Edu-Journalists Know Only Two Stories (And They Are Both Wrong)

This post is mainly a public service because it has become stunningly clear that trying to engage journalists and the media covering education in order to prompt change is falling on willfully deaf ears.

My public service is to save you, dear reader, time. If you see or view a story in the media covering education, you can expect only two frames: (1) If the coverage is about public schools, the message is CRISIS!, but (2) if the coverage is about someone (anyone) without expertise or experience in education, the message will be breathless awe at their courage to finally be dragging that miracle to life that the horrible public school system has been unable to do lo these many years.

Sal Khan? Wow:

As we’ve reported, students anywhere now can get free SAT test prep both online and in person at some Boys & Girls Clubs of America. The move may help level the playing field by improving test prep for less-affluent students to get them ready for the newly revamped SAT, which remains a pillar of college admissions despite the growth in 2015 in “test optional” schools.

It’s part of what Khan Academy calls its core duty to help provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.”

Teach For America? No way!:

In Teach For America lingo, that would be called a hook, a compelling way to think about a concept so that it’ll stick in students’ minds….

Those concerns are reflective of the new tack toward preparation taken by TFA’s Dallas-Fort Worth region, which is trying to move away from teacher-directed instruction in favor of techniques that focus more on students drawing conclusions on their own.

And rather than giving its new corps members a crash course on lesson planning, typically the first step in the TFA’s summer training, the Dallas region supplied its recruits with 700 ready-made lessons, focusing instead on giving candidates feedback on the finer points of carrying off a lesson well.

But what about that pesky skill reading that no one has really figured out—or possibly has never even tried to figure out?

Don’t fret! Buy psychologist Daniel Willingham’s new book!

Or (thank goodness another book to buy!):

About five years ago, the chief executive officer of the Uncommon Schools charter network offered up a lofty charge during a routine staff meeting: “Figure out” reading instruction.

OK, since I said at the outset I was planning to save you time, I’ll stop here, but rest assured, I could do this for hours because the list of (wow!) edu-saviors with almost no or often no experience or expertise in education who are heralded by the media as if the field doesn’t already exist but (again, thank goodness!) these innovative types are here to save the day is almost endless itself: Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin [1], and those already noted above.

Search those names and the pattern is the same: Fair-and-balanced edu-journalists open with breathless amazement at brave Edu-Genuis X and then later notes the person or the program has “received some criticism” (without nary a nod toward whether or not Edu-Genius X is credible, without nary a nod toward whether or not the criticism is credible—because, hey, that’s not a journalist’s job, right?).

We are left then with two related but wrong edu-journalist approaches to education reporting: public education is (and always has been) in crisis; therefore, the only people we can count on to save us is someone (anyone) outside of education.

However, the real story is much more complicated.

Much needs to be reformed in public schooling in the U.S.—much that has been historical failures.

But those problems are more about the structural wall of bureaucracy that has always existed and is even thicker today between the rich and powerful research and expertise in education as a field and practice, and the ability of teachers to implement their profession.

“A brief consideration,” LaBrant wrote in 1947, “will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

LaBrant’s claim remains today, and has been documented specifically about how middle and high school students are bing taught writing. Applebee and Langer discovered:

Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English….[W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face. (pp. 15-17)

Applebee and Langer emphasize that the negative consequences of high-stakes testing distinguish this study from their earlier work and that accountability has essentially stymied the influence of writing research, professional organizations, and teacher professionalism.

In other words, teachers today know more about teaching writing and have a more robust research base on what works in teaching writing but are unable to implement that knowledge base because of the accountability bureaucracy that has supplanted teacher professionalism.

Also damning is that this negative dynamic is even more pronounced for our most vulnerable students:

By far the greatest difference between the high poverty and lower poverty schools we studied stemmed from the importance that teachers placed and administrators placed on high-stakes tests that students faced. In the higher poverty schools, fully 83% of teachers across subject areas reported state exams were important in shaping curriculum and instruction, compared with 64% of their colleagues in lower poverty schools. (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 149)

And their is a truly ugly irony to this mess: Political leadership and edu-preneurs (remember, buy the book and program!) are chanting “college and career ready” while pushing mainstream education that guarantees students lack the rich and complex behaviors that would serve them well in higher education, their careers, and (god forbid) their lives. As noted above (and writing as someone who teaches first-year writing at the university level), students are being denied writing instruction they need and deserve because of accountability (except for privileged students at private schools that are not shackled by the mandates of politicians who send their children to those private schools).

