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

Dear Journalists (especially those who write about education):

After posting my U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press, which represents a recurring effort in my public work to address the problems with journalism about education and education research/reports, I continued to interact with Juana Summers (NPR) and Stephen Sawchuk (Education Week) on Twitter. Those exchanges have suggested to me that I need to examine more fully what my concerns raised specifically about mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports mean to my wider call for a critical free press.

First, I think I need to establish the foundational context of my complaints about journalism/education journalism.

I believe journalists and teachers should be (must be) comrades in arms because a free press and universal public education are essential foundational institutions for a free people.

I am not, however, suggesting that this camaraderie is some sort of wink-wink, nod-nod collusion between the two professions in which we “cover” for each other, but that we are comrades joined by the same mission to build the free society that many claim the U.S. seeks. In fact, as comrades I expect we should be each other’s most vigilant and accurate critics to insure that we both stay the course.

And that builds on my second larger context for my concerns about journalism and my call for a critical free press. My use of the term “critical” is the source of my calls for reform of both education and journalism—two fields that reach their potential when critical, but fail when they are bound by traditional expectations of impartiality, calls that teachers and journalists avoid being “political.” Critical teachers and critical journalists are activists; they use their professions as mechanisms for change. Apolitical teachers and journalists are essentially defenders of the status quo (thus, the calls for impartiality are always loudest from those with power and wealth).

So I want to return briefly to my criticisms of mainstream media coverage of NCTQ’s latest report.

While Summers, Sawchuk, and I exchanged Tweets related to my post, Adam Bessie, whose important public work refuting the “bad” teacher meme is central to my points here, offered a Tweet that simply identified a fact about Gates funding among NPR, Education Week, and NCTQ:

This Tweet represents the central issue to my concerns: Among the New Media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), many critical educators have been confronting the disproportionate and inappropriate (because Gates has no credibility in the field of education, but nearly endless funds) influence of Gates on education reform—an influence that I have confronted often with a question: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one.

Also, Bessie’s Tweet about the ubiquity of Gates funding has finally begun to gain some traction in the mainstream press. But bloggers still carry the greatest weight for being critical about the influence of Gates on education reform. (The most common places now to find critical journalism is in the New Media, such as blogs at Education Week [see Anthony Cody and Nancy Flanagan] and The Washington Post [see Valerie Strauss] or alternative press such as Truthout and AlterNet.)

Despite Bessie’s Tweet only stating facts, Sawchuk immediately responded with this:

It is at “offensive” that I think we should all pause and consider carefully.

I do not in any way think Sawchuk is a careless, “bought,” or shoddy journalist. In fact, as I stated to him, I have interacted with Sawchuk because I respect him, his work, and his profession (I do not interact with others about whom I cannot say the same).

I must add that my concern with Sawchuk’s coverage of NCTQ (as well as the other coverage I identified) is that the work fails because it conforms to the flawed traditional convention of fairness that Sawchuk mentions directly.

The traditional view of fairness in journalism has been brilliantly skewered recently by John Oliver on his HBO show: Oliver exposes that being “fair” in the climate change debate—having one person for “both sides” debate the issue—actually greatly misrepresents the current understanding within the field of science for the lay public. Mainstream journalists committed to this sort of “fair and balanced” are doomed to fail the much more important goal of accuracy. As Oliver demonstrated, the ratio of for and against climate change within the sciences is not 1 to 1 as a “fair” debate implies, but about 97 for and 3 against (and while Oliver didn’t explore this, a careful look at the against shows that even those 3% are less credible within the field).

If we extrapolate the Oliver Rule, then, to education reform, we do not find an equal 1 to 1 ratio of research on using value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate and dismiss teachers because the field overwhelmingly refutes using VAM in highs-stakes situations (even pro-VAM researchers call for “modest” uses of VAM) and mostly ideological advocates and political leaders (without expertise) endorse VAM for high-stakes education policy. However, VAM advocacy garners primary coverage in the mainstream press with little attention paid to the more credible research refuting its high-stakes and disproportionate use.

So let me be very clear here about both Sawchuk being offended and the difference between critical journalists and fair journalists.

I’m sorry, but journalists and journalism will always look bad when money speaks louder than expertise (see again Gates).

