UPDATE: Note Holly Yettick’s One Small Droplet: News Media Coverage of Peer-Reviewed and University-Based Education Research and Academic Expertise; see abstract:
Most members of the American public will never read this article. Instead, they will obtain much of their information about education from the news media. Yet little academic research has examined the type or quality of education research and expertise they will find there. Through the lens of gatekeeping theory, this mixed-methods study aims to address that gap by examining the prevalence of news media citations of evidence that has undergone the quality-control measure of peer review and expertise associated with academics generally required to have expertise in their fields. Results suggest that, unlike science or medical journalists, education writers virtually never cite peer-reviewed research. Nor do they use the American Educational Research Association as a resource. Academic experts are also underrepresented in news media coverage, especially when compared to government officials [bold aded]. Barriers between the news media and academia include structural differences between research on education and the medical or life sciences as well as journalists’ lack of knowledge of the definition and value of peer review and tendency to apply and misapply news values to social science research and expertise.
“‘Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college’”: This spells doom for the U.S. economy, or to be more accurate, this spelled doom for the U.S. economy.
Except it didn’t, of course, as it is a quote in a 1947 issue of Time from John Ward Studebaker, a former school superintendent who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education (analogous to today’s Secretary of Education) in the mid-1940s.
Jump forward to 26 December 2015 and The New York Times: As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short. Motoko Rich, as in the Time article, builds her case on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as Susan Ohanian confronts:
Here’s a front page. above-the-fold New York Times non-story that’s a perfect depiction of damning schools every-which-way. Schools with low graduation rates are depicted as failures; improve graduation rates, and then the diplomas they’re handing out are judged to have no meaning. And the Times gives the departing Secretary of Education star billing on this issue.
Quotation of the Day
The goal is not just high school graduation. The goal is being truly college and career ready.
–ARNE DUNCAN, the departing secretary of
education, on the United States 82 percent graduation rate in 2013-14, the highest on record.–New York Times, Dec. 27, 2015
Along with the meat grinder of incessantly new high-stakes accountability standards and testing over the past thirty-plus years, U.S. public education has been demonized since the mid-1900s and relentlessly framed within crisis discourse by the mainstream media for a century.
Rich’s cover piece spends an inordinate amount of energy to twist public schools into that crisis image while making no effort to investigate or challenge Duncan (a life-long appointee with no expertise in education and no credibility as a leader in education) or to unpack the stale platitudes and unsubstantiated claims about education reaching back at least to the Time article.
Duncan and Rich share, in fact, no experience or education in teaching as well as the disproportionate power of their voices in the field despite that lack of expertise.
On the other hand, I taught public high school English in rural South Carolina (not far from the school Rich highlights), have been an educator in SC over 30 years total, have a doctorate in education that emphasized the history of the field, and now am a teacher educator at a university just a couple miles from the school in Rich’s piece (I know teachers there, and have had several teacher candidates placed there for field work). As well, I taught journalism and was the faculty sponsor of the school newspaper, and have been a professional writer for about the same amount of time as I have been teaching, including writing and publishing a good deal of journalism (mostly about education).
This is not, however, an attack on Duncan or Rich—because they are not unique but typical of the mismatch of high-level voice with a lack of expertise.
Mainstream media appear fatally wed to only one version of the U.S. public education story: crisis.
And thus, journalists reach out to the same know-nothings (political leaders, political appointees, think-tank talking heads) and reproduce the same stories over and over and over .
Here, then, let me offer a few keys to moving beyond the reductive crisis-meme-as-education-journalism:
- Public education has never been and is not now in crisis. “Crisis” is the wrong metaphor for entrenched patterns that have existed over a century. A jet plane crash landing into the Hudson River is a crisis; public education suffers under forces far more complicated than a crisis.
- Metrics such as highs-takes test scores and graduation rates have always and currently tell us more about the conditions of children’s lives than to what degree public schools are effective.
- Short-hand terms such as “college and career ready” and “grade-level reading” are little more than hokum; they are the inadequate verbal versions of the metrics noted above.
