Next, Merriweather immediately identifies the tax-credit as the “difference maker” in her turn-around, implying that the scholarship and subsequent choice caused her transformation.

This claim is deeply flawed since causation is an incredibly hard thing to prove in formal research, much less in an individual’s anecdote. This leads us to two key points about the foundational claim by Merriweather that access to school choice caused her changed path in life.

As she details, her failed experiences in public schools were marked by a transient life, and then her success in private school was marked by stability. One possibility is that her transformation was linked to the shift from transience to stability—not a function of choice, and not a function of school type. In other words, if her life had stabilized in her years of public schools, she may have succeeded just as she did in a private school.

The implication by Merriweather includes both that choice was key in her success and that private schools trump public. This last point perfectly reflects the opening framing that market/private is inherently superior to government/public—concepts embraced by most people in the U.S. but strongly refuted by evidence.

In fact, among public, private, and charter schools [2], the type of schooling has little or no impact on the outcomes; all three types have the same range of outcomes, when student characteristics are controlled.

Another series of assumptions involve claims about effort and expectations, as Merriweather explains:

At Esprit de Corps, making honor roll is expected and academic success is celebrated. This environment was very different for me. But something clicked. My grades and self-confidence rose. I believed I could succeed and people there believed the same. Learning was no longer a nightmare, but a gift I greatly appreciated. I worked hard. In the end, I graduated with honors.

Private schools are better than public schools, in part because private schools expect more—that is the message. As I have noted above, private schools are not superior because they are private (most raw claims they are superior are based on more affluent student populations when compared to public), but we must also admit that expectations and effort are not the keys our cultural myths suggest. Despite our belief in demanding more and working hard, effort is often trumped by privilege and race.

And I think this leads to the greatest irony of Merrieweather’s piece since toward the end she highlights the power of opportunity, the one solid claim she makes. What is left unexamined, however, is that Merriweather argues for choice (and thus, chance) as the needed mechanism for opportunity instead of public policy that can insure equitable opportunity for everyone (consider civil rights legislation or women’s rights legislation); all of which again reveals how media representations of education are heavily couched in foundational beliefs, ones that are often refuted by credible evidence.

Yes, the Merriweather piece is an Op-Ed, not traditional news by a journalist, but I have detailed often that mainstream news articles follow the exact flawed patterns I have highlighted above: holding up anecdote and outliers as proof of generalizations, conflating causation and correlation, making sweeping but unsupported claims, couching all claims in market ideology, suggesting expectations and effort are more important than social forces, and only examining education in the U.S. through the lens of assumed failure.

When it comes to education coverage in the media—just as we should understand about memes on the Internet—reader beware:

Related Posts

Belief Culture: “We Don’t Need No Education”

Faith-Based Education Reform: Common Core as Standards-and-Testing Redux

[1] The Internet itself makes posting and spreading the misattribution quite easy, but also verifying equally as easy, although verifying such appears not to be nearly as compelling as spreading.

[2] See Di Carlo’s explanation about “charterness.”

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