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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U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

Few things are worse than mainstream media coverage of education.

Except for that sentence above, which stretches hyperbole beyond credibility.

But that is exactly where the mainstream media finds itself when covering education. Journalists, in their quest to maintain the traditional commitment to “fair and balanced” journalism [1], consistently endorse and perpetuate organizations without credibility (such as NCTQ) and baseless claims (such as cries of “bad” teacher, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions).

With yet another report released by NCTQ, that failure of the mainstream media has been highlighted once again—notably at NPR [2] and Education Week: Study Delivers Failing Grades For Many Programs Training Teachers, Claudio Sanchez and Juana Summers; Alternative Certification Deemed Weak by NCTQ in New Teacher-Prep Report, Stephen Sawchuk; Most Teacher Preparation Falls Short on Strategies for ELLs, NCTQ Finds, Lesli A. Maxwell.

First, the mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports remains trapped inside assumed crises that have no basis in fact; NCTQ’s reports and then the media begin with the givens that education suffers under the burden of “bad” teachers, “bad” teacher certification, and “bad” unions. However, at the very least, these claims are disproportional, if not outright erroneous:

  • If we maintain the current context that student achievement is accurately reflected in test scores (and it isn’t), then we must acknowledge that teacher quality (10-15%) and school quality account for only about 20% of that measurement, but “60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty),” as Di Carlo details.
  • If we accept that value-added methods (VAM) can accurately and consistently identify “good” and “bad” teachers (and the evidence is that it cannot) and if we accept the much repeated claim by Chetty et al. that teacher quality can add $50,000 to the lifetime earning potential of a student (and that also is a significantly contested claim, as well as another example of advocacy and media hyperbole since that lifetime earning figure equates to about 1.5-2 tanks of gas per month), the enormity of the claims about “bad” teachers and the urgency expressed about creating and implementing huge and expensive test-based systems to address teacher quality are at best overstated. No rational person would endorse the cost-benefit analysis of such schemes.
  • Finally, claims that teachers unions are primary or significant negative influences on educational quality are powerfully refuted by the historical and current fact that the states in the U.S. with the lowest standardized test scores tend to be those that are right-to-work (non-union) states. Unionization correlates positively with measurable student achievement, in fact, while poverty is the greatest correlation with low measurable student outcomes (for the record, union bashing is a straw man because U.S. public education has a poverty problem, not a union problem).

Next, NCTQ has established a sort of immediate appearance of credibility through three strategies: partnering itself with U.S. News & World Report, garnering significant and influential sources of funding, and bombarding the mainstream media with a series of reports without vetting those reports as is common in traditional scholarship (which slows down and greatly harnesses higher-quality research from reaching the public [3]. But scholars don’t issue press releases, and apparently, journalists respond primarily to press releases instead of conducting investigative journalism [4].)

Finally, once I engaged Sawchuck (EdWeek) and then Summers (NPR) on Twitter, several key aspects of this phenomenon were highlighted. Both journalists argued that their pieces on NCTQ were fair, and even critical—which I will examine below—but even more significant is a comment on Twitter from Summers:

My two reactions to Summers deferring from examining the credibility of NCTQ are, first, to strongly disagree, and second, note that no journalists need to do any real investigative journalism to uncover that NCTQ has no credibility because all of that work has been done already by a number of scholars (see those critiques catalogued here and here).

As disturbing, however, as that stance is, examining carefully the coverage of NCTQ reveals that the mainstream media does in fact endorse NCTQ implicitly (despite claims of impartiality) and also marginalizes the credible critiques of NCTQ.

All three articles (see above) have headlines that establish immediately for any reader that NCTQ’s report is worthy of major media coverage. Next, all three articles have ledes that also present NCTQ positively:

The nation’s teacher-preparation programs have plenty of room for improvement, according to a new report. (Sanchez and Summers)

Alternative-certification programs for preparing teachers suffer from many of the same problems that the National Council on Teacher Quality has identified in traditional, university-based programs, the Washington-based group concludes in a new pilot study. (Sawchuk)

More than 75 percent of elementary teacher-preparation programs are failing when it comes to readying future teachers to work effectively with English-language learners, a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality contends. (Maxwell)

Sanchez and Summers (again, note that Summers argues it isn’t her job to assign credibility to the study) certainly imply that the study is credible by using this language: “The study is a dismal read, given that the U.S. spends more than $6 billion each year to prepare teachers for the classroom.”