So, I know this isn’t the stuff of breathless awe and fair-and-balanced journalism, but the reality is that we are failing the profession of education, the research of the field of education, public education as a great democratic experiment, our children, and our country. But the solution to that huge set of problems is to tear down the bureaucratic wall of accountability and rebuild public schools with the leadership of educators.

[1] See this excellent examination of KIPP and the clueless media coverage of education “hot shot” experiments by know-nothing edu-preneurs:

For Russo to ignore the uneven outcomes of KIPP schools as a possible reason for their recent lack of attention is odd, but not surprising as reform cheerleaders are often blind to any objective evidence that does not support their narrative.

 

More Lessons on the Journalist/ Educator Divide

During my recent round of confronting the failures of mainstream media and journalists covering US public education (see here, here, and here), I have had some of my worst fears confirmed, but have also discovered a few new lessons.

I was disappointed to read some Tweets that suggested that the reason journalists do not include more (or usually any) teacher voices is the fault of educators: teachers not willing to go on record, teachers failing to meet the journalist’s deadline.

This deflecting of professional responsibility and blame prove my central point that journalists simply do not understand education well enough to cover it adequately or fairly.

K-12 public school teachers are increasingly losing any semblance of job security—one aspect of which is the traditional charge that teachers not be political, not be advocates in the public realm. Journalists must have a greater sense of awareness and compassion for those conditions, and then seek ways to make it possible for teachers to be a major part of the public discussion about education.

An alternative, however, that I often present is that there is no absence of professors and researchers who are able to speak publicly while also having a much higher level of expertise in the many topics around education than think tank leaders, elected officials, political appointees, billionaire edu-hobbyists, and self-proclaimed edu-reformers and edu-leaders.

Another lesson involves the sheer complexity of educational problems and educational research (see here). Journalists are drawn to presenting complex issues in accessible ways for a lay audience (a legitimate concern), but what has happened in the coverage of education is that journalists overwhelmingly are using sources who start with the simplistic and oversimplified (“education is the great equalizer” [untrue], “teacher quality is the most important factor in student success” [untrue], “public education is in crisis” [untrue], “poverty is not an excuse” [baldfaced ugly assertion]) that significantly distort both the problems in education and the solutions.

As well, as I have documented often, journalists are prone to reporting uncritically on aggressively promoted reports (typically form think tanks, but increasingly from departments in universities funded by billionaire edu-reformers) that have not yet been vetted by the peer-review process; and then fail to follow up when reviews often find many flaws with the reports and their claims.

However, I have also had a couple encouraging experiences.

One journalist emailed me with a wonderfully positive and self-reflective response to my work. If there is one journalist who takes the time to consider authentically these concerns, I feel optimistic there are more.

As well, I have recently viewed a brief documentary by Lena Jackson, whose Crenshaw is an outstanding examination of education, Day in the Life – Gustavo Lopez, MA & Credential Urban Education & Social Justice:

I am left after viewing this work convinced that fore-fronting teachers’ voices is not only important, but possible—if the will to examine education is sincere and critical.

I am currently skeptical that many journalists covering education are either sincere or critical.

Dear Journalists Covering Education, Let Me Explain

In my Twitter timeline, I saw a post praising a recent New York Times article on graduation rates and the devalued high school diploma. Since I had written a blog criticizing the many (and typical) flaws in the piece, I nudged Stephanie Banchero and Nichole Dobo to reconsider.

Dobo was gracious enough to respond [1], but Twitter really doesn’t afford the space to make my case as well as both the topic and Dobo deserve so I want here to lay out better just exactly why so many of us in education are routinely frustrated with how media cover education.

Let me start by reemphasizing why educators have moved from frustrated to exasperated in terms of media coverage of public education.

In the mid-1800s as public schools became a more compelling option for education in the U.S., Catholic schools initiated scathing attacks on public schools—not for educational, but for market reasons.

