3/10/2005

Unfair and Unbalanced CJR, Education Blogs, and More (Media Coverage)

CJR Blows It On Education:

There’s precious little out there about how well the media covers education, so this month’s piece in the CJR about education coverage seems particularly timely: How are the kids? (Columbia Journalism Review ).

And indeed, there are some important insights in the article -- especially about the need for reporters to get into schools and classrooms and see what’s really happening, rather than talking to administrators and talking heads about how it’s supposed to work:

“The best coverage confronts the complicated world of education not as a managed system of test results and ordered reforms, but as a busy intersection of culture, race, child development, pedagogy, neuroscience, and politics.“

Beyond there, however, the piece turns out to be a tremendously superficial disappointment.

For starters, the piece covers incredibly little new ground -- rehashing at length how the press missed what was going on in Texas during the 1990s, praising much-praised papers like the NYT, the Baltimore Sun, and the Chicago Tribune, touching predictably on the more recent Armstrong Williams fiasco, and singling out NPR’s Ira Glass --- Ira Glass! –as a beacon of quality education coverage. (Despite my jealous hatred of Glass, what does "This American Life" really have to do with day to day news coverage?)

The biggest problem with the article, however, is that -- under the guise of being a balanced critique of education coverage - the CJR piece is really a highly unbalanced (and somewhat tired) critique of current eduction reform strategies like NCLB, standardized testing, student retention, and choice that some people don't like. Whenever the media missed a story, it was a story about testing being bad. Whenever the media got a story right, it was about testing being bad.

Now, there are plenty of problems with testing -- as well as with much of what’s written about testing -- but wouldn't it have made a much more legitimate and persuasive piece if it had also shined its light on how poorly the media is covering other school reform approaches, like small schools, class size, universal preschool, and the like?

Or, maybe I have it entirely wrong.

The Education Blogosphere:

The "blogosphere" is a slang term describing the growing online world of personal websites (blogs), which -- traditionally at least -- represent the thoughts and interests of an individual person rather than an organization or institution.

A small but growing number of these blogs focus on education, and are created by teachers, grad students, administrators, and the like. For all of you who may be wondering what the rest of the education blogosphere is talking about this week, the kind folks at The Education Wonks have put together a sampling of edu-blog commentary: Carnival of Education (The Education Wonks).

Much of what's out there is horrible, narrow, predictable, and uninformed, but some of it is delightful and carefully-considered -- even surprising. At the very least, you'll probably find some of the blog names amusing. Much as with race horses, yachts, and college singing groups, bad puns and cute names seem to be required.

Best of the Rest:

Capitalizing on NCLB Hechinger Institute
Communication is important to many Hometownsource.com
Blogs and Bloggers Washington Monthly

11 Comments:

Anonymous EWA All-Star said...

Yeah, I was underwhelmed. Agree with Mister Russo that "good stories" and "anti-Bush stories" seem to be equal in the author's eyes.

I agree that education reporters need to be more questioning, more
investigative, more cynical. But more classroom time isn't the best way to get there. More classroom time is a good way to make the classic reporter mistake of extrapolating wildly from small examples, and to find the anecdote to fluff up bogus research.

I mean, come on -- "more classroom time" would have helped uncover the Houston dropout fudging earlier? KHOU didn't get that story by sitting in on AP U.S. History
class at Sharpstown High -- they got it by being leaked documents and by confronting administrators with obviously false data. It was good
old-fashioned education reporting. "Being close to the kids" didn't play a role.

It's silly to say that too much writing about statistics and reform are what's keeping education reporters from good work. Perhaps it's too much *unquestioning* writing about statistics, but things like test scores and dropout rates are incredibly important to write about -- if only because they have become, through a series of policy reforms, the public face of American schools.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous EWA All-Star #2 said...

My biggest disappointment in the story is the tone set by the headline. "Forget the 'reformers' and statistics that clutter today's education beat" ...???

What should we be writing about from inside the classrooms if it's not related to billions or trillions of dollars being spent on "reforms" and the statistics that underscore their effectiveness or lack thereof?

The examples in the article don't support the idea of not paying attention to policy, etc. In fact, it emphasizes how critical it is to understand not just what what today's policies and practices are, but what came before them. (How did we get to this place?)

Understanding political context is critical. Holding local, state and national education officials' feet to the fire is critical. Watching the money, questioning the stats, knowing when an oversimplified PowerPoint presentation is just smoke-and-mirrors...

Getting into classrooms helps, but few principals or superintendents these days want to let reporters in to see something unflattering unless it makes the case for some improvement initiative or bond/sales tax referendum.

