It is a disturbingly easy list to make: police officers shooting/killing defenseless black males and females, Rush Limbaugh, OJ Simpson, Karl Rove, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, ad infinitum.
Those shielded by privilege (wealth, race, celebrity, status) from the consequences of being held accountable for their actions.
And what is most disturbing is that among accountability hawks, those are the people least likely to be held accountable.
In the accountability era of education reform, the accountability hawks have been left unscathed even as they work to create school choice (public funds sent to private schools outside the accountability paradigm), more charter schools (relieved of accountability), and uncertified teachers (Teach For America).
Those accountability hawks, the politicians and the billionaire education hobbyists, are never held accountable as each policy and reform-of-the-day fails before s/he moves on to the next Great Reform.
Complicit in this failure to hold accountability hawks accountable have been spineless edujournalism and edupresses that have abdicated their role to press release journalism in the service of the edureformers.
And thus, as
Just this week, in Education Week — the field’s leading national newspaper covering K–12 education — a blogger by the name of Matthew Lynch published a piece explaining his “Five Indisputable [emphasis added] Reasons Why You Should Be Implementing Value-Added Assessment.”
I’m going to try to stay aboveboard with my critique of this piece, as best I can, as by the title alone you all can infer there are certainly pieces (mainly five) to be seriously criticized about the author’s indisputable take on value-added (and by default value-added models (VAMs)). I examine each of these assertions below, but I will say overall and before we begin, that pretty much everything that is included in this piece is hardly palatable, and tolerable considering that Education Week published it, and by publishing it they quasi-endorsed it, even if in an independent blog post that they likely at minimum reviewed, then made public.
Shame on Lynch, shame on EdWeek, but this is hardly anything out of the ordinary.
This is edujournalism as we have known it for decades now.
All hail the accountability hawks, and let neither evidence nor accountability deter their march!
Back-to-back editorials at The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)—Bolster efforts at rural schools (18 June 2016) and Make literacy No. 1 priority (19 June 2016)—offer important messages about the importance of addressing South Carolina’s historical negligence of high-poverty schools, especially those serving black and brown students, and the folly of cutting funding for literacy initiatives in Charleston.
However, reading these two editorials leaves one well aware that good intentions are not enough and wondering if the P&C editors even read their own editorials.
In the 18 June 2016 editorial, the editors argue: “Acting rashly without necessary data would be misguided. But taking baby steps while one class after another misses out on an adequate education is a continued waste of valuable time.”
And the very next day, we read:
Still, parents should expect their children’s reading skills to improve noticeably.
And it’s fair for parents of the youngest students to expect significant improvement in their children’s reading by the end of the school year — if the new approach works. Of course, parents also can make a difference by reading to their youngsters every day at home.
If Dr. Postlewait’s plan doesn’t succeed, the school board must find a way to pay for programs that do.
Those programs exist. At Meeting Street Academy private school, and now at Meeting Street @ Brentwood, entering students score well below average on literacy tests and quickly catch up to and surpass the average. All Charleston County students deserve the same opportunity.
This praise of “programs [that] exist” is the exact “acting rashly” the P&C rightfully warns about the day before.
So what about “necessary data”?
We have two problems.
First, we do not have a careful analysis of data by those not invested in these schools about the two praised school programs. The fact is that we do not know if successful reading programs exist at these schools.
Second, we do know that “only 1.1 percent of high-poverty schools were identified as ‘high flyers'” (Harris, 2006). In other words, we now have decades of data refuting the political, public, and media fascination with “miracle schools.”
As I have repeatedly warned: “miracle schools” are almost always unmasked as mirages, but even if a rare few are outliers, they cannot serve as models for all schools because they are not replicable or scalable.
Therefore, the P&C editors are right to warn about acting rashly and without the necessary data as we reform public schools and bolster literacy among our students.
But the P&C is wrong to continue press-release journalism that contradicts that mandate.
Please read as a powerful companion to my confronting the very “bad” edujournalism we experience daily.
The ‘advertorial’ is, in my opinion, the lowest form of advertising. Perhaps you’ve never heard this word before, but you have surely nearly fallen for this kind of deceit when reading what you think is a newspaper article with a flashy headline before noticing, in small print, the words ‘advertisement.’
