Today in More Hokum: How to Read Op-Eds on Education

You open your local, regional, state, or national newspaper of choice on your laptop or tablet to see a headline such as We need great teachers.

Well, you went to school and you pay taxes on schools, and you either had teachers you loved or loathed—so, sure, you read the Op-Ed.

My career in education has included almost two decades teaching public high school and coaching, another decade-plus as a university professor in teacher education, and more than two decades writing scholarship and public pieces on education. Thus, I want to suggest reading that Op-Ed on education isn’t as simple as it may seem.

Step one is to scan down to the information about who wrote the piece and how she/he is connected to the topic of education.

In our example above that is key because the Op-Ed is just another propaganda piece out of StudentsFirst, a collection of people who smile a great deal so maybe you won’t notice that the organization is about self-promotion and political ambition and not students. StudentsFirst was founded by Michelle Rhee, discredited former TFA recruit who has formed as many organizations as she can on the backs of students in order to market her brand: her.

“We need great teachers” is penned by Bradford Swann, smiling a bit less ambitiously than Rhee. Swann, you see, has no background in education, but a series of partisan political stops that are pretty clearly a way to build a political resume—not put students first.

Swann cranked out “better teacher” Op-Eds while working at StudentsFirst Georgia also.

And while we must never stoop to ad hominem attacks—you may be asking, so what about his arguments and claims?—at the very least, Op-Eds coming out of StudentsFirst deserve a great deal of scrutiny if not skepticism since there is now a long track record of Rhee’s organizations shoveling manure and claiming it is roses.

Swann’s single and brief nod to proving his claim about the importance of “great teachers” is this:

According to a recent study published in the Economics of Education Review, an excellent teacher can produce up to a year and a half of student learning in a single school year—a phenomenal result!

Along with wondering about the juvenile use of an exclamation point, we must ask two important questions: (1) What is this journal?, and (2) does this study represent in any way the body of research on teacher quality?

The Economics of Education Review is an open-access journal that seems to have a review process for publishing work. But I cannot find the research Swann mentions because he fails to give us enough information. I don’t know if the study is credible or if any outside reviewers have investigated the claims or methods.

What is an excellent teacher, even?

In my work as a scholar on education, I can note that the research base on making claims about “great teachers” is one that is mostly hokum. The race to prove high-quality teacher impact on measurable student outcomes is at the very best a jumbled mess.

One paragraph with one cryptic nod to a single study (with an exclamation point!) does not an argument make—but it does signal someone is hoping no one pays attention.

The rest of this is about the hollow sham that is the business mantras of “innovation!” and “outside-the-box thinking!”—more red flags that there is nothing to see here; please move on.

Educational researchers, teacher educators, and K-12 classroom teachers know about teacher quality, and can offer a wealth of complex arguments about how to identify and cultivate teacher quality. Why are almost all the Op-Eds, then, by people who have never taught or done any real research or studying of the field of education?

When you read an Op-Ed on education, then, take note of who is making the argument and for whom.

Education over the last 30-plus years has become a playground for people with partisan political aspirations.

StudentsFirst is one such organization, and the Op-Eds they crank out are about their political resumes, not children or education.


Just a Reminder

Everyone’s an Expert on Education (Not!)

 

Today in “Don’t Believe It”

More often than not, mainstream media and think tanks produce claims about education that are without credibility.

Sometimes the source is also lacking credibility, but many times, the source has good intentions.

Today in “Don’t Believe It,” let’s consider both types.

First, NCTQ—a think tank entirely lacking in credibilityissued a report claiming that teacher education is lousy, basing their claims on a fumbled review of textbooks assigned and course syllabi.

Don’t believe it because NCTQ bases the claims on one weak study about what every teacher should know, and then did a review of textbooks and syllabi that wouldn’t be allowed in undergraduate research courses.

See the full review here.

Next, despite genuinely good intentions, Kecio Greenho, regional executive director of Reading Partners Charleston, claims in an Op-Ed for The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) that South Carolina’s Read to Succeed, which includes provision for third-grade retention based on high-stakes test scores, “is a strong piece of legislation that gives support to struggling readers by identifying them as early as possible.”

Don’t believe it because Read to Succeed is a copy-cat of similar policies across the U.S. that remain trapped in high-stakes testing and grade retention, although decades of research have shown retention to be very harmful to children.

See this analysis of Read to Succeed, the research base on grade retention, and the National Council of Teachers of English’s resolution on grade retention and high-stakes testing.

When you are confronted with claims about education, too often the source and the claim are without merit, but you have to be aware that those with good intentions can make false claims as well.

Mainstream “Both Sides” Journalism Continues to Ignore Critical Third Way

In Beyond the viral video: Inside educators’ emotional debate about ‘no excuses’ discipline, Elizabeth Green asserts about the controversy around a viral Success Academy video: “It’s complicated, more so than you might think,” adding:

Coming to any personal conclusion requires understanding a deep and very active debate about discipline, race, and the conditions that brought Charlotte Dial, the teacher in the video, to the moment that was caught on camera. Chief among those conditions: an educational philosophy known as “no excuses” that advocates for strict discipline as a critical foundation for learning.

What follows is a long and detailed examination of “no excuses” approaches to education reform, but Green’s analysis is also yet another example of how mainstream “both sides” journalism continues to ignore a critical third way.

Before examining Green’s challenge to “no excuses,” let me offer some context.

Because of high-profile incidences connected with NFL players, public debates about domestic violence toward women and corporal punishment have played out in the mainstream media.

While both topics are important, here I want to stress how mainstream media covered the two topics.

Domestic violence toward women was universally condemned without creating panels or “both sides” debates—although some in the U.S. and throughout the world still hold to men using physical force against women, often citing religious texts to justify their behaviors.

However, corporal punishment received the “both sides treatment”; those advocating for corporal punishment were treated as credible and allowed to argue, again often on religious grounds, for spanking children.

What is key about these differences is that the medical profession is solid in its rejecting corporal punishment. In short, advocating for corporal punishment is not in any way a credible stance—yet the mainstream press treated it as such.

The media took an informed stance against domestic violence, but deferred to “both sides” journalism for corporal punishment. We need far more of the former, and far less of the latter.

I have participated in a similar situation with mainstream media coverage of education policy concerning grade retention. Even though the research is strongly against grade retention, the media tends to lead with advocates of grade retention, directly and indirectly making that stance credible, and then giving a slight nod to “critics” of grade retention—marginalizing the only warranted position.

So let me return here to Green’s very well developed and ambitious work on “no excuses.” And let me emphasize once again—without any snark here—that Green’s work is high-quality mainstream journalism, and she is a very good journalist with good intentions—but that is the problem.

First, what constitutes “complicated” in mainstream journalism?

Green reduces the controversy over discipline and “no excuses” practices to two sides (which really isn’t even complicated as it is the standard approach to nearly all topics in journalism [see corporal punishment]), and then builds to three reasons to abandon and three reasons not to abandon “no excuses.”

This template and her premise about “complicated” highlight why mainstream journalism is doomed to reinforcing social inequity because of the practices that are embraced for the pursuit of objectivity and balance.

The great irony is that the “both sides” approach is a veneer of objectivity, but isn’t objective or informed at all.

Green follows a similar pattern I have examined about NPR’s coverage of “grit”: start with a perspective that is not credible, but by opening with it, making it the default “right” position; and then framing the more credible position as the “critics.”

Even as a confrontation of many of the problems with “no excuses,” Green maintains “no excuses” approaches can be reformed, and then by grounding her polar three reasons to abandon/not to abandon in “no excuses,” she effectively builds to an endorsement of “no excuses.”

This “both sides” tactic of very professional journalism always fails a third critical way; in this case, what is ignored is that both traditional public schools (TPS) and “no excuses” charter schools (NECS) mistreat and shortchange high-poverty children of color—TPS have done this historically and NECS have simply intensified the very worst of those TPS failures.