- The nebulous relationship between the quality of education in the U.S. and the fragility of the U.S. economy simply has never existed. Throughout the past century, no one has ever found any direct or clear positive correlation between measures of educational quality in the U.S. and the strength of the U.S. economy.
- Yes, racial and class segregation is on the rise in the U.S., and so-called majority-minority schools as well as high-poverty schools are quickly becoming the norm of public education. While demographics of race and class remain strongly correlated with the metrics we use to label schools as failing, the problem lies in the data (high-stakes tests remain race, class, and gender biased), not necessarily the students, teachers, or administrators.
- However, historically and currently, public education’s great failures are two-fold: (1) public schools reflect the staggering social inequities of the U.S. culture, and (2) public schools too often perpetuate those same inequities (for example, tracking and disciplinary policies).
The mainstream media’s meat grinder of crisis-only reporting on public education achieves some extremely powerful and corrosive consequences.
First, the public remains grossly misinformed about public schools as a foundational institution in a democracy.
Next, that misleading and inaccurate crisis narrative fuels the political myopia behind remaining within the same education policy paradigm that has never addressed the real problems and never achieved the promises attached to each new policy (see from NCLB to ESSA).
And finally, this fact remains: Political and public will in the U.S. has failed public education; it has not failed us.
Mainstream media remain trapped in the education crisis narrative, I think, because neither the media nor the collective political/public consciousness is willing to confront some really ugly truths beneath the cultural commitment to the powerful and flawed rugged individual mythology in the U.S.: America is a classist, racist, and sexist society.
We are committed to allowing privilege beget privilege and to pretending that fruits of privilege are the result of effort and merit.
There is no crisis in education, but our democracy is being held hostage by incompetent politicians and a compliant mainstream media—all of which, ironically, would be served well by the sort of universal public education envisioned by the tarnished founding fathers’ idealistic (and hypocritical) rhetoric .
 See Educational Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence, Joel R. Malin and Christopher Lubienski; The Research that Reaches the Public: Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?, Holly Yettick; The Media and Educational Research: What We Know vs. What the Public Hears, Alex Molnar
The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. (, pp. 275-276)
The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)
To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university. (p. 275)
By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)
The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)
For Education Week‘s Quality Counts 2015, Christina A. Samuels opens a piece on early reading with the following:
Children who are not reading proficiently by 3rd grade are widely seen as being in academic crisis. Educators are increasingly looking for actions they can take in the younger grades—even as early as preschool—to head off failure later in a child’s school career.
Framing 3rd-grade reading proficiency as a crisis is about as enduring (and suspect) as the uncritical belief in the literacy deficit among children raised in poverty.
Later in the article, Samuels notes that many states have implemented grade retention policies based on high-stakes tests in 3rd grade, adding:
Student retention as a part of a strategy to support early literacy has vocal critics as well as supporters. But no one is arguing against the importance of ensuring that children are reaching reading milestones throughout the early grades.
Modeling once again the central flaw of education journalism, Samuels represents grade retention as nothing more than a tug-of-war between “vocal critics” and “supporters”—with word choices that clearly skew the reader toward the more reasonable “supporters.”
Despite the intentions of this piece about the importance of early literacy in children, we must acknowledge that the real crisis in education is both how the media covers education and how politicians design and implement policy.
First, “crisis” is the worst possible description of any educational condition since a state of crisis forces urgency when deliberation and patience are warranted. Think about the differences between emergency rooms and doctors’ offices. (See a discussion of crisis here also.)
Impoverished children have overwhelming life conditions that inhibit their ability to learn at the same rates and in the same ways as their more affluent peers. Children in poverty do not need harsh and intense educational experiences (harsh and intense often characterize their lives, and are thus the conditions muting their learning); they do not need high-stakes tests and punitive consequences.
And that leads to the ultimate education crisis: Confusing grade retention with reading policy.
That is not only a crisis, but inexcusable since there is no debate about grade retention, despite the breezy framing above.
Decades of research show that grade retention is often harmful and other strategies are always more effective (Note: the evidence-based alternative to grade retention is not “social promotion,” the great ugliness tossed out by all who embrace grade retention).
