Confronting “Bad Journalism” in an Era of “Bad Teachers”

A couple of weeks ago, I posted Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB in order to examine the impact of ESSA on the growing “bad teachers” narrative found in political and media commentary on the state of education in the U.S.

My speculations have now been given credence, notably Stephen Sawchuk’s 50 Years of Research Show Good Teaching Matters. Now What? at his Teacher’s Beat blog for Education Week.

Sawchuk’s post confirmed for me that the “bad teachers” drumbeat will continue so I posted a comment, one that expressed my frustration and linked to my post above:

Please let’s stop the bad journalism on teacher quality.

Please let’s stop treating Education Next as a credible publication.

First, we must note that the impact of teacher quality is dwarfed by out-of-school factors (

“But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).”

However, that assessment is relative conservative when compared to Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage by Donald Hirsch (JRF, 2007) (

“Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.”

Sawchuk himself replied:

This is the kind of comment that makes me crazy. I very explicitly wrote that of the IN-SCHOOL FACTORS affecting achievement, teacher quality seems to matter most. Both Coleman in his study, and Goldhaber in other publications (and me in my own reporting elsewhere) have noted that out-of-school factors account for more of the overall variance in scores. You prepare teachers, Paul — so it seems really strange to argue that we shouldn’t care about what our teachers can and do do to affect learning.

And this prompted two more comments from me:

You are aware of the horribly skewed public and political view of teacher quality, and the brief nod to “in-school” does not identify how small teacher quality is related to measurable student outcomes (less than unexplained/error).

But please identify where I have in my post or any of my work ever taken this position: “so it seems really strange to argue that we shouldn’t care about what our teachers can and do do to affect learning.”

Erodes your credibility further, after treating Education Next as credible, to discredit me with a false characterization of my position.

And (which directly quotes from my own blog calling for addressing teacher quality with vulnerable students):

From my blog post linked (to refute your mischaracterization):

So the caveat for focusing on teacher quality must include that as long as we use measurable data for determining student achievement and teacher quality, failing to address out-of-school factors likely guarantees we’ll see little change in measures such as test scores.

Nonetheless, we must address teacher experience and qualifications/expertise at high-poverty, majority-minority schools; however, without social reform that alleviates the burdens of poverty on the lives of students and their families, we are unlikely to see the sorts of changes in data that would justify any in-school only reforms.

Also, the teacher quality debate often fails to make clear at the outset just how we are designating “good” or “bad” teachers (as well as “good” and “bad” schools). We must make sure that we are not using labels of quality as markers for those out-of-school factors. In other words, we tend to say schools and teachers are “good” when the student population is affluent, and both are “bad” when the student population is high poverty.

All of which resulted in Sawchuk adding:

And moreover, I encourage you try to engage constructively on the blog, rather than beginning with personal attacks.

Here, although Sawchuk has posted again, addressing how to couch teacher impact as an in-school factor, I want to highlight what I think is a very important distinction, one at the root of bad education journalism.

First, I believe Sawchuk is in fact a very good education journalist, and although I do not know him personally, I am confident he is also a good person with good intentions.

I also want to note that I have been confronting for some time now “bad journalism,” but I have never once accused anyone of being a “bad journalist”—attacking the person.

Yet, one of the most prominent aspects of “bad journalism” has in fact been a relentless and often careless narrative about “bad teachers” (the people, the professionals) and not “bad teaching.”

So, as I have argued before, the problem at the core of bad education journalism is ironically that many journalists covering education are good journalists—taking the “objective” pose and refusing to evaluate the credibility of the “both sides” approach to journalism.

For me to confront “bad journalism” (the act and not the people) for demonizing people and a profession, “bad teachers,” is my own effort not to make the same mistake I am challenging.

Sawchuk’s recent blog post, then, I am certain feeds into the “bad teacher” narrative; I also cannot believe he doesn’t realize that.

I think as well it is telling that he had my blog post link, but chose to make a fairly nasty and provably inaccurate swipe at my intentions—to discredit me and not address my argument (thus, personal); and then when was given ample evidence, chose again not to address his actions, but instead accused me , a second time, of something I did not do.

My blog and most of my public work is searchable online. I have been confronting “bad journalism,” but I have not attacked “bad journalists.”

Virtually every mainstream journalist, however, has run with the “bad teacher” narrative.

I am struck by that important distinction, and regret that journalists covering education believe that they have the right to criticize teachers (often without any background in teaching), but are offended when their own journalism is exposed for failing to provide credible investigations of much needed reforms in pubic education as well as our broader society.

Nonetheless, I am sorry Sawchuk read my post as a personal attack, and I regret that his option to respond to that misinterpretation has been to misrepresent my own intentions and public positions on the complicated ways we must address teacher quality.

See Also

In Schools, Teacher Quality Matters Most, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

On Professionalism and Good Intentions: More on Education and Journalism


Last night, I watched a segment on the CBS Evening News covering the Zika outbreak in Florida.

What struck me about the coverage is that the report included Dr. Walter Tabachnick, an expert on infectious diseases, and in a follow up story, the reporter is a doctor, Dr. Jon LaPook. That second story also uses a doctor and researcher, experts on transfusions, as the primary sources.