Now, imagine, journalists, if every day your field was repeatedly and inaccurately trashed for all the public: U.S. public education is a failure because our tests scores rank poorly internationally (misleading), schools with impoverished students have low test scores because of low expectations by the teachers (untrue), U.S. public education is failing because of corrupt teachers’ unions (untrue and basically opposite of the evidence), to improve public schools we need to identify “bad” teachers and fire them (untrue), public school teachers are “bad” mostly because they have tenure (untrue) [1], and the list goes on.

I genuinely regret Sawchuk being offended because he doesn’t deserve it, but I must emphasize that Sawchuk is among the media who are complicit in offending teachers, teaching, and schools everyday because journalists are quick to assume the misguided pose of “fair” and unwilling to assume the needed position of critical.

Many issues simply do not have “sides” (rape, genocide), and to be honest, most issues do not have equally credibly sides.

Does teacher education/certification need to be reformed (full disclosure: I am a teacher educator)? Absolutely.

But NCTQ has no credibility and garners its influence through the impact of money and media endorsement, and not validity (just as Gates has done).

Louann Reid, Chair of NCTE’s Conference on English Education, has identified this problem perfectly in her rebuttal of NCTQ’s recent report:

The recommendations are, however, backed by considerable funding, which helps extend NCTQ’s reach. CEE doesn’t have that kind of funding, but we do have reliable researchers and educators who can mobilize to tell the true stories of effective English teacher education. And I believe we must do so.

And herein lies the problem. While I also spurred some offense by my use of “press-release journalism,” the inordinate and uncritical coverage of NCTQ by the mainstream press proves my point that mainstream journalists respond to press releases (funding) while the experts (NCTE/CEE) remain mostly ignored.

And that’s the problem with “fairness” as the journalist’s guide instead of “critical.”

As researcher and scholar Bruce Baker added to the Twitter discussion, critical journalism would have responded to NCTQ quite differently:

It may appear “fair” to respond to NCTQ as one perspective in the education reform debate, but it isn’t beneficial to afford an organization and a report without merit more credence (or even the same) as the contributions of those who have credibility.

And choosing to cover a topic is a political choice; coverage is never unbiased. And framing a topic is also a political choice (what perspective to present first, how to frame in the headline and lede, etc.). In truth, assuming a dispassionate pose is always dishonest since as humans we are always being political. I suggest we are all better off being openly and purposefully political instead of conforming to misleading norms of “neutrality.”

Yet, this is how the mainstream media carry on day after day—especially in the misguided assault on teachers, public schools, and now higher education.

Legions of hardworking and dedicated classroom teachers are offended daily by the mainstream media being complicit in a false story being told by those with money and an agenda—while that same mainstream media either offer secondary equal time [2] or ignore a powerful group of educators, researchers, and scholars who have the experience and expertise to reform education as it needs to be reformed.

Journalists, if you are ever offended, I would add that coincidentally you are now educators’ comrades for another reason.

As a lifelong teachers (31 years with 13 years teaching journalism to wonderful high school students), I am asking that you join us in the fight instead of taking your impartial stance that allows the well-funded but misguided reformers to keep on keeping on.

Any takers?

[1] How many mainstream journalists covering the Vergara ruling in California addressed that the judge issuing the ruling has job security himself?

[2] As “fair,” we are occasionally allowed to rebut the “reformers” somewhere in the middle or bottom third of the coverage, but even then we are framed as “critics.”

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The (Lingering) Bill Gates Problem in School Reform

In his Washington Post Op-Ed (28 February 2011), Bill Gates builds to this solution to education reform*:

“What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.”

Gates also includes his own foundation’s survey to give his claims the appearance of evidence-based reform (although he misrepresents even that), but this claim, as well as the continuing free pass Gates and other education hobbyists and celebrities receive from the media and the public (see the softballs tossed to Gates in an interview at Newsweek, for example), proves to reveal several ironic lessons in education reform:

Wealth and celebrity do not equal expertise. The United States is a celebrity culture, and we revere wealth because we aspire to wealth. Why do we listen to Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz? Because Oprah endorsed them—not because they offered the public credible expertise in their fields. The current education reform debate is being driven by wealth, celebrity, and life-long bureaucrats—not by the expertise and experience of millions of teachers, scholars, and researchers who have credible evidence about the problems that face our public education system and the likely solutions that would move us closer to the promise of that system in our democracy.