The history of vilifying public education in the U.S. has replicated that pattern until today—although the negative drumbeat has intensified significantly over the past three decades of high-stakes accountability (which is mostly a political, not an educational, venture).

Therefore, most political and media commentary on public education is misguided. Yes, most.

The problem for educators is not that public education is without flaws and is being unfairly demonized, but that we in the U.S. have mostly failed public education (and our students, and our country) by continuing to wallow in false narratives while ignoring the very real problems in both our education system and society that warrant reform.

My argument is that since most political leaders and political appointees governing education as well as most journalists covering education are without educational experience or expertise, these compelling but false narratives are simply recycled endlessly, digging the hole deeper and deeper.

Compounding that problem is the overwhelming evidence that journalists covering education disproportionately turn to people outside the field of education as their sources [2].

Think tank advocacy masquerading as research (rarely peer-reviewed) garners sensational headlines [3] while psychologists, economists, and political scientists are quoted about every aspect of education.

And on the rare occasion that I am interviewed by a journalist, I can predict what will happen: the journalist is always stunned by what I offer, typically challenging evidence-based claims because they go against the compelling but false narratives.

No, there is no positive correlation between educational quality and any country’s economy.

No, teacher quality is actually dwarfed by out-of-school factors in terms of student achievement.

No, charter and private schools are not superior to public schools.

No, school choice has not worked, except to re-segregate schools.

No, merit pay does not work, and is something teachers do not want. Teachers are far more concerned about their autonomy and working conditions.

No, standards do not work—never have—and high-stakes testing is mostly a reflection of children’s lives, not their teachers or their schools.

This list could go on, but I think I have made my point.

Now let me offer what I think is possibly the best example of the problem—reporting of the SAT.

For decades, the College Board reported SAT scores, ranking states by their average score. The media participated then in the annual bashing of schools based on those rankings.

Eventually, the College Board conceded that such rankings are deeply flawed since among the states, the percentages of students taking the test make those comparisons/rankings invalid—and the SAT is not designed to measure the quality of schools in a state (the SAT is designed only to predict first year college success and does so slightly worse that GPA).

Thus, the College Board issued a notice [4] and began releasing state SAT scores alphabetically. However, the media persist in the bashing.

Another problem with journalists covering education is a journalism problem: seeking to address “both sides” of issues in order to appear fair and balanced.

Therefore, I have invoked the Oliver Rule because that practice too often is not being objective and mostly distorts (as John Oliver brilliantly exposes about climate change) the real balance between the credible and the baseless.

Some, possibly many, issues simply do not have two sides, and often within fields—while there remains debate—issues have such an overwhelming body of evidence supporting a stance that posing the topic as “debatable” is terribly flawed. Framing an issue with someone who is credible and someone who is not fails reporting and the public.

For example, I struggled with the media about corporal punishment recently because the topic simply has only one side (corporal punishment is overwhelmingly harmful), yet every journalist sought both sides for the reporting. This was replicated when I addressed grade retention as well.

Since the U.S. suffers under the delusion that mainstream media is liberal (it isn’t), I must stress that even the so-called liberal New York Times, NPR, and even Education Week are more apt to misrepresent education than swim against the compelling but false narratives.

As I have examined (and had reaffirmed with NPR once again covering Sal Khan as if he is a credible educator in recent days), NPR follows the patterns I have detailed above when covering “grit.”

Where education journalism thrives is in the New Media (blogging) and alternative media (AlterNet, Truthout, The Conversation). In fact, note that Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet (a blog at the Washington Post) is far superior to the print education reporter Jay Mathews, who works within the false narratives about education.

So to return to Dobo’s engaging with me about my concerns.

Dobo and I share something important: we want to defend our professions because they both matter mightily. On that, I agree with Dobo and respect her integrity and her field.

To her challenges to my claims, I want to clarify that, yes, I do believe education journalism would be greatly improved if journalists covering education had expertise and experience in the field.

I have been a coach, and also believe coaches are better when they have played the game they are coaching.

But, my main contention is that currently and historically almost all the politicians governing education, pundits pontificating on education, and journalists covering education have little or no experience or expertise in the field.

My modest proposal is that most should—but certainly not all.