I suppose the great irony here is that it appears many in the media and most political leaders are not capable of reading the research and have a really limited vocabulary themselves.
So let me make this simple: There is no crisis in reading, and grade retention hurts children.
Now let’s address and fully fund rich and evidence-based reading for all children throughout their formal education in our public schools and make genuine commitments to the lives of all children so those policies can work.
For Further Reading
The puzzle isn’t hard to put together because the pieces are in clear sight and fit together easily, but political, media, and public interest in facing the final picture is at least weak, if not completely absent.
Gerald Bracey (2003) and more directly Gerald Holton (2003) exposed that the stated original intent under the Ronald Reagan administration was to create enough negative perceptions of public education through A Nation at Risk to leverage Reagan’s political goals:
We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. (Holton, n.p., electronic)
The accountability formula spawned after A Nation at Risk swept the popular media included standards, high-stakes testing, and increased reports of pubic school failure.
While the federal report created fertile ground for state-based school accountability, that proved not to be enough for political leaders, who within 15-20 years began orchestrating national versions of education accountability. The result was No Child Left Behind and then Common Core standards and the connected high-stakes tests—both neatly wrapped in bi-partisan veneer.
About thirty years after Reagan gave the commission that created A Nation at Risk the clear message about the need for the public to see public education as a failure, David Coleman, a lead architect of Common Core, exposed in 2011 what really matters about the national standards movement; after joking about having no qualifications for writing national education standards, Coleman explained:
[T]hese standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period. This is quite a demanding charge, I might add to you, because it has within it the kind of statement – you know, “Oh, the standards were just fine, but the real work begins now in defining the assessment,” which if you were involved in the standards is a slightly exhausting statement to make.
But let’s be rather clear: we’re at the start of something here, and its promise – our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation….
There is no amount of hand-waving, there’s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don’t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do. Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and it‟s hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention.
The pieces to the puzzle: Education accountability began as a political move to discredit public schools, and next the Common Core standards movement embraced that above everything, tests matter most.
And now we have the final piece; Gerwertz reports:
In a move likely to cause political and academic stress in many states, a consortium that is designing assessments for the Common Core State Standards released data Monday projecting that more than half of students will fall short of the marks that connote grade-level skills on its tests of English/language arts and mathematics.
Like Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism—the consequences of which are being exposed in New Orleans, notably through replacing the public schools with charter schools—the Common Core movement is not about improving public education, but a form of disaster bureaucracy, the use of education policy to insure the perception of educational failure among the public so that political gain can continue to be built on that manufactured crisis.
Yes, disaster bureaucracy is an ugly picture, but it is evident now the accountability movement is exactly that.
Common Core is not some unique and flawed thing, however, but the logical extension of the Reagan imperative to use education accountability to erode public support for public schools so that unpopular political agendas (school choice, for example) become more viable.
The remaining moral imperative facing us is to turn away from political claims of school and teacher failure, away from their repeatedly ineffective and destructive reforms, and toward the actual sources of what schools, teachers, and students struggle under as we continue to reform universal public education: social and educational inequities that have created two Americas and two school systems that have little to do with merit.
Accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing (not Common Core uniquely) is the problem because it is a designed as disaster bureaucracy, not as education reform.
Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.
Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A nation at risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49(33), B13-15. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from OmniFile Full Text Mega database.
What do the fiscal cliff and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have in common?
For the answer consider this scenario: An arsonist sets a home on fire, and then risks his life fighting the blaze—but the house eventually succumbs to the flames. The media and the public praise the arsonist a hero, choosing to consider the heroic effort to fight the fire while ignoring that he caused the disaster.
This scenario is not far-fetched and captures exactly the “manufactured crisis” (Berliner & Biddle, 1996) in both the fiscal cliff discourse and CCSS advocacy.
America is trapped in a state of perpetual crisis, and that crisis mentality maintains the public gaze on the self-proclaimed heroic acts of corporate and political leaders without allowing time to consider that the conditions under which Americans live and learn are the result of the decisions of those in power.