Calls for accountability tend to come from those outside and above that accountability. As I will discuss later, the role of evidence is interesting and disturbing in the claims made by the new reformers, including Gates. A central part of the push to hold teachers accountable is tying teacher pay to evidence, but when these claims are made, Gates and others are never required to show any evidence themselves about their claims. As well, billionaires, millionaires, celebrities, and politicians all exist in lives in which they are less often held accountable for their actions when compared to the vast majority of Americans.

Teaching and learning are not the simple transmission of a set body of knowledge from an authoritarian teacher and to a passive classroom of students. The smoldering charges that our schools are overburdened by “bad” teachers, and thus we need to improve our teaching core, has distracted us from considering first exactly what the teaching/learning process should look like in universal public education system built to support a free people and a democracy.

The new reformers have framed teaching as both the most important element in educational outcomes (although evidence refutes that simplistic claim) and a simple act of transmitting knowledge to a large group of students to raise test scores linked to national standards.

If we need the best and the brightest and if teachers alone can overcome the weight of poverty, then reducing teaching to a service industry contradicts internally an argument that is also easily disproved since both initial claims are false. Teaching and learning are messy, idiosyncratic, and nearly impossible to measure or trace to single points of causation.

The political and corporate elite as well as the general U.S. public simply do not respect teachers and do not value education. The United States, as the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of humanity, has and can make anything happen we want. We move forward with wars when we decide we should, we bail out failing banks when we feel we should, we make a whole host of celebrities wealthy when we want (and we never hold them accountable for their egregious lack of respect for anything), and we could eradicate childhood poverty and support fully a vibrant and world-class education system–if we wanted to. But we don’t.

Evidence doesn’t matter, but it should. As the first point above suggests, the public seems content with celebrity and wealth, but skeptical of evidence. I have had dozens of experiences offering public commentary on education, citing extensively why I hold the positions I do, but one of the most common replies I receive is, “Anybody can make research say whatever they want.” While I empathize with the sentiment, this belief is flawed because it oversimplifies the research debate in the same way that the new reformers oversimplify the education reform debate. The truth about research is that one study is interesting, but that one study proves little.

Once research has been peer-reviewed, while no guarantee, that study gains credibility. Then, as research builds to a body of peer-reviewed research with clear patterns, we reach safe ground for public claims and policy (see this about charter schools, for example). Neither cherry-picking studies to advance an agenda nor being cavalier and cynical about research is conducive to advancing humanity through our greatest gifts as human — our minds.

Poverty is the unspoken and ignored weight on education outcomes, and while U.S. public education needs significant reforms, education reform will never succeed without the support of social reforms addressing childhood poverty and income equity.

This final ironic lesson from a billionaire holding forth repeatedly on education reveals its problem by the obvious complexity of the statement itself. The sentence is too much for our sound-bite culture that politicians feel compelled to appease. While we revel in making international comparisons to demonize our schools (falsely), we fail to acknowledge international evidence of how to address school reform.

Let me suggest two international approaches we should be considering, both from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (UK)—a compilation of evidence on the impact of poverty on educational success and adetailed consideration of wide-scale social and education reform.

In 2013, again, U.S. political leaders and the public appear disgusted with a public education system, but this sentiment has been with us since the Committee of Ten declared education inadequate in the 1890s. We must, then, come to terms with two facts: (1) We must drop Utopian claims about education because education is not the sole key to overcoming social failures, but a single element in the larger working of our society, (2) claims of crisis in education are misleading since the problems we are considering (student outcomes and drop-out rates, for example) are patterns that have existed for over a century.

Many are arguing that the new reformers must be valued since they are creating a debate about education and rattling the cage of an entrenched status quo that is failing. I find this argument weak since we have no evidence that inexpert celebrity claims are resulting in a close consideration of what is truly wrong with our schools and what should be pursued to create the world-class schools we claim we want.

In fact, this current round of school bashing and calls for accountability and reform are an intensifying of the exact same failed solutions we have tried for three decades–all the while ignoring the genuine problems and the weight of evidence for what reforms would work

And this leads to a question I have: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one–the same as who should listen to him now.

* Reposting of original piece from The Answer Sheet (March 2, 2011). See why Gates remains a lingering problem at Jersey Jazzman.

Alternative Education Reform: Among the Invisible and “Preferably Unheard”

Educators as workers in a profession rendered invisible and “preferably unheard” are increasingly being demonized, marginalized, and challenged as defenders of the status quo and anti-reformers.

The Sisyphean hell of being a teacher includes having almost no autonomy or power in educational policy but receiving the brunt of the blame when the outcomes of those policies do not meet the goals promised.

