Media Challenges Its Coverage of Education

Media Challenges Its Coverage of Education

It is often said that a real sign of a profession is how it evaluates itself. So with that maxim in mind, a tip of the hat is due to Paul Farhi, a reporter from The Washington Post who took the bold action of going against much of the current coverage of education in the most recent issue of the American Journalism Review.

Farhi’s article claims that much media coverage of K-12 education is wrong to be beating up “failing” schools and cheering for reforms that are largely untested. From my perspective, criticism of media coverage on education by the media itself adds another shot of credibility to this discussion.

Believe it when I say education leaders must get better at providing access and straight talk about education, but Farhi points out that the media is wrong in jumping on the education-bashing bandwagon without delving deeper into the complex issues of improving education. Farhi’s article is too long for this format, but I urge you to read it all by going to

Some Highlights Include:

Farhi notes that Fareed Zakaria is worried about the state of American education. To hear the CNN host and commentator tell it, the nation’s schools are broken and must be “fixed” to “restore the American dream.” In his 1-hour special, Zakaria spent time thumbing through a catalog of perceived educational woes: high dropout rates, mediocre scores by American students on international tests, inadequate time spent in classrooms, unmotivated teachers and their obstructionist labor unions.

But Farhi notes that such a description could be seen as odd. By many important measures – high school completion rates, college graduation, overall performance on standardized tests – America’s educational attainment has never been higher. Moreover, when it comes to education, sweeping generalizations are more dangerous than usual.

Farhi comments that Zakaria’s take, however, may be a perfect distillation of much of what’s wrong with mainstream media coverage of education. Farhi notes that the prevailing narrative – and he admits that we must be wary of our own sweeping generalizations here – is that the nation’s educational system is in crisis, that schools are “failing,” that teachers aren’t up to the job, and that America’s economic competitiveness is threatened as a result.

So Farhi Asks These Questions:

Have the nation’s schools gotten noticeably lousier?
Or has the coverage of them just made it seem that way?

We thank Farhi for answering his own questions:

Some schools are having a difficult time educating children – particularly children who are impoverished; speak a language other than English; move frequently; or arrive at the school door neglected, abused, or chronically ill. But many pieces of this complex mosaic are quite positive.

First data point: American elementary and middle school students have improved their performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every 4 years since the tests began in 1995. They are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something that few news reports mention).

Second data point: The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10% in 1940 to 56% today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse. All told, America’s long-term achievements in education are nothing short of stunning.

The notion that education is in “crisis” – that is, in a moment of special danger – is another journalistic favorite cited by Farhi.

He says few reporters ever mention it, but anxiety over the nation’s educational achievement is probably older than the nation. He reports that Zakaria’s concern that American students aren’t being prepared for the modern workforce echoes the comments of business leaders at the turn of the century – the 19th century. Then as now, they worried that schools weren’t producing enough educated workers for an economy that was undergoing rapid technological change.

Farhi then quotes Pedro Noguera, the eminent education researcher and New York University professor who says, “The idea that we have a crisis in American education, that there is pervasive failure, starts with policy makers.” “This is the line we hear in D.C. and in state capitals. There are certainly areas in which we’re lacking, but when you report it that way, it doesn’t at all acknowledge the complexity of the situation [and] where we’re doing quite well. The discussion is quite simplistic. I’m not sure why exactly. My suspicion is that the media has trouble with complexity,” Noguera said.

Two sides to the negative news story.

Farhi looked at both sides of this negative reporting equation. In his research he found advice like:

 “School systems are crazed about controlling the message,” says Linda Perlstein, author of two books about schools and, until recently, public editor of the Education Writers Association. “Access is so constricted.” As a result, she says, “There’s great underreporting of what happens in classroom, and it’s just getting worse.”

Perlstein spent 3 school years in classrooms to report a series about middle school for The Washington Post in 2000, and for her books, Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers (about students in Columbia, Maryland) and Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade (about high-stakes tests). But Perlstein says other reporters were never able to gain similar access to other schools, including those in Washington, D.C., where the reform efforts of former Schools Chancellor Rhee attracted national attention.

Even with a cooperative principal or school superintendent, few reporters could make the lengthy commitment that Perlstein did in her reporting. That means journalists don’t get to see the very thing they’re reporting about. Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally.

So what’s a reporter do? “You rely more and more on talking heads and less on what a school looks like,” Perlstein says. She adds, “That matters.” Ironically, superintendents and administrators “always tell me that the media gets it wrong. Well, how can we get it right when they won’t talk to us?”

Farhi notes that this compels education journalists to talk to secondary sources: administrators and bureaucrats, labor leaders, politicians, and the occasional billionaire. Not necessarily a bad thing, since at the moment, there are perhaps a dozen ideas (tenure reform, vouchers, charter schools, teacher accountability, etc.) floating around and plenty of disagreement about how or whether to implement them.

But Farhi tells us that such pronouncements and policy nostrums often don’t get the checking they deserve. “Some reporters don’t do enough to synthesize and explain the wealth of peer-reviewed research available on the proposals being batted around,” says Jessica Calefati, an education reporter at The Star-Ledger in Newark. For example, if a school district or a state is pushing for teacher merit pay, it behooves a reporter to point out that few studies link merit pay with increased student achievement, she says. Some reporters, says Calefati, “gloss over the nuance.”

Farhi reports that The Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss points out that leading Democrats, such as Obama, and Republicans have both embraced school choice and charter schools to some degree. This unusual political comity has led some mainstream outlets to position “reform” as a centrist, bipartisan idea, she says. There are a few consistently skeptical voices – but for the most part, Strauss says, the media have romanticized reform figures like Gates and Rhee, and the KIPP Schools, the darlings of the private charter movement.

“The mainstream media hasn’t been digging,” Strauss asserts. “Generally, reporters have gone along with the reform of the day. Well, I’ve got news for you: It’s much more complicated than that.”

And complicated it is. But it seems like a great time to call a truce and talk with your local media about the issues presented in this article by Paul Farhi in the American Journalism Review. We all can get better in explaining the issues and learning from one another about the nuances that may be complicating the issues and the reporting of education.

Somebody has to make the first step. Let it be you.

Reminder: Read the full article at:
Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

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One Comment on “Media Challenges Its Coverage of Education”

  1. Tom DeLapp Says:

    Great blog Rich. It is interesting that one factor he really didn’t delve into that contributes to mis-reporting of education is that the traditional media is disintegrating before our eyes. In a gerenation, the nightly news and the daily print newspaper may be a thing of the past. I’m not sure they even have the capacity or inclination now to get the story right. News coverage has taken on all of the trappings of reality TV. No one would watch the Kardashians if they were just normal people leading steady productive lives. Controversy and negativity sell the story not the reality of a true and complete accounting of the facts. Frankly, successful momentum in public education isn’t news, it’s expected. Plane crashes, not take offs and landings make the news. Mike Wallace recently passed away. What a contrast between his hard-hitting researched reporting and the thin-sliced conventional-wisdom sound-bite coverage we see now. You are absolutely right: we need to be our own news service because no one else is getting it right.

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