Earlier this week when my editors wanted me to get into a high school that had just won a state basketball championship, one of the problems I encountered was that the superintendent was afraid I would use the opportunity to talk to students about an ongoing "dummy classes" investigation that began at that school. (I probably would have!)

Too often the education beat is viewed as an endless source of section-front centerpieces with large pictures of cute kids -- and districts are happy to let you in for a warm-fuzzy feature.

No one questions that city hall/government reporters should spend their time digging into politics, finances, contracts, corruption, departmental dysfunction that mucks up public services and the like.

But we don't always put the same emphasis on that sort of reporting on the education beat, thinking (incorrectly) that it does not affect what goes on in the classroom.

In every community I've ever worked in, the major school system has had a substantially larger budget than the municipal or county governments. When tax dollars AND kids' futures are at stake, I think skim-the-surface education reporting does a serious disservice to readers and they're smart enough to know when they're not getting substance.

IMHO, the antidote to relying too heavily on official sources is NOT necessarily getting into the classroom. It's listening more carefully to the would-be whistleblowers, the terrified teachers who tried to challenge an unethical directive, the parents baffled by bureaucracy, the difficult, activist board members who ruffles their peers' feathers by challenging the irrational logic of an arrogant administration, the students who e-mail photos of hazardous school conditions from their picture phones during class. (That just happened to me today!)

The realities of "feeding the beast" at a daily newspaper (turnaround time, shrinking newsholes, staffing issues and various other constraints on reporters) can make it difficult to tackle meaningful stories effectively.

And unfortunately, the CJR article didn't address any of that.

1:08 PM  
Anonymous ewa all-star said...

I don't think they're in opposition. Reporters in schools = good.

But I don't think the main problem with the way education reporters cover schools is that we're not hanging out with enough eight-year-olds. It's more about the forgiving way we cover policymakers: not covering local/state/federal policy changes aggressively enough, not questioning the motives of administrators enough, being too quick to accept the notion that educators are all such heart-of-gold types that they'd never do anything bad.

I just don't trust myself (or most reporters) to wisely extrapolate out
from classroom time to the sort of investigative, NCLB-toppling stuff
the CJR author is talking about. I mean, visit five happy Montessori
classrooms and you might write a story about how the imposition of state standards/tests is the worst thing since Ishtar and is crushing the creativity of America's youth.

Then visit five highly structured (and highly successful) urban classrooms and you might write a story praising the death of loosey-goosey "progressive" notions and the importance of strict discipline and organization.

Some reporters naturally want to write the first story; some naturally want to write the second. Hell, I've written both.

I'm just saying that policy pieces that spring directly out of classroom observations are, to me, more dangerous -- because it's a way for our own ideological biases to sneak into our reporting.

It's easy to have a plot line in your mind and find yourself finding the classroom observations to support it.

Of course, classroom stuff is important to what we do. But I think folks like the CJR author -- who really just want to bash the Bush/Texas model, justifiably or no -- like "being close to the kids" because they think it'll produce the kinds of stories they want to see.

1:12 PM  
Anonymous ewa all-star #2 said...

Yes, but in my experience you're more likely to get leaked documents
when you show up. I don't see why an investigative bent has to be
somehow considered in opposition to shoeleather reporting.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous ewa all-star #3 said...

I tend to agree with EWA All-Star #2.

I liked the article, although I did have some problems with it. I agree that it was unfair to pick on the Chronicle and act as if being in the classroom would have uncovered dropout rate.

I do, however, agree that more time in the classroom is a very important piece of education reporting -- one that we often leave out due to lack of time.

I don't think spending time in a classroom "fluffs" up research. I think both are equally important and in this day of shrinking readership I do not see how it can hurt to write more about real people by spending more time with them.

Overall, I think the CJR piece does one very important thing: it raises the profile of education reporting and makes the case that it will become even more important in the future. I think that helps all of us!

1:14 PM  
Anonymous ewa all-star #2 said...

You're arguing against the limits of anecdote and I imagine that's a point we all take and agree with. I don't think anyone is suggesting that we draw investigative conclusions on a few classroom visits. I agree entirely with you here:

"It's more about the forgiving way we cover policymakers: not covering
local/state/federal policy changes aggressively enough, not questioning the motives of administrators enough, being too quick to accept the notion that educators are all such heart-of-gold types that they'd never do anything bad. "

But I think it's legitimate, if we're going to question motives, to question the motives of the NCLB policymakers as hard as we do the local administrators and teachers...I feel like I hear a lot about the local folks "gaming the system" from fellow education journalists and wonk types, but not nearly as much about why they game it, the pressures brought to bear by high-stakes testing, the transforming classroom changes it's brought, etc., etc. (this is so much the subtext of your test cheating work, no?)