Yet, throughout the academic and scholarly press as well as the public media and “new” media, such as blogs, educators, researchers and scholars present daily alternatives to the repackaged reform movement committed to the same failed policies that have plagued education for a century—standards, testing, and assorted business models of efficiency forced onto education.

Education is a massive and complex endeavor, and the common sense perception of how to address teaching and learning, how to reform schools that appear to be broken, envisions equally massive and complex solutions (think VAM and merit pay).

And here is where educators may be trapped in our quest to discredit misguided reform and to take ownership of credible reform: Our alternatives appear too simple on the surface but are incredibly complicated, unpredictable, and unwieldy in their implementation. In short, most credible calls for education reform are outside the box thinking when compared to traditional education, business models, and social norms.

For example, Larry Ferlazzo in one sentence dismantles much of the current reform movement and offers alternatives:

“Even though it’s not necessarily an either/or situation, I would suggest that both educators and students would be better served by emphasizing creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation over teaching techniques designed to communicate standards-based content.”

Again, maybe this is too simple, but education reform does not need new standards, new tests, or new accountability and merit pay policies.

Education reform is needed, but should be re-imagined as a few new paradigms:

• Instead of a standards-based education system that places the authority for curriculum in a centralized bureaucracy, teacher autonomy and expertise should be the focus of reform—paralleling the culture of higher education in which professors are hired for field expertise as well as the teaching of their fields. [This change in the midset of reform and the culture of K-12 schools, thus, creates the conditions in which a revised paradigm in accountability can be implemented, see below.]

• Instead of a test-based education system that measures, quantifies, ranks, and evaluates, high-quality and rich feedback for both teachers and students should be the focus of reform; feedback is formative and thus contributes positively to learning and growth.

• Instead of high-stakes accountability focusing on outcomes and that demands compliance as well as blurs causation and correlation (teachers, for example, being held accountable for student outcomes), teacher accountability focusing on the learning conditions provided by the teacher should be embraced. This reform measure should emphasize the equity of opportunity provided all students [1], regardless of the teacher, the school the community, or the home environment.

• Instead of devaluing teacher preparation through alternative programs or ideologies that suggest content knowledge is more valuable than (or even exclusive of) pedagogy and through teacher evaluation policies that label, rank, and seek to fire teachers, teacher preparation and teacher evaluation should honor the complex nature of content knowledge and the pedagogy needed to teach that knowledge (see the first bullet above) while emphasizing mentoring and teaching as constant learning over stack ranking and dismissing a predetermined percentage of teachers.

Educators know what and how to teach. Education is a rich field with a tremendous amount of consensus and enduring debates along the spectrum of subcategories that constitute education—pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and more.

The great irony of the need to shift away from the historical dependence on bureaucratic efficiency models of education reform and toward a professional and scholarly culture of being a teacher and conducting schooling is that the latter is far more challenging for teachers and students, and as Felazzo explains:

“Let’s look at what some research shows to be necessary to create the conditions for intrinsic motivation to flourish, and how that research can be applied specifically to teaching and learning about reading and writing….Pink argues that there are three key elements required for the development of intrinsic motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose…..Helping students to motivate themselves is a far more effective and energizing teaching/learning strategy than the faux magical one of extrinsic motivation.”

Both teachers and students can and will benefit from education reform that focuses on the conditions of learning that honor “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in ways that allow for failure, revision, and unpredictable outcomes—none of which are fostered in the efficiency model that historically and currently corrupts education reform.

[1] See Wright’s examination of access to equitable early childhood education

Does school reform perpetuate inequity?

Does school reform perpetuate inequity?

See related:

Equality of Educational Opportunity: A 40-Year Retrospective, Adam Gamoran and Daniel A. Long

“Forty years on, the findings of the Coleman report hold up remarkably well, in some ways distressingly so.”

Report: U.S. should focus on equity in education, Valerie Strauss

For Each and Every Child

Studies Suggest Economic Inequity Is Built Into, and Worsened by, School Systems

Hope against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children by Sarah Carr

Police in the Hallways, Kathleen Nolan

RESEARCH-BASED OPTIONS FOR EDUCATION POLICYMAKING: Common Core State Standards, William Mathis, University of Colorado Boulder (October 2012)

Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, Michael Hour and Stuart W. Elliott, eds.

“They’re All Our Children