And then, more directly, I also must stress that the real problem with education journalism is that the sources of education coverage in the media are the same talking heads without experience or expertise—think tank leaders, edupreneurs, education hobbyists (mostly millionaires and billionaires), anyone except educators.

Few people are more critical of my field of education than I am so my real concern is that journalism is failing the real reform needed in schools because of the experience and expertise vacuum in the media covering education.

Education needs a critical media, journalists who resist the false but compelling crisis narratives being recycled by politicians.

It is well past time, I think, for everyone who wants to understand education to try asking a teacher. And then listening when what we explain goes against conventional wisdom.

See Also

Is It Journalism, or Just a Repackaged Press Release? Here’s a Tool to Help You Find Out, Rebecca J. Rosen

[1] The conversation, in part, included:

Dobo Twitter 1

Dobo Twitter 2

[2] 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. And REPORT: Only 9 Percent Of Guests Discussing Education On Evening Cable News Were Educators:

cable-education-overall

[3] Consider this press release from the Center for American Progress (CAP), with prompting at the end to talk with their experts, and this review, discrediting the report praised in the press release. The CAP report speaks to the false narratives, and thus, is poised to resonate with political leaders and the media—while the review is likely to garner little attention.

[4] The College Board warns: “Educators, the media and others…[s]hould not rank or rate teachers, educational institutions, districts or states solely on the basis of aggregate scores derived from tests that are intended primarily as a measure of individual students.”

Mainstream Media in (Perpetual) Crisis: More Education Meat Grinder

“‘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 TimesAs 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 [1].

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 [2].

[1] 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

[2] See Thomas Jefferson’s argument for a democracy embracing education:

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. ([1817], 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)

Quality of So-Called “Education” Journalism Actually Low

In both my May Experience course on education documentaries and my foundations in education course, we view and discuss the 2008 HBO documentary Hard Times at Douglass High:

Shot in classic cinema verité style, the film captures the complex realities of life at Douglass, and provides a context for the national debate over the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, focusing on the brutal inequalities of American minority education, considered an American tragedy by many.

Although many scenes are powerful, one in particular remains disturbingly relevant in 2015: The camera captures with a voice-over students taking the standardized test that is being field-tested for students (no stakes), but will be high-stakes for the school and teachers; many of the students are shown with their heads down, essentially making no effort on the test.

Hard Times ends by noting that the administration has been replaced and Douglass High (Baltimore, MD) joins one of many narratives that too often we read about in the on-going era of high-stakes accountability: failed schools, schools “taken over” by the state, closed schools.

A few years ago, I was working on an Op-Ed for The State (Columbia, SC), but I was challenged about my outline of the accountability movement in South Carolina by the editor. Just for context, I began teaching in SC in 1984, when the first implementation of accountability began, linked to higher teacher pay, greater educational funding, and the start of the standards/high-stakes testing movement.

The editor insisted that accountability was a child of the late 1990s, but I was able to send her links to the first SC laws in the late 1970s and explained my own life as a teacher at a school where we were actively teaching to the exit exam in the early and mid-1980s (including double-tracking students in math and ELA courses as tenth graders to help them pass the tests to graduate).

What do these two topics above have to do with each other?

For thirty years, journalism addressing education and more specifically education reform has been inadequate to the point of being a huge part of the education reform problem.

Take for yet another example this piece from The Hechinger Report (and a repost in Education Week): Stakes for “high-stakes” tests are actually pretty low.

The maps, data, and serious tone are likely to have masked the flippant headline as well as terse “gotcha” lede: “It turns out that the stakes for this spring’s Common Core-aligned tests are not quite as high as they might seem.”

Seems all that opt-out nonsense and teacher caterwauling has been for naught, right?

Just as I suspected. As the article clarifies early, “both sides” are truly out-of-bounds:

“I think the stakes are either overstated or understated depending on which side of the argument you’re on,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Both sides need to take a step back and just take a look at this map.”

As one point of concern, however, let’s consider another piece in the same publication: More than 5,000 Mississippi third-graders could be held back this year for low reading scores:

Results of the new third-grade reading test announced Thursday that aimed to make it tougher for students to advance if they don’t read at grade level could mean 15 percent of the test-takers will repeat third grade.