The NCTQ study is only a “dismal read” if it is accurate (and it isn’t). NCTQ has been carefully discredited in scholarship (for example, see Fuller here and here) for serious conflicts of interest (Teach For America and KIPP leaders sit on the Advisory Board, for example), for a flawed study design, and for shoddy methodology [5].

So how are credible academic critiques of NCTQ characterized in the journalism that claims not to take evaluative positions?:

When NCTQ released a version of this report last year, it was met with some skepticism among educators and those responsible for preparing teachers. Critics said the advocacy group should have visited individual teacher-prep programs and talked to graduates and students, rather than relying on syllabi. (Sanchez and Summers)

Last year’s inaugural teacher-prep review was immediately rejected by most teacher colleges and, especially, by their main membership body, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Criticism focused on the NCTQ’s tack of reviewing syllabi and other course materials rather than visiting institutions; its use of open-records requests and current students to obtain documents; the complaint that its standards weren’t agreed to by the profession; and the fact that its research products aren’t peer reviewed. Additionally, critics have claimed that the project is ideologically driven, given NCTQ’s role as incubator of an alternative-certification group, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), which received federal funding from the George W. Bush administration.

The latter complaint seems less viable now that the NCTQ has turned its green eyeshade toward alternative-certification programs. (Sawchuk)

“Some skepticism” and “critics” clearly position credible scholarship negatively while maintaining the implied endorsement of NCTQ as an organization and NCTQ’s reports. And while Sawchuk appears to address more directly NCTQ’s lack of credibility, he still marginalizes scholars as “critics” and then in the last paragraph above, simply discounts the criticism [6].

Further in Sawchuk’s piece, the contrast between lacking credibility (NCTQ) and credibility (scholarship discrediting NCTQ) is reduced to a simple misunderstanding and a matter of tone (not substance):

Notably, the report’s introduction this year contains a number of mea culpas regarding the bad blood between the NCTQ and teacher colleges. And Walsh agreed that her group bore some of the blame.

“At times we were a bit arrogant about what it is we think teacher education should be doing,” she said. “Even if we agree to disagree, we can be more respectful.”

Again, this trivializes criticism of NCTQ and further equates NCTQ (an advocacy think tank) with scholarship—while also painting NCTQ as apologetic (despite the organization maintaining its threat of ranking programs whether they cooperate or not; a powerful tool afforded NCTQ because of its media partnership with U.S. News & World Report).

One of my strongest criticisms of teachers is that we far too often allow ourselves to be trapped within traditional calls that we take neutral stances; however, the U.S. needs critical teachers (political teachers) if our public schools are to be a foundation for our democracy.

What I have detailed above is that journalists in the U.S. have bowed to the same call for neutrality, one that cannot be accomplished but can serve as a shield for maintaining the status quo.

The U.S. needs critical journalists, ones who see their job as maintaining a commitment to seeking out and identifying the credibility of things they report. Only those in power benefit when the free press is mostly free of taking to task those in power.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in how the mainstream media fails the education reform debate.

[1] Journalists and teachers share the burden of traditional expectations that they should never be “political,” but taking a neutral stance is, in fact, taking a passive stance endorsing the status quo. In other words, taking a dispassionate pose is a political stance (see The Politics of Calling for No Politics).

[2] See a similar example with NPR’s coverage of “grit.”