Education Week used to be the gold standard in education reporting. I can remember how proud I was in October 1995 when, at just 25 years old, I got my first ‘published’ article in a ‘real’ publication, Education Week’s Teacher Magazine, for a piece I wrote called ‘Natural Born Teacher.’ Over the next six years, I was always so proud whenever I’d get a piece accepted into either Teacher Magazine or Education Week.
As the internet grew and Twitter gained popularity, I joined and of course followed Education Week. Though I’ve found Education Week to be generally slanted…
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The media and educational love affair with “grit” has at least two sources for the frenzy: Paul Tough, journalist, making “grit” popular and accessible and Angela Duckworth, scholar and “genius,” giving “grit” the allure of research and science.
And now, both Tough and Duckworth have released books continuing the “grit” train—and interestingly, both are doing so with some light backpedalling about their initial claims that have mostly been embraced by the privileged and used on vulnerable populations of students (black/brown, poor, ELL).
Concurrent with that backpedalling comes as well a significant challenge to Duckworth’s research on “grit”: Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature, Marcus Credé, Michael C. Tynan, and Peter D. Harms.
As reported by NPR:
Here are the key claims in Crede’s paper:
- Effect sizes in one of Duckworth’s major papers on grit were described incorrectly to sound misleadingly large.
- The impact of grit is exaggerated, especially when looking at broader populations of people — not just the high achievers in Duckworth’s initial studies.
- Grit is nearly identical to conscientiousness, which has been known to psychologists for decades as a major dimension of personality. It is not something that’s necessarily open to change, especially in adults, whereas Duckworth in her writings suggests that grit is.
In other words, this analysis of research on “grit” suggests that the science as well as Duckworth’s representation of that research is significantly overstated.
So why did “grit,” and Duckworth, garner so much media and educational momentum?
One reason is the utter failure of edujournalism; another reason is that the “grit” narrative speaks to and perpetuates racist and classist beliefs among the U.S. public; and a final reason is that Duckworth’s “genius” grant as well as her TedX talk provided financial and celebrity cover for her shoddy work.
But this pattern of media/educational overreaction followed by an unmasking by more careful scholarly analysis is not by any stretch new.
Take as just one example how Malcolm Gladwell (fellow “good” journalist to Tough) made the 10,000-hour rule popular—so much so that the number is mentioned over and over to this day throughout all sorts of mainstream media.
Yet, the scholar whose work is the foundation for the popularized and misleading 10,000-hour rule, K. Anders Ericsson—unlike Duckworth —directly refuted how the media has distorted his work: The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments.
The 10,000-hour rule pattern—bad media coverage of scholarship—is the same as the “grit” mess—and this pattern happens weekly because mainstream edujournalists will not listen (they argue edujournalism is the best it has ever been), and will not learn.
Just as Duckworth has been afforded in major media outlets, Tough is peddling his new book, and his very bad journalism, through opinion pieces masking promotional material.
And day after day, education bloggers are forced to confront the horrible consequences of negligent and inexpert edujournalism (see for example, Campbell Brown’s Bizarre NAEP Response in the Washington Post).
Here, then, I want to offer edujournalists a series of ways in which edujournalism persists to fail:
- Seeking outlier schools in order to write “miracle” school feel-good stories. First, outliers schools are often proven to be false stories, but even if they are somehow exceptional, outliers never provide any evidence of what should be normal in education (or any human behavior). At their core, “miracle” school stories are shaming stories that cast “other schools” as negligent, just not trying hard enough.
- Presenting education research and science in simplistic terms and failing to couch any one study in the context of the broader body of research or against unbiased reviews of that study. Especially since mainstream media are contracting, edujournalism is even more susceptible to press-release journalism—simply restating what aggressive researchers and think tanks send to the media without regard for whether or not that research is credible (thus, above, the overstating by both Duckworth and media coverage).
- Remaining trapped in rankings and state-to-state or international comparisons. Not only are rankings and comparisons mostly misleading, in many cases, the rankings are fabricated (seeking ways to force a ranking instead of admitting that the objects ranked are essentially the same), and comparisons are made at superficial levels that ignore significant differences in what is being compared (see HERE).