Some 38,000 public school students took the Third-Grade Reading Summative Assessment, widely known as the “third-grade gate,” created under state law to address lagging reading skills and prevent the practice of “social promotions.”

I wonder how these children being mis-served by callous legislation refuted by decades of research on grade retention and rejected by the National Council of Teachers of English feel about flippant and misleading journalism? [1]

Where has the mainstream press examined that grade retention doesn’t have “two sides,” but one very clear position supported by evidence?

Where has the mainstream press examined that standardized testing remains biased against racial minorities, the impoverished, English language learners, special needs students, and females?

Where has the mainstream press exposed that the entire accountability era has failed?

Don’t bother looking, the mainstream media is too busy being snarking, inadequate, and lead by the nose in the era of press-release journalism that has coincided with educational accountability.

The press is a willing participant in the “miracle” school lies, as long as they are about charter schools [2], but quick to vilify teachers who cheat.

Journalists serve as bridges between a more technical and complex world (political, academic, etc.) and the general public, many of whom spend little time beyond the headlines and a few sentences at the beginning and maybe the handy-dandy charts, graphs, and maps.

So let me return to the claim that “both sides” are misrepresenting the stakes surrounding the on-going accountability/standards/testing game that has now lingered for thirty years in the U.S.

Please, mainstream media, identify for me and your audience any states in which accountability/standards/testing are not ultimately geared toward high-stakes for students, teachers, and schools? (Note: That data point, by the way, would be 0).

And since all aspects of accountability are linked ultimately to high-stakes, in what way is this incomplete, misleading, and snarking “report” helping anyone—especially the children who have been and are now having their lives irrevocably changed due to inexcusable legislation with no basis in solid research?

The original breezy piece now includes an UPDATE, but even so, the essential problem remains that most people will see only the headline, maybe the lede, and then the maps. The conversation has been established by this piece even to its shoddy conclusion that includes a convenient Oliver North passive voice evasion:

All of which is to say, yes, the tests are important. Decisions will be made based on how students perform on them [emphasis added]. But the vast majority of states will use the scores only as one measure in a web of other factors when making staffing decisions. And most states have no plans to use the scores to make student advancement decisions.

Although the process would probably be pointless since journalists are trained to chase “both sides” (which tends to be one side that is credible and then another that is not), this piece could have been saved to some degree by talking with educators and assessment experts who could share that in the evidence around exit exams, grade retention, and teacher evaluations linked to test scores, a clear pattern has emerged: even when test scores are “one measure in a web of other factors,” those scores either distort that “web” or ultimately become the determining factor in that “web.”

As I have detailed before, at universities that use a “web” of factors to determine college admission, the SAT, even when weighted low, serves as a gatekeeper as those “other factors” cancel each other out. In other words, “one measure in a web of other factors” is a political scam being perpetuated by a non-critical press.

In the accountability game, this reality is even uglier since there is only one constant in the standards/testing movement: the standards and tests are constantly changing.

If anyone wants to begin to understand the dual disasters which are the accountability movement of recent history and the historical failure of providing children of color and impoverished children the educational opportunities they deserve, I suggest avoiding the mainstream press and simply spending some time with Hard Times at Douglass High.

The documentary is a hard watch, but its stark and complex examination rises above simplistic and breezy claims that trivialize children and educators in ways that occur daily in mainstream education journalism.

[1] See Retaining 3rd Graders: Child Abuse, Mississippi Style and Mississippi Reader.

[2] See Bruce Baker’s excellent The Willful Ignorance of the NJ Star Ledger.

Education Journalism Deserves an F: A Reader

On the local evening news, a story ran recently about closing down a popular segment of a relatively new rail trail to work on the crumbling infrastructure of pipes crossing beneath the trail and nearby roads.

As part of the story, the on-air reporter chatted with two women who frequently walk along the trail each morning, but will now be diverted. The reporter ended the segment by asking those two women their opinions of replacing the pipes—both nodding in agreement while endorsing the work.

Watching this, I recognized everything wrong with journalism in the U.S. The story was breezy and relevant, but I had to wonder what authority two random women walking down a rail trail had to be credible voices about the need for infrastructure work in the area.

