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.

Cashing in on Journalism’s Neutral Pose

As I have highlighted several times about how often education journalism fails the democratic goals of both the free press and universal public education, this Tweet from Juana Summers at NPR represents the power of the neutral pose among journalists:

Let me stress here, that this claim is not unique to Summers of NPR, but pervasive throughout media and journalism as the hallmark of “professionalism.” I have been mulling the breezy NPR approach to all topics for some time now, and thus was not surprised to find this piece from 1982, The Tedium Twins, which skewers the exact issue I have confronted over and over:

Trudging back through the “MacNeil/Lehrer” scripts, the hardy reader will soon observe how extraordinarily narrow is the range of opinion canvassed by a show dedicated to dispassionate examination of the issues of the day. The favored blend is usually a couple of congressmen or senators, barking at each other from either side of the fence, corporate chieftains, government executives, ranking lobbyists, and the odd foreign statesman. The mix is ludicrously respectable, almost always heavily establishment in tone. Official spokesmen of trade and interest groups are preferred over people who only have something interesting to say.

As we confront the inherent danger in honoring civility and balance over accuracy and taking evidence-based stances on credibility, we must also admit that the neutral pose is little more than a mask for something pretty insidious: the influence of the powerful and wealthy over what the media covers (and does not cover) and how those topics are framed. To that I invite you to read Mercedes Schneider’s Gates, Other “Philanthropy,” and the Purchase of a Success Narrative, including:

Billionaire Bill Gates funds the media.

This is no surprise to me.

What did surprise me is the discovery that he meets with the media he funds (and others) regularly behind closed doors.

[See also Adam Bessie and Dan Carino’s The Gates Foundation Education Reform Hype Machine and Bizarre Inequality Theory.]

So we are faced with our media and our educators trapped inside demands that they remain neutral, dispassionate, not political. And this is what that has gotten us (despite claims that our free press and public schools are essential to our democracy built on claims of equity and meritocracy), as detailed by Matt Bruenig:

The top 10% of families own 75.3% of the nation’s wealth. The bottom half of families own 1.1% of it. The families squished in between those two groups own 24.6% of the national wealth.

The present wealth distribution is more unequal than it was in 2010, the last year this survey was conducted. Specifically, the top 10% increased their share of the national wealth by 0.8 percentage points between 2010 and 2013. The bottom half and middle 40% saw their share of the national wealth fall by 0.1 and 0.7 percentage points respectively.

Bruenig also highlights that economic inequity in the U.S. is race-based (whites own the U.S.) and that within that white imbalance, there exists another layer of class imbalance:

This means that the top 10% of white families own 65.1% of all the wealth in the nation. The bottom half of white families own just 2% of the national wealth. And the white families in the 50th-90th percentile of white families own 22.9% of the national wealth.

Along the media spectrum from the breezy NPR dispassion (the so-called “Liberal Media”) and the faux “fair and balance” of Fox News (the so-called “Right-wing Media”), we must admit there is little difference in the consequences of any of our media since, as Paulo Freire has warned, all that neutrality is ironically not neutral at all:

Freire neutral

 

As poet Adrienne Rich [1] has confronted:

Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable. (p. 162)

That second and wrong direction is the result of the neutral pose.

For Further Reading

Universal Public Education—Our (Contradictory) Missions

[1] Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.