I must emphasize that no business leader or CEO, no think tank leader, and no members of Doctors for America were included in the coverage.


11 thoughts on “Confronting “Bad Journalism” in an Era of “Bad Teachers”

  1. Paul, I totally agree with your post. My frustration has led me to draw a distinction between journalists and reporters. Those who serve as a mouthpiece for special interests, I refer to as reporters because they offer no insight and merely pass on what they are told without any introspection. A journalist considers both sides and makes an analysis of both sides, supports his/her statements with sources as we do when writing academic pieces. It’s fare easier to be a reporter these days as you do not have to work as hard.

  2. Sawchuk said, “And moreover, I encourage you try to engage constructively on the blog, rather than beginning with personal attacks.”

    I read your comments, Paul, and I didn’t not see a personal attack—I saw a constructive engagement—and that is why I can’t agree with your statement that: “Sawchuk is in fact a very good education journalist, and although I do not know him personally, I am confident he is also a good person with good intentions.”

    At 70, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Vet with PTSD, and with my history going back to being born into a family living in poverty in addition to my life threatening health challenges as a child and a severe case of dyslexia that challenged my ability to learn to read, I’m not as kind as you are. So I call it like I see it. I also want to mention that, after going to college on the GI Bill, I taught in public schools for thirty years that had child poverty rates of 70% or higher. I know what it is like to grow up living in an environment of poverty, and I know the challenges teachers face working with high rates of children who live in poverty.

    In addition, I have run into enough public school teacher haters and teachers’ union bashers to know that once one of these fools claims they have been personally attacked while ignoring the context of the comment they are dismissing with their accusation of an ad hominem attack—a common tactic that gullible, naive fools are taught from the gurus of the far right—that Shawchuk is either a fool or a fraud who has been bought. That means if Sawchuk had been bought, then he is not a good journalist, but if he is a fool, he can be a good person with good intentions but that doesn’t excuse Sawchuk from being a lousy journalist who lets his own biases influence what he writes while wearing blinders to the data of facts that prove him wrong.

    You made good points in your comments that Sawchuk was ignored as he attempted to discredit what you said with his accusations of an ad hominem attack that never happened.

    Here’s my ad hominem attack, and I stand behind my words. I think Sawchuk is an obvious tool of the privatization movement that is out to destroy the public sector and possibly he is n unwitting supporter that will help subvert our Republic and strip its Constitution of its powers to protect all of the people from the frauds, psychopaths and tyrants that live among us.

  3. Pingback: Confronting “Bad Journalism” in an Era of “Bad Teachers” | David R. Taylor-Thoughts on Education

  4. The fact is that the most dominant factors that influence academic achievement are all found outside the school,i.e. socio/economic background of the parents, the educational attainment of parents and the neighborhood where the student resides. Without addressing these factors, you are fighting a lost cause.

  5. Cogent and clear, Professor Thomas always cuts to the heart of the issue. If education journalism, at least in its most ubiquitous form, had to adhere to even the baseline expectations that an undergraduate conforms to in terms of citation of authority and support of assertions, we’d see their industry change.

  6. More than a decade ago, when I was a Teacher in Residence at the National Board, and working for another TQ nonprofit, we were in conversation with Dan Goldhaber to try to get him to agree that higher achievement data (and we had it) demonstrated convincingly that National Bd Certified Teachers “made a difference” in student outcomes. In other words, our nationally certified “good teachers” might the most important–yes, school-based— factor for kids’ learning.

    Goldhaber balked at this assertion. (Ironic, I know.) I remember his argument clearly: It is impossible to tease out just which factors lead to increased test scores. It may be the total school environment, not the individual teacher. It may be a previous teacher who accomplished the learning breakthrough now showing up in this year’s scores. It may be a crumbling home environment, or a difficult adolescence that leads to declining scores, against which a good teacher can do nothing. Although there were clear, positive correlations between NBC Teachers and increased scores, he did not believe that they were necessarily caused by “good teaching” and refused to say so.

    Evidently, someone else is paying him now. But at the time, I was impressed by his logic and conviction.

  7. Why is it that you are bending over backwards to say Sawchuk is a good journalist with good intentions when the evidence strongly proves he is a hack and a fraud with nothing but bad intentions for professional, hard-working public school teachers? I, for one, have no problem using personal attacks when the evidence supports that those attacks are true and are not an ad hominem fallacy. For instance, when Sawchuk accused you of an ad hominem attack, it was obvious that was an ad hominem attack on you to divert attention away from the topic. Sawchuik isn’t a bad journalist because he isn’t real journalist. He is a fraud, a sellout, a fake journalist, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a skunk pretending to be a teddy bear, and I think he should be dipped in boiling tar and then dropped into a bed of porcupine quills.

    • This. Thank you for your posts, Lloyd Lofthouse. The Republicans under Lee Atwater were brilliant at pretending that if you point out their lies (excuse me, their “misleading statements designed to deceive”) you were “attacking” them and being mean. So that the fact that they were lying was less important than the fact that you were so mean to point it out and how could you do that to such a “nice” liar (excuse me, I mean “person”).

  8. Pingback: Confronting “Bad Journalism” in an Era of “Bad Teachers” — radical eyes for equity | Matthews' Blog

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