My disappointment in journalism, notably education journalism, has been documented regularly in my blogging over the past two-plus years. And the recent national debate about police behavior and accountability has now intersected with my own work refuting the national teacher-bashing more and more common during the Obama administration as well as my persistent challenges to education journalism.

The tension is between supporting the institutions of public education, criminal justice, journalism, and unions as well as the individual people who work in those fields or situations, but being deeply concerned that we are mostly failing each of those in systemic ways.

It is possible, then, I think, to strongly criticize education journalism as failing its duty while not necessarily indicting each and every education journalist.

That said, education journalism is quite flawed, mired in a lack of knowledge about the history, practice, and research in education, trapped like a bug in amber in the compulsion to air “both sides” equally of every issue.

Here, then, I offer a reader to that concern:

No Excuses for Advocacy Masquerading as Research

Education Writers Association: Independent Bloggers Need Not Apply, Anthony Cody

O, Free Press, Where Art Thou?

Invoking “Oliver Rule (Expanded)” for Education Reform Debate

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

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

See Also

Ed Writers – Try looking beyond propaganda & press releases for success stories

Claiming the Education Reform Narrative

If the education reform movement is transitioning into a next phase and if my call for teaching with our doors open as an act of resistance can gain traction beyond the school house, educators must also begin to lead when our leaders fail, in part by claiming the education reform narrative away from political, media, and non-expert reform advocates.

Here, then, I want to outline the how’s and why’s of raising our professional voices as educators in order to succeed in a public arena:

  • Too often, educators have been on the defensive, historically and during the recent three decades of accountability, in the education reform debate. That has left those without expertise always determining the ground and content of the debate, framing educators as professionals as always rejecting reform and having little to offer as an alternative. Step one, then, is we must begin to initiate the narratives about what educational problems exist and then what policies better address those needs. This must include avoiding both the people and policies dominating mainstream reform. Instead of rejecting over and over the edu-reform leader of the moment, we must speak with authority on our own terms—not as a response to the person or the policy.
  • If Edu-reformer X is wrong and lacking credibility, we must not rush to pat Edu-reformer X on the back if/when he/she expresses a position we have offered credibly often. Our evidence-based professional stances are credible on their own; we do not need those without credibility but with misplaced authority in order to be right. For example, as an alternative to refuting edu-reformers, at the school level, since standardized test scores are problematic across public education, we must not celebrate if our school has high test scores, but instead, find more valid ways to celebrate our schools that also honor all public schools.
  • We must stop trying to out-do the edu-reformers: stop offering better accountability, stop offering better testing, stop offering better standards. The accountability approach to education reform and education is a failure, period. Just as educational leaders have failed by fighting for a place at the accountability table, educators have also too often made this mistake. We must make the case for professional and shared responsibility for the good of each student as well as all students.
  • We cannot fall prey to government bashing. “Publicly funded,” not “free,” is the heart of a democracy, the essential foundation for economic commitments to work well and for a people to achieve justice. When our government has failed, in fact, it has failed to act as government. It is ours to show that public education rests beside other essentials, such as the fire department or roads/highways, that the public tends to embrace positively.
  • Stories matter more than research, and words matter. While as professionals we must assert our evidence-based reasons schools struggle and policies to address those problems, we must take care to craft narratives that accurately reflect that research base; here are real people doing real things, and not “research shows.” But just as we must stop playing at the accountability table set for us, we must set aside the words and phrases at the heart of the failed reform agenda: accountability, grit, no excuses, rigor, achievement gap.
  • More broadly, we must not participate in the decades’ long and corrosive crisis/Utopian discourse framing of current reform: the contradictory education is in perpetual crisis and education is the one true way. They are both false, and they are both counter-narratives to the stories we must tell.
  • One of the most powerful and complicated parts of the flawed reform agenda is the claim about teacher quality, and here, educators have a huge challenge. We must begin to assert that teachers and teacher quality matter, but that value is not easily measured. As I noted above, this will require that we find avenues and techniques to celebrate our schools, our teachers, and our students in credible and complex ways—stories with teachers and children, and not numbers. And thus, we must shape a community narrative; teacher quality is not about one teacher, but about a community of educators and a community of learners, often over many years. Why not take a class of 8th graders at the end of their journey at a middle school and highlight all three years and all the teachers involved—experiences both academic and extracurricular? Teaching and learning are complex, and often messy; thus, we must make this story vivid and compelling.