- Uncritically embracing crisis discourse about education that ignores historical patterns involving education, poverty, and racism. Current “crisis” education stories about “bad” schools, “bad” teachers, and “kids today” have been recycled in the U.S. since at least the mid-1800s. The “crisis” label allows edujournalists, politicians, and the public to ignore social and policy causes for the consequences being identified as the “crisis.”
- Perpetuating false claims about the power of formal education: education as the “great equalizer,” education as the key to individual and societal economic success. Facts are not always what we want to be true, but educational attainment in the U.S. remains less important than race, gender, or the social class of any child’s family. Education is not the great equalizer. As well, as Gerald Bracey and many others have shown, there simply is no clear positive correlation between the so-called quality of education and any state’s or country’s economic success.
- Over-stating the impact of so-called teacher quality, and under-stating the impact of social influences on measurable student outcomes. The most conservative research shows that measurable student outcomes (test scores) are primarily (about 60%) a reflection of out-of-school factors; teacher quality and even school quality impact those scores at much lower percentages, about 10-15%.
- Giving lip-service to the impact of poverty, racism, and sexism on formal schooling, and suggesting that focusing on poverty, racism, and sexism is simply as “excuse.” The mainstream media speak to and perpetuate the rugged individualism myth in the U.S. Edujournalists uncritically accept and preach that myth by giving passing nods to poverty, racism, and sexism, but nearly always moving immediately to focusing on individuals—teachers need to try harder, students need to try harder.
- Bumbling both what statistics show and how statistics are presented to the public. Edujournalists are victims of blurring cause and correlation, overstating “significance,” and failing to address false comparisons (consider the routinely awful charter/public school comparisons).
- Perpetuating a long list of go-to educational facts that are actually false: the word gap, third-grade reading proficiency, school funding does not matter, Teach For America, charter schools and private schools trump public schools, for example. Edujournalists, like the public, uncritically accept claims that sound true, but as journalists, should be interrogating these claims exactly because they sound too pat.
- Giving non-educators both primary and exclusive voices in education debate. Edujournalists love economists, psychologists, and think tank advocates—but avoid educators and educational scholars, except occasionally to allow them space as “critics” (see as one example NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative).
- Seeing all educational topics as a “both sides” debate with each side given nearly equal status. Edujournalists refrain from considering and/or explaining that some stances in education are significantly more credible than others. As do most journalists who fear being activists and worship at the alter of “objective,” edujournalists fail the Oliver Rule.
- Thinking without an ounce of imagination. Accountability, standardized testing, grades, grade levels—these and dozens of “normal” and “traditional” practices are never realistically challenged in edujournalism; no consideration is given to things could be otherwise. A failure of imagination is seeking out and believing in new tests and new standards; imagination allows us to rethink a better school system without tests and without standards.
I remain a vigilant critic of edujorunalists/edujournalism, but I have been a career-long critic of educators/education as well.
This criticism of, and plea to, edujournalists is grounded in my belief that the U.S. needs a critical free press as much as we need a critical education system.
Edujournalists, like educators, need to listen, and to learn.
UPDATED: Please Read
TFA’s Latest PR Stunt, Gary Rubinstein
 Note that Ericsson’s research has been conducted in conjunction with Duckworth on occasion.
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.
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.
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? 
Nope. We’ll just keep getting the sort of breezy hokum John Oliver brilliantly unmasks here:
 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.
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.
- NAEP Results: Gaps in Opportunities to Learn? Robert Rothman
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.
- Studying How Poverty Keeps Hurting Young Minds, and What to Do About It, Jim Dwyer
- Gloria Ladson-Billings Reframes the Racial Achievement Gap
- The Terrifying Message Americans Send by Supporting Donald Trump, Brittney Cooper
- “Clinton embodies a neoliberal kind of feminism which mostly benefits privileged women”
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
- Dan Wakefield gives a list of Vonnegut readings for making life decisions
- Over 10 Years Later, George Carlin’s Comments on the American System Are as Haunting as Ever (Video)
It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.
- Black Intellectuals and White Audiences, Matthew Clair
- We need more black and brown teachers but not for the reasons you think, Andre Perry
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: