John Merrow and the Delusions of Edujournalism

Veteran edujournalist John Merrow claims on his blog: “Education reporting has never been better than it is right now.”

Diane Ravitch mused on her blog about how I would respond to Merrow so here you go.

First, Merrow’s assertion can be true only if edujournalism was criminally horrible in the past to which he is comparing today’s journalism—which is negligently horrible.

Next, since Merrow mentions the Education Writers Association (EWA), his delusional post represents perfectly a central problem with edujournalism reflected in EWA: edujournalists are trapped within an insular norm of reporting that includes both traditional flaws in journalism (objective journalism anchored in reporting “both sides” dispassionately) and contemporary market forces that are contracting mainstream media, resulting in press-release journalism by journalists without the necessary expertise or experiences needed to report on a discipline or field.

In some of his most high-profile work, in fact, Merrow has personified a double failure common among edujrounalist: first, Merrow eagerly participated in the media’s creation of Michelle Rhee, and then, he fumbled badly and inadequately the media’s holding Rhee accountable for her horrible policies and inept (possibly criminal) leadership.

Merrow hangs his praise on several outlets that focus on education:

National coverage is strong: Chalkbeat (now in 4 states and expanding), The Hechinger Report, Pro Publica and Politico Education are providing outstanding national and local coverage. NPR (National Public Radio) has a strong education team, as does the PBS NewsHour (the latter team includes my former colleagues at Learning Matters).  Although Education Week is a trade publication, it remains a “must read” for anyone interested in the both the big picture and the weeds of the business.  (One of my regrets is that when we negotiated the merger into Ed Week, I did not ask for a lifetime subscription!)  There are more interesting education blogs than I could begin to count, and that’s a good thing.

Routinely, however, these exact outlets mangle reporting about schools, teachers, and all aspects of formal education (see, for example, examinations of Education Week and NPR).

The primary mainstream outlets for edujournalism are negligently horrible—unable to rise above press-release journalism, to see through the political manipulation of journalism and education, to listen to professional educators and researchers, or to critically examine assumptions about children/students, teaching and learning, and the purposes of school.

Merrow also celebrates: “When The Tampa Bay Times won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, that clinched it: education had become THE cool and significant issue to cover!”

Setting aside we eschew all caps and exclamation points in the writing of middle schoolers, again, his celebration proves his delusion.

As I have examined in How Good Is the Best Edujournalism?, this award-winning series does represent the pinnacle of edujournalism, but that pinnacle is well below the level of “good journalism”: treating old news as new news (edujournalists as non-expert in the field have no historical lens about education) and framing educational quality within a simplistic and flawed context that outcomes are primarily about individual effort (students, teachers).

After listing a tired list of edustories needing to be told, Merrow ends with “In sum, education reporters are getting it right. Now keep on keeping on!”

We are left with a veteran edujournalist reporting very badly on edujournalism.

If only this were satire.

“A new study shows,” Education, and the Media

As I continue to document, the mainstream media believe everyone is an expert on education (except educators, of course).

In today’s two-experts-collide, know-nothing David Brooks comes out against GPA while latching onto Angela Duckworth’s “grit” sequel that is poised to maintain her racism/classism train to fame and fortune.

As John Oliver has now confronted (see below), the mainstream media love “a new study shows,” but almost always gets everything wrong.

Educational research continues to suffer this fate in the mainstream media, where, for example, the elites maintain our focus on students struggling just need more “grit,” and the self-serving counter to that: high achieving, successful people are so because of, primarily, their “grit”! (Ahem, and not their enormous privilege.)

Don’t hold your breath, but let’s imagine a world in which Brooks and Duckworth hold forth on this truth:

If you are black/brown and/or poor, your “grit” will still get you less than those gifted white privilege at birth.

Or how about:

Instead of the fatalism of saying that life is going to be hard for black/brown and/or poor people, and thus we need to make them extra “gritty” through abusive “no excuses” schools, why don’t we eradicate the social forces making their lives suck? [1]

Nope. We’ll just keep getting the sort of breezy hokum John Oliver brilliantly unmasks here:


[1] Also, imagine a world in which we discover lead in paint is dangerous for children so we conduct a study on children who survive exposure to lead pain in order to equip all students with that quality—instead of eradicating lead in paint. That’s the “grit” research in a nutshell.

Cinco de Mayo 2016: A Reader

Let us hope we can resist the urge to trivialize and appropriate the wonderful history, traditions, and people of Mexico because of the silliness that is making a holiday another way to churn up crass commercialism (a redundant term). [Also, lost in the shuffle, today is the birthday of Karl Marx.]

So below, please read a gathering of important articles, somewhat loosely connected because they have crossed my path.

First, let me note that since I have relentlessly criticized edujournalism of late (and it is well deserved criticism), I start with an edujournalism unicorn—a very good piece on NAEP.

Read on:

The simple truth is that NAEP is not designed to provide causal explanations. It’s a test given every two years to a representative sample of students who happen to be in fourth, eighth, or twelfth grade that particular year. It does not follow students over time, so it’s impossible to say that a policy or practice “caused” the results….

Put together, the findings paint a picture of unequal opportunities to learn challenging content. Low-performing students spend less time explaining their reading or doing projects, and more time on test prep. Once again, these are correlations: they do not suggest that these patterns caused the low performance. But why do they exist? What can be done about them? That’s the challenge for educators and policy makers.

Clinton has been a card-carrying feminist for decades, she started her career doing advocacy for children and women, she’s famous for her UN speech about women’s rights are human rights, she’s been reliably pro-choice and so on. So if that all fits into this sort of recognition side, she’s been there, and in a more explicit, and front-and-center way than Sanders. But, on the other hand, What kind of feminism is this? Clinton embodies a certain kind of neoliberal feminism that is focused on cracking the glass ceiling, leaning in. That means removing barriers that would prevent rather privileged, highly educated women who already have a high amount of cultural and other forms of capital to rise in the hierarchies of government and business. This is a feminism whose main beneficiaries are rather privileged women, whose ability to rise in a sense relies on this huge pool of very low-paid precarious, often racialized precarious service work, which is also very feminized that provide all the care work

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

Black students will always underachieve when they are perceived as needing fixing.

The irony is that black students aren’t the ones who need fixing.

Deficit thinking corrupts the potential effectiveness of even the most competent teachers.

White folk must unlearn their negative expectations. That’s the only way we’re ever going to change the structures that really hold students back.

And now, a musical extra:

Outliers Never Evidence of Normal in Education

In Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares, the NYT, like most of mainstream media, is begrudgingly coming to admit that race and class inequity in the U.S. has a profound impact on the education of children—and that simply tinkering (badly) with school policy is not enough to change that reality:

We’ve long known of the persistent and troublesome academic gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in public schools.

We’ve long understood the primary reason, too: A higher proportion of black and Hispanic children come from poor families. A new analysis of reading and math test score data from across the country confirms just how much socioeconomic conditions matter.

Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.

But then there is this:

The data was [sic] not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.

“There are some outliers, and trying to figure out what’s making them more successful is worth looking at,” said Mr. Reardon, a professor of education and lead author of the analysis.

Well, no, if we find outliers—and virtually all data have outliers in research—we should not waste our time trying to figure out how we can make outliers the norm.

The norm is where we should put our efforts in order to confront what is, in fact, not “puzzling” (used earlier in the article) at all; the data are very clear:

What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.

Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.

Our great education reform failure is one of failing to rethink our questions and our goals.

Let’s stop trying to find the “miracle” in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.

Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.

And while we are making efforts at social policy, let’s end the in-school policies that we know “exacerbate” inequity: tracking, teacher assignments (and TFA), high-stakes testing, grade retention, discipline policies grounded in zero tolerance and “no excuses,” and segregation through school choice (including charter schools).

Education reform, as was highlighted in the original court case examined in the South Carolina documentary The Corridor of Shame, is obsessed with playing the hero by seeing who can pull the most babies out of the river.

And then examining the ones who survive the potential drowning in order to “make” all babies survive the trauma of being cast down stream.

But no one seems interested in walking upstream to stop babies being thrown in.

Life and learning do not need to be something children survive—and we must confront that we have decided that this is exactly what we are willing to accept for “other people’s children.”

It would not be so if we believed and acted upon that “they’re all our children.”


The Allegory of the River

How Good Is the Best Edujournalism?

A recurring theme running through my blog posts—one that could be addressed daily—is that education journalism is almost always significantly misleading and way too often completely inaccurate.

Mainstream media and journalists are trapped in false but compelling narratives about schools, learning and teaching, children, poverty, and race. Journalism itself fails education as a field because of a simplistic “both sides” to a rather cartoonish “objective” journalism.

As I have detailed too often, media coverage of education includes primarily voices and perspectives of people with no or very little experience or expertise in education, but when a few contrary perspectives are offered, those are typically framed as “some critics”—with no effort to establish which claims are credible or not.

Sadly, the best unmasking of the essential failure of the media has been by one of our faux-media comedians, John Oliver, who highlighted that even if there are two sides to an issue, one can be overwhelmingly credible while the other is mostly baseless; therefore, placing them as one-versus-one misleads the public on the weight of the arguments.

So when I received yet another email from the Education Writers Association (EWA)—who is extremely proud of itself—announcing their top award for education reporting, I wondered: How good is the best edujournalism?

The EWA Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting was awarded for Failure Factories (The Tampa Bay Times), written by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia. The series includes the following:

Without question, this series is comprehensive and it confronts some incredibly important issues about public schooling: the significant relationship between race/poverty and student achievement; the plague of segregation and resegregation in public institutions such as schools; and the huge inequities of education faced by racial minorities and impoverished students such as teacher assignments, school safety, funding, and discipline practices.

And while the series does a solid job of raising these issues, my first response is that these are all old news—I mean very old news.

That our public schools have failed poor and black/brown students is a recurring message over the last century—little different before or after the Civil Rights movement.

Therein lies a real problem with even the so-called best edujournalim—journalists without a historical lens afforded those with expertise in a field are ripe to fall prey to the lens of a novice.

One such failure of this series and then how the EWA praised the series can be found in the quoted judge’s comment:

Bravo to this team and the paper for taking an all-too-common story (low achievement in a high-poverty area) and digging past the excuses to reveal a shameful history of indifference and, most troubling, willful neglect. I was awed by the dogged reporting, the sheer volume of interviews and data-crunching, and the courageous analysis that put the blame exactly where it needed to be. But the true brilliance of this work is found in the stories of the children who were robbed of an education they deserved. How many other school districts in America might have the same story to tell?

The series title “Failure Factories” is but one of many triggers for the pervasive and ugly “no excuses” narrative that is all the rage in the U.S.

You see, once again, this series oversimplifies the story of educating vulnerable populations of students: racism and classism are merely excuses for the schools charged with high concentrations of vulnerable students.

And as the judge notes above, this is all about “blame”—and keeping the focus on those damn failing schools.

The shame is that without this corrosive and ugly framing, there is an incredible amount of work in this series that does deserve praise. We should be asking: Why do we need yet anther round of test scores to admit and confront race and class inequity—especially when high-stakes standardized testing itself is racist and classist?

The truth is that schools in the U.S. have never been, are not now, and never will be anything other than reflections of our society—unless we do things different in both our social and educational policy.

Yes, public schools almost entirely reflect and perpetuate the race, class, and gender inequities that remain powerful in our wider society, and much of that is embedded in the very reforms being championed in the media and among political leaders: accountability, standards, high-stakes testing, grade retention, zero tolerance policies, “no excuses” practices, charter schools, school choice, Teach For America, school report cards, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, and the worst of the worst—”grit.”

That is not simply a fact of the schools targeted by this series. That is a fact about public education across the entire country.

And many educators as well as education scholars have been yelling that for decades; that’s right—decades.

Possibly the most telling problem with the series is the end, where the condemnations of Arne Duncan and John King are treated as if they are somehow credible.

If this weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable—nearly rising to the level of an article in The Onion.

Therefore, here is a little message about the best of edujournalism.

Dear EWA:

Public schools have been reflecting and perpetuating the worst aspects of our society for over 100 years. People in power really don’t care, and politicians in the last three to four decades have learned that education policy is a powerful political football.

Since the Reagan administration, public schools have failed students even more significantly because of inane obsessions with accountability, standards, and tests.

Duncan and King are the personifications of all that is wrong with education policy: lots of soaring rhetoric masking policy cures that are part of the disease; thus, the accountability movement is intensifying race, class, and gender inequity—not overcoming it.

Racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia are never excuses, but facts, and these burdens are more than micromanaged and technocratic in-school only policies can address.

Yes, we need much more equitable school practices and polices—but none of what politicians are doing now meets those standards—and those alone will never accomplish what we seem to want without concurrent changes to public policy that also addresses equity.

Edujournalism, as well, is part of the problem because it remains trapped in false narratives, committed to simplistic “both sides” frames of issues, and unwilling to listen to the voices of the practitioners and scholars in the field of education.

Nearly everything addressed in “Failure Factories” was raised by novelist Ralph Ellison in a 1963 speech to teachers. Your best journalism is old news wrapped in a false frame and too often fumbled badly with good intentions.

I remain concerned that education-bashing journalism has become so lucrative for your flailing field that it is in fact as pressing that we address the journalism crisis as we do the need to significantly reform our public schools.

As agents of the public good, journalists and educators have a great deal in common that is being squandered; neither can afford as a field or in the name of that public good to remain the tools of those who have interests other than the public good.

We both can and should do better.

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.