[3] See the following in terms of how the mainstream media disproportionately reports on think tank (non-peer reviewed) reports as compared to peer-reviewed and university-based research:

Molnar, A. (2001, April 11). The media and educational research: What we know vs. what the public hears. Milwaukee, WI: Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation. Retrieved from http://epsl.asu.edu/epru/documents/cerai-01-14.htm

Yettick, H. (2009). The research that reaches the public: Who produces the educational research mentioned in the news media? Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/publication/research-that-reaches

[4] I make this claim not as a direct attack on any journalists, but teachers and journalists now experience very similar and negative influences on their ability to conduct their professions. While education reform tends to impeded good teaching, the contracting media market has tended to overburden journalists. As a result of newspapers and magazines disappearing and contracting their staffs, many journalists resort to press-release journalism as a survival technique, similar to teachers teaching to the tests. The conditions of both professions, teaching and journalism, are stark reasons why both teachers and journalists must exert their political selves in their professional work.

[5] As a brief glimpse into NCTQ’s accidental admission of their methodology, in an effort to twist criticism of their practices, this post adds at the end “As one teacher candidate who is working on our office this summer said,” highlighting that anecdote is enough for NCTQ, as long as it matches their advocacy.

[6] Sawchuk fails to recognize that NCTQ is working within a scorched-earth policy as part of the large disaster capitalism driving education reform in the U.S. For a vivid example of how this works, and why NCTQ, TFA, and KIPP benefit once the traditional education system is dismantled, see the events that have occurred since Katrina in New Orleans where the public school system has been replaced by charters schools, many KIPP and many staffed by TFA recruits.

UPDATED: NCTQ: “their remedies are part of the disease”

Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde (1891), The Soul of Man under Socialism

And so: NCTQ releases yet another think tank faux-report that will spur yet more press-release journalism.

In the wake of the Vergara ruling in California, which is one intended consequence of maintaining the distracting drum beat about “bad teachers,” I am convinced that NCTQ is implementing a strategy dramatized in the (regretfully) ignored film In Time: Keep everyone so frantic and thus distracted that no one can confront, as Oscar Wilde so wonderfully states, that NCTQ’s “remedies are part of the disease.”

I cannot and see no need to speak directly to new reports from NCTQ because, as I have stated before:

NCTQ offers no credible agenda or scholarship worthy of reforming teacher education. But this ideological think tank is a disturbing example of all that is wrong with the current education reform movement that has allowed people without experience or expertise as educators to perpetuate an education reform agenda through the weight of money, political influence, and media compliance.

Here, however, I will gather my previous posts on NCTQ as well as the expected responses to come—keeping in mind that we can feel safe even before looking at the report that NCTQ remains a think tank without credibility.

Responses to NCTQ

[new]

NCTQ (Finally) Gets Formally Rated– And It Isn’t Pretty.

UNC Study Examines NCTQ’s Ratings of Teacher Preparation Programs and Measures of NC Teacher Performance

Measuring Up: The National Council on Teacher Quality’s Ratings of Teacher Preparation Programs and Measures of Teacher Performance

Why NCTQ Is Wrong, NCTE

A Plethora of Recommendations Based on a Paucity of Evidence, Louann Reid

NCTQ’s Gradual Unmasking [UPDATED] (See compiled list of earlier responses to NCTQ at the end.)

UPDATED: NCTQ’s Free Pass in an Era of Press-Release Journalism

Those Nonsense Annual NCTQ Ratings Are Coming on June 17, Mercedes Schneider

Peter Smagorinsky: Response to the new NCTQ Teacher Prep Review

A “Fuller” Look at Education Issues, Ed Fuller

Shaky Methods, Shaky Motives: A Critique of the National Council of Teacher Quality’s Review of Teacher Preparation Programs, Ed Fuller

Knowledge Ventriloquism, EduShyster

Bunkum on teacher quality from the corporate reformers, Fred Klonsky

Professor: How NCTQ Restricts My Reading List, Katherine Crawford-Garrett

Reading Professor Responds to NCTQ Blast at Her Post, Katherine Crawford-Garrett

Statement on NCTQ Teacher Prep Review from Sharon P. Robinson, Ed.D., AACTE President and CEO

NCTQ/USNWR Review, AACTE

Resisting the National Council on Teacher Quality’s Propaganda, Jack Hassard

Also from Schneider