And, for the record, my 8-year-old stepson helps me a lot on the work
front. Say hi to Mr. Timms.

I'm folding my tent.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous ewa all-star #1 said...

I absolutely agree NCLB policymakers' motives need to be questioned as much as local folks. As you say, some folks would argue (persuasively) that "gaming the system" can be a legitimate way to react to a system that makes unfair/unreasonable expectations of educators.

I also agree that none of us would say we should make sweeping conclusions on education policy based on a few classroom visits. But I also think we've all seen it done, to varying degrees. We've probably even all done it, to varying degrees.

And I do think it's, to an extent, what the CJR author is pushing -- that somehow we'd all learn what a crock NCLB is if we'd just (cue violin music) "listen to the children."

Consider my tent folded on this lovely Texas Friday afternoon too.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Alexander Russo said...

the above comments are taken from the Education Writers Association list-serve, a forum for education writers to talk about their work and share ideas and information.

the list is not open to the public, but the association website (www.ewa.org) is full of useful information that is available to everyone.

2:20 PM  
Anonymous LynNell Hancock said...

Lynelle Hancock authored the CJR piece. Her response follows:

I appreciate reading all the responses, heated, disappointed, and otherwise impassioned.

I agree very much with the writer who said education reporting won't be improved by hanging out with 8-year-olds; it will instead be improved by more questioning coverage of policymakers, administrators, and the reforms, policies and reams of reports released from those in charge.

I also agree with the writer who raised an eyebrow at the tyranny of the anecdote. Classroom anecdote divorced from context is not only superficial, it can be dangerously misleading. If a reporter only spends time in schools, never reporting on their larger context, on the politics, policies and pedagogical reforms buffeting the classrooms, then she is obviously missing the story.

The point I was trying to make in this CJR story was actually looking at the reverse. That top-down reporting taking news cues and repeating reports and announcements from the administrators in charge--without an understanding of their impact on the classroom, produces equally misleading coverage.

The business model of reform that is sweeping school districts now more than ever has shifted the source of power further away from the classroom, making the education reporter's role more critical than ever -- to bridge that gap between policy and people.

Developing an understanding of schools from the inside helps the reporter better analyze the policies emanating from the top. It hones your sense of skepticism, gives you more tools and more sources to search for answers.

My point with the Chronicle story was that reporters with first-hand knowledge about how the high schools really worked in Houston would never have let the superintendent get away for so many years with releasing miraculous drop out rates. Teachers, principals, kids would have long before whispered the real deal in their ears.

Navigating all these competing interests is one Herculean task. I can't think of a more complex and a more critical job in newspapers today than the education beat. Hats off to everyone in the trenches.

9:33 PM  
Anonymous ewa all-star 4 said...

EWA All-Star #4 says...

I see the points everyone has made about the story. What I finally gathered
from all of it was that we as journalists need to make more of an effort to
get the students' and parents' voices into stories, not just the
policymakers and other members of officialdom. Obviously, this is not always
possible due to deadlines and other circumstances. But I think it's easy to
get into the rut of unquestioningly accepting statistics and policies
without examining how the consequences play out in classrooms, in terms of
"real people's" lives.

That's my $0.02.

11:10 PM  
Anonymous Mike Goldstein said...

Excellent discussion -

A proposal: For major dailies, K-12 education reporting should be two beats, not one. Big, high-poverty urban districts represent one beat; suburban schools are entirely different.

This is critical because the readers of dailies generally are consumers of suburban schools and citizens affecting the urban ones - they are disproportionately likely to vote on state and federal policy which will mostly affect urban schools.

Covering suburban schools is like (when papers had foreign bureaus) covering, say, France (a high-functioning society) while covering urban schools is like covering developing nations (almost every well-intentioned policy is too small to succeed, and the Tipping Point is very heavily tilted towards failure at epidemic levels).

Sure, there is failure in suburban schools, just as France has drug addictions, terrorism, homelessness, et al. And similarly there are occasional and incremental "successes" in NYC, DC, LA, Boston - just as there are in, say, Swaziland or Nepal.

The meta-story of suburban schools is that parents are generally satisfied, and the meta-story of urban schools is that they are horrified. To cover state and federal policy as it applies to "all schools" is like writing about how parent leave affects "all families worldwide." The logical comparison group is to examine industrialized nations separately from developing ones.

So is getting into schools a good thing for reporters? YES. Simply covering the press releases obscures the meta-story - that in most urban classrooms, across America, THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO LEARNING GOING ON.

3:06 PM  

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