Is Our Education Reporters Learning?

Yesterday I went to the Brookings Institution for a policy forum, No Reader Left Behind: Improving Media Coverage of Education, celebrating the release of the report, "Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough."

The main point of the paper: The media doesn't write about education enough and when they do they tend to write about non-education topics.

* * *

A few random thoughts and comments:

* The authors say that 1.4% is not enough. But what is a better or more palatable percentage? If they had announced that 3.3 or 5.2% of stories were about education then those numbers might also seem small.

Whenever someone introduces a shocking or dire statistic without comparing it to another number, I'm reminded of the economist who was asked, "How's your wife," and he answered, "Compared to what?" So 1.4% is not enough...compared to what?

* If 1.4% is too not enough, then could someone please explain why I have had to set up a folder filter for all of the friendly people sending me links to education articles and blogs? Anyone who wants to read about education all day long can do so. I used to do that back when I was at Cato and Fight For Children. I'm not paid to do so anymore so I am free to ignore the stories just as my fellow citizens do. But really, if education is your interest then you can spend your day going through education stories and if you have more free time then you can read the original studies rather than just the reports.

* I'm not convinced that there is a demand for more education coverage. I really do wish that someone with access to website hits of newspapers would have been on the panel to tell us if 1.4% of the hits on their sites were to education articles. People may say they want to read more education articles, but they also say they want to lose weight and do many other things they never plan on doing.

* The authors did raise a good point that too many education stories are about non-education issues. On page 8 of the report they demonstrate that the most common stories were on school finance/budget cutbacks, politics in education, H1N1 or heath, the economic stimulus package.

Good point.

My question: Do they believe that more coverage would be on education related issues? As the old saying goes, if it bleeds, it leads. There would probably be more in-depth stories about budgets and political issues.

* One reason there isn't much of a demand for national education stories: People tend to personalize education. Quick anecdote here: Back when I was a guest host then later a host on XM Radio, I did a few education-focused shows. Most of the people who called in did so to discuss their own kids, not national stories. Those stories just don't seem to resonate in education. No Child Left Behind or a cut in the soccer program at your school? Most people want to discuss the soccer program.

Thankfully, I didn't try to have an education focused show, I might not have lasted the first month.

* E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post (he's stage left) highlighted recommendation #5 from the report: "Reporters should draw on education research in the way that health care reporters use medical research." Sounds good but it won't happen.

a) If there is a new medical innovation, cure, or some form of cosmetic surgery then you can go to a doctor to get it done, sometimes immediately. But if there's something new in education then can you go to your local school and ask them to put that in the curriculum? Much education research ends up being esoteric battles over ideological differences about what a proper education should be (and most people can't even define what they mean by "education") whereas with medical research there are clear outcomes.

b) I'm not a doctor but it does seem that there is some settled science. Disputes, of course, but has a doctor tried to put leeches on you recently? With education is there an issue the late Gerald Bracey and Chester Finn would have agreed about--and for the same reasons? School uniforms, sex ed, school prayer, home schooling, teacher training, vouchers, diversity, testing, charters, etc., etc., etc. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw--you could line up all of the education researchers in a line and they still wouldn't come to a conclusion.

* The speakers mentioned that the education beat needs to become more valuable or respected. Right now, it is a stepping stone for many reporters. The case of Jay Mathews of the Washington Post was cited.

But journalists skip around different beats. That's expected! They are supposed to know something about everything and apparently have experience covering just about every beat as they rise in the world of journalism. Jay Mathews was a reporter for 17 years and the author of 3 books on China before he wrote his first book on education. He has written 10 books, just 3 or 4 of which are about education. Certainly there are some who stay on one beat but there are many more who bounce around.

* The speakers discussed the lack of access to classrooms. I was tempted to get up and yell, "You lie." It is the eternal Groucho Marx contradiction of journalism. Marx (or W.C. Fields, or Oscar Wilde, or Woody Allen) said he would never be a member of a club that would have him as a member. On the one hand, journalists often complain about everybody and their momma begging them to write about them and their organization. On the other hand, journalists complain that they don't have access to particular organizations or people.

Journalists don't like to go places they have been invited. They want to go places where they must go undercover. I mentioned to a couple of the speakers and journalists who discussed the lack of access to classrooms as a barrier to education coverage that there are at least 40 charter schools in D.C. that I could lead them on tours on as soon as they were ready to go. Based on my visits to charter schools, they are desperate to tell their stories, to show people what they are doing. I say that as someone who is not an enthusiastic supporter of charter schools. I also mentioned that there is a for-profit education center I recently visited. The school leaders claim in their brochure literature that they have on average raised SAT scores 362 points. I invited the journalists at the event to visit there, too. There certainly should be some interest in people producing such good results.

They weren't interested.

It has been said, What someone wants you to publish is advertising; everything else is news. Journalists aren't interested in visiting places they get invited.

The mistake I made was in taking those journalists seriously. If I had mentioned a problem with the budgets of those schools or education centers then they might have been interested. That, after all, is what the panelists were complaining gets too much coverage...


"Is our children learning?"
--George W. Bush

Update: Got a comment from a health policy expert who notes that medical research is as bad as education research. I have the feeling this will quickly become a "your field is worse than my field" discussion...

Update #2: Linked by This Week in Education.
Update #3: Linked by Inner Education for Inward Educators.
JProffit concludes: "I think a series profiling the school climates of an inner city school, a middle-class school, and affluent school, and an inner city charter could provide great discussion."

That's a fine idea, but a "series" sounds too serious. In addition to points I've already made about readers not really being interested in such topics and reporters not showing up where they've been invited:

1) Been there, covered that: I'm sure every newspaper can cite such a series that has previously been done. It could have been 10 or 20 years ago, but if they've done such a series and anyone at the paper with institutional memory argues that no one read it then, either, then they won't see the need to do another. Plus, haven't there already been books done by researchers and reporters visiting schools? Overall, such books praise those schools while adding some caveats.

2) Who's gonna pay for it? In an age of declining revenues and subscribers, newspapers don't seem to be that interested in a long series that take reporters off the daily beat.

3) Reverse the relationship: Educators need to understand reporters. How do newspapers make decisions about what to cover? That seems to be a mystery to educators (and, I'll add, probably a lot of reporters, too). A lot of educators and researchers, including those at the Brookings discussion that got this conversation started, seem to think that reporters and newspapers write stories based on the public interest and what it is that people want or need to read. Seems to make sense to outsiders, but what do the people working for newspapers think about that as they are putting out a daily paper?