Yes, some edu-reformers must be confronted, rarely and when egregious, and some policies must be directly and powerfully refuted (as I have with corporal punishment and grade retention), but we now need to shift the balance of our public voices.

The case, however, is now clear that political leaders, the media, and most edu-reformers have weak credibility and support failed policies.

“The challenge is in the moment,” James Baldwin implored, “the time is always now.”

It is time to claim our profession, and part of that includes claiming the education reform narrative, one that is informed, honest, and productive.

Media Fail, 10,000 hours, and Grit: The Great Media-Disciplines Divide, pt. 2

In his The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments [1], K. Anders Ericsson makes several key points about how the mainstream media present disciplinary knowledge to the public, focusing on Malcolm Gladwell’s misleading but popular 10,000 hour rule.

Ericsson’s key point includes:

Although I accept that the process of writing an engaging popular article requires considerable simplification, I think it is essential that the article does not contain incorrect statements and misinformation. My primary goal with this review is to describe several claims in Jaffe’s article that were simply false or clearly misleading and then discuss how APS might successfully develop successful methods for providing research summaries for non-specialists that are informative and accurately presents the major views of APS members and Fellows. At the very least they should not contain factually incorrect statements and avoid reinforcing existing misconceptions in the popular media.

Through the Gladwell/10,000 hour rule example, Ericsson provides an important argument relevant to the current (and historical) public debate about school quality, teaching and learning, and education reform.

Much in the same way Gladwell has misrepresented research (which is typical within the media), and how that has been uncritically embraced by the media and public (as well as many if not most practitioners), a wide array of issues have received the same fate: learning styles, “grit,” collaborative learning, progressive education, charter schools, school choice, language gap, and so on.

Even when a claim or practice has a kernel of research at its source, popular oversimplification (often by journalists, but practitioners as well) and then commercialization/politicizing (creating programs and policies through publishers, “star” advocates, and legislation) significantly distort that research.

Education Has Failed Research, Historically

John Dewey represents an odd paradox in that he is possibly the most mentioned educator in the U.S. (either as the source of all that is wrong in education or idealistically cited as all that is right about how school could be), despite the reality that Dewey is mostly misunderstood and misrepresented; and thus his philosophy, progressivism, remains mostly absent in U.S. public schools.

Dewey can be blamed, in part, for this reality because he refused on principle to allow his experiments in education to be carefully catalogued because he believed no educational practice should be come a template for others.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Lou LaBrant, a vigilant progressive educator, spent much of her career practicing and advocating for progressive literacy instruction, but LaBrant also confronted the many instances of how progressivism was misrepresented.

Broadly, and early, LaBrant recognized the public confusion about progressivism:

Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)

But she also confronted how progressivism was mostly distorted in its application. LaBrant’s criticisms still reflect why education has failed research, and why research has not failed education.

Credible educational research-based philosophy, theory, and pedagogy are often corrupted by oversimplification.

In 1931, LaBrant published a scathing criticism of the popularity of the project method, an oversimplification of Dewey that resulted in students doing crafts in English class instead of reading or writing:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Credible educational research is often corrupted by commercialization/politicizing, reducing that research to misguided programs/legislation.

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).

By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

For at least 80-plus years since LaBrant fought this fight, the same patterns of media, political, public, and practitioners failing educational research have continued

Oversimplification, Commercialization/Politicizing: Recovering the Evidence

The list is incredibly long, too long to be exhaustive here, but consider the following: sloganism (“Work hard. Be nice.”), silver-bullet ideologies (“grit,” 10,000-hour rule), miracle schools (KIPP), evidence-based programs (Dibbles, 4-block, 6-traits), common sense claims and policy absent evidence (Common Core), and trendy legislation (3rd-grade retention policies as reading policy, merit pay) as well as politicized government reports (National Reading Panel).