In short, “no excuses” practices are essentially inexcusable, and cannot be reformed. But that doesn’t mean tossing up our hands and simply ignoring the failures of traditional public schools.

“No excuses” practices and narratives must be entirely rejected for the following reasons:

  • The slogan itself is nasty and misleading since it implies anyone who highlights the impact of poverty on school/teacher quality and measurable student achievement is making an “excuse.” While those people may exist, the vast majority of education activists concerned with poverty are calling for alleviating the impact of poverty on the lives of children so that education reform can work.
  • “No excuses” focuses all the “blame” for learning on the child—directly stating that children must simply set aside their lives when they walk in the doors of schools and suck it up. This is a calloused and ugly thing to say to a child—and something that most adults themselves do not do. Many who advocate for “grit” in children are living in privilege and casting their privilege as “grit.” “No excuses” speaks to and reinforces the rugged individualism ideology in the U.S. that refuses to acknowledge or address systemic inequity (an ideology voiced by the privileged and one that benefits mostly those in privilege).
  • “No excuses” practices all are grounded in deficit views of children and education: The children from poverty or so-called minority races and the teachers/schools dealing with those children are deficient and must be “fixed.” However, a strong body of research suggests that individual behavior is often a reflection of the context; people living in scarcity behave differently than people living in slack. Affluent children have high test scores as a result of their lives in slack; impoverished children have low test scores as a result of their lives in scarcity. The problem is how to insure all children the slack they deserve—not how to harden children doomed to scarcity. TPS and NECS are both complicit in failing that directive.
  • “No excuses” feeds and builds on racism and classism—the exact racism and classism that have plagued traditional public schools and the U.S. for decades. Segregated schools, tracked class assignments, inequitable teacher assignments, inequitable and harsh discipline policies, and a misguided emphasis on high-stakes testing (itself race/class/gender biased)—these are the failures of both traditional public schools and “no excuses” charter schools.

The critical third way is about admitting social inequity in the U.S.—inequity grounded in racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, etc.—and admitting as well that our institutions mostly reflect that inequity, including out public schools and the so-called reform approaches such as “no excuses” charters.

“No excuses” practices cannot be reformed because they are essentially exaggerated versions of the greatest failures of the public school system they are designed to reform.

The critical third way is about social and educational equity, seeking schools that serve the most vulnerable students first with the opportunities that affluent children have (small classes, experienced teachers, challenging curriculum, supportive discipline, safe and well funded facilities).

The critical third way is about admitting we have broken systems, not broken children.

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.”

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

UPDATE: Note Holly Yettick’s One Small Droplet: News Media Coverage of Peer-Reviewed and University-Based Education Research and Academic Expertise; see abstract:

Most members of the American public will never read this article. Instead, they will obtain much of their information about education from the news media. Yet little academic research has examined the type or quality of education research and expertise they will find there. Through the lens of gatekeeping theory, this mixed-methods study aims to address that gap by examining the prevalence of news media citations of evidence that has undergone the quality-control measure of peer review and expertise associated with academics generally required to have expertise in their fields. Results suggest that, unlike science or medical journalists, education writers virtually never cite peer-reviewed research. Nor do they use the American Educational Research Association as a resource. Academic experts are also underrepresented in news media coverage, especially when compared to government officials [bold aded]. Barriers between the news media and academia include structural differences between research on education and the medical or life sciences as well as journalists’ lack of knowledge of the definition and value of peer review and tendency to apply and misapply news values to social science research and expertise.

“‘Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college’”: This spells doom for the U.S. economy, or to be more accurate, this spelled doom for the U.S. economy.

Except it didn’t, of course, as it is a quote in a 1947 issue of Time from John Ward Studebaker, a former school superintendent who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education (analogous to today’s Secretary of Education) in the mid-1940s.

Jump forward to 26 December 2015 and The New York 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.