Each of these can be traced to some kernel of research (sometimes robust bodies of research, and sometimes cherry-picked research), but all of these represent a current and historical fact: Education has failed research, but research has not failed education.

When educational research is reduced to scripts or programs/legislation, that knowledge base is invariably distorted, corrupted—as Ericsson details well above.

Journalists, politicians, and commercial education entities have all played a fundamental and crippling role in this reality; thus, as Ericsson argues, educators, scholars and researchers must not allow the fate of educational research to remain primarily in the wrong hands.

We have a public and professional obligation to confront these oversimplifications as well as the commercialization/politicizing of educational research. And we must do this through our public work that speaks to those failures and the public simultaneously.

As LaBrant and Ericsson reveal, unless we take that call seriously, we too are part of the reason education continues to fail research.

References

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). MasqueradingThe English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

For Further Reading

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

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

NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative

Shiny Happy People: NPR, “Grit,” and “Myths that Deform” pt. 2

How I Learned to Distrust the Media (about Education)

My (Often Painful) Online Education

[1] See original and downloadable link to the paper here.

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.”

Buying the Academy, Good-Bye Scholarship

Higher education is facing difficult economic circumstances. While many are confronting how universities can remain both relevant and financially stable, few are admitting that a huge problem is not a lack of money, but the lure of money—billionaires buying university departments with powerful strings attached.

In my books on school choice and poverty, I have addressed the powerful and misguided roles that the media and think tanks have played in public educational discourse and policy. One example highlights the warning offered by Gerald Bracey:

That is where we currently stand in the school choice advocacy discourse that drives a substantial part of the new reformers’ plans. The newest talking points are “do no harm” and that people opposing vouchers want to deny choice to people living in poverty. And throughout the school choice debate, ironically, the choice advocates shift back and forth about the validity of the research—think tank reports that are pro-choice and the leading school choice researchers tend to avoid peer-review and rail against peer-reviews (usually charging that the reviews are ideological and driven by their funding) while simultaneously using terms such as “objective,” “empirical,” and “econometrics” to give their reports and arguments the appearance of scholarship.

But, if anyone makes any effort to scratch beneath the surface of school choice advocacy reports, she/he will find some telling details:

“In education, readers should beware of research emanating from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Mackinac Center, the Center for Education Reform, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Paul Peterson group at Harvard, and, soon, the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Arkansas is home to the Walton family, and much Wal-Mart money has already made its way to the University of Arkansas, $300 million in 2002 alone. The new department, to be headed by Jay P. Greene, currently at the Manhattan Institute, will no doubt benefit from the Walton presence. The family’s largesse was estimated to approach $1 billion per year (Hopkins 2004), and before his death in an airplane crash, John Walton was perhaps the nation’s most energetic advocate of school vouchers.” (Bracey, 2006, p. xvi)

I have detailed the problems with the Department of Education Reform (University of Arkansas)—misleading charter advocacy as well as my own experience with being misrepresented in the name of their advocacy.

Now, Valerie Strauss has shared similar concerns about the Charles Koch Foundation’s influence at Florida State University’s economics department; as Dave Levinthal explains:

In 2007, when the Charles Koch Foundation considered giving millions of dollars to Florida State University’s economics department, the offer came with strings attached.

First, the curriculum it funded must align with the libertarian, deregulatory economic philosophy of Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist and Republican political bankroller.

Second, the Charles Koch Foundation would at least partially control which faculty members Florida State University hired.

And third, Bruce Benson, a prominent libertarian economic theorist and Florida State University economics department chairman, must stay on another three years as department chairman — even though he told his wife he’d step down in 2009 after one three-year term.

Education advocacy is now a very thinly veiled cover for much larger political and economic advocacy: Billionaires are buying the academy to create and maintain their powerful advantages.

One of the few walls protecting us against the tyranny of money has been academic freedom, securely (we thought) behind the wall of tenure.

And thus, while billionaires buy K-12 education and dismantle K-12 tenure and unions (Bill Gates, for example), billionaires are buying the academy and dismantling university tenure.

As we stand by and watch, we should be prepared to wave good-bye to scholarship, good-bye to equity, good-bye to democracy.

Reference

Bracey, G. W. (2006). Reading educational research: How to avoid getting statistically snookered . Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.