Saturday, November 19, 2016

Make Ed Reporting Reporting Again

Alexander Russo has used the recent bout of reportorial navel gazing about the role of journalism (or the lack thereof) in the last election as an opportunity to ask if education reporting can also use a bit of a reboot. He has four specific recommendations which are worth considering, but I think he missed the hugest one of all.

Reporting with Greater Authority

Folks have noted that a little fact checking might have been useful during this dumpster fire of an election season, just as many folks have called out the media's repeated insistence on false equivalency, insisting that two viewpoints are equally valid, as if the Flat Earth Society is just another point of view.

Says Education Writers Association executive director Caroline Hendrie, “We need to report when people are saying things that are wrong. We do not want to pass them along.” And, well, yeah, that's true, it's a measure of how lost journalists have become that such a thing even needs to be said out loud. It is only half a step less obvious that, "We need to report using words in the native tongue of our readers."

Did he once ask where all the women went?

Russo asked on twitter if anyone had seen or passed on stories that were not true. My first thought was, yeah, how about several years of stories insisting that Common Core was written by teachers, then developed and adopted freely by states with no federal involvement. And that's before we get to the kind of spin and selectivity routinely used for a new "study" on various testing results. So, yes, this attention to accuracy issue is definitely a thing.

Resisting the Illusion of Certainty in Numbers 

I will give Russo a big Standing O for this one. The entire reformster movement has made a deliberate effort to try to assign numbers to all sorts of things so that we can call those numbers "data" and then mistake them for "facts." That in turn creates an illusion of certainty. Are you certain that this reading program helps students get better jobs? Why, yes, of course-- look at these numbers! Can you certify that you know exactly whether or not this eight-year-old is on track for college? Absolutely, because we have generated this number!

This is one of the reasons that so much of reformer policy makes me nuts. It comes down to this conversation:

Me: This whole policy rests on having knowledge of things that cannot be known.

Reformsters: Of course they can be known. We have numbers right here!

Getting Out Of The Urban/Charter Coverage Bubble: 

I will give him the urban thing. As someone who works in a small town/rural setting, I can absolute certify that almost nobody is paying any real attention to what goes on here. And when you start talking about charters and choice in the states where there are fewer than a million people in the whole state-- well, get serious.

He also mentions getting out of the "everyone must go to college" bubble, which is an excellent idea.

But the notion that some people are stuck in the charter-choice bubble because that's comfortable? I don't think so. We're stuck discussing charters all the time for a couple of reasons. First, because charters are exerting never-ending pressure to sell their product and the policies that promote it. There's a bubble in part because charteristas are working day and night to inflate that bubble. Second, we can't desert the charter-choice story for the same reason that we can't just say, "You know, talking about global warming is just getting old, so let's talk about something else" or "I'm tired of hearing about the oppression of minorities-- let's talk about something else instead." Charter promotion is an attempt to change the fundamental purpose and mission of public education in this country, and it has so far been an attempt to change that purpose without having any serious national conversation about it.

The rise of charters is nothing less than an assault on democracy and equality in this country. We should be talking about it every day, and twice a day on weekends.

Addressing Bias and Opening Up To Different Storylines

Here's Hendrie to once again say what shouldn't need to be said.

“Don’t go into a community with the story three quarters written,” advised EWA’s Hendrie. “Expect to be surprised. Keep your eyes and mind open.”

Yes. That would be reporting. Russo advocates for being open to different points of view, but in the education field, reporters have to first open up their minds about what "different points of view" mean. Some education writers, for instance, think the battle is between Common Core advocates and the teachers unions, which is like reporting that World War II was a war between Italy and Russia-- a somewhat less-than-complete picture. But at every step of the story of ed reform, Common Core, charters, data collection, and de-professionalism of teaching, there have been reporters who couldn't tell the story well because they didn't even understand who the main players were. I just wish I could find again the story written by a reporter who, to get a "teacher perspective," spoke to a first-year Teach for America recruit.

As with reporting on any subject, it's not just a matter of bias-- it's a matter of knowing what the hell you're talking about.

What's missing?

In all of these ideas, Russo comes close to another important aspect of Education Reporting and What It Needs-- but he never quite nails it, and if education reporting is ever going to be less sucktastic, it has to be nailed.

To Whom Are You Speaking?

Education reporting is what political reporting would look like if no reporter ever spoke to the politicians running for in the election being covered. It's reporting on the Syrian refugee crisis without ever speaking to a single Syrian. It's like business reporting without ever doing anything but reading official company press releases.

I get why education reporters so rarely talk to actual teachers. We're a widespread bunch, we're hard to find, and our work schedule is really inconvenient. But education reporters pretty much never speak to actual teachers.

There are so many voices that have been left out of the conversation. Part of this is the very structure of the ed debates. On the one side, we have reformsters who have a mountain of money at their disposal, and they have used it to push their message out. There are guys like Mike Petrilli (cited twice in Russo's piece and a million other times in everyone else's pieces) for whom this whole gig-- talking to reporters, putting out opinion pieces, arguing for the reformster message-- is the actual job. People love to quote Petrilli because he's easy to get ahold of, easy to talk to, and ready to offer some comments-- almost like it's what he's paid to do. Meanwhile, if you want to talk to someone like me, well, if you call me between 8:25 and 9:09, or during my lunch half hour, as long as I don't get pulled into a meeting or a student doesn't need me for something-- well, maybe then I can talk to you. Because being a press contact for the resistance is not my real job. The reform movement is rife with organizations and people who are already well-connected. Those of us speaking against the reform movement are mostly civilians trying to get our two cents in while still meeting all of our real world obligations. We have always been at that disadvantage, and press coverage of education issues has always been tilted because of it.

And it's not just the reformsters. Ed reporters also keep getting surprised because they assume that Lily Eskelsen Garcia and Randi Weingarten speak for all teachers, that union positions are shared by all classroom teachers. That's a bad assumption; union leadership was (is) still beating the drum for Common Core long after rank and file teachers widely lost patience for the standards. 

And EWA has deliberately made it worse, by declaring that if you're just a blogger, just a person who's writing about education on the side and not getting paid for it, you aren't a member of the club. Which is too bad. Some of the best research in the field is being done by people like Mercedes Schneider. Some of the best interviews-- interviews that nobody else is bothering to do-- from all across the spectrum are being done by people like Jennifer Berkshire. We're a feisty bunch, and yeah, some of us are perhaps not as polished as a "real" reporter, but we Know Stuff. Teachers don't have press agents, publicity assistants, or organizations to help us get our word out. That does not mean we don't have something to say. A reporter would be wise to cultivate some ed blogger connections.

You can occasionally hear our howls of anguish. Remember back around 2012-2013, when a bunch of writers and policy-makers suddenly lifted their heads and said, "Hey, you know-- this No Child Left Behind thing that says all students must be proficient by 2014? That can't really happen, can it." That next distant sound you heard was millions of teachers slapping their foreheads and hollering, "We've been telling you that for a decade." Ed reporters repeatedly ponder whether anyone could have foreseen certain developments while actual teachers in the field have been foreseeing them, unheard and unheeded, for years.

Sure, there are some reporters who are doing their homework. But far too many are just running with the press release that landed on their desk without ever asking questions about the group that it came from. Too many are just listening to a thinky tank or astroturf advocacy group without asking who's paying the bills.

Sure, there are ed reporters out there who are getting the job done, and doing it pretty well. In the end, Caroline "Captain Obvious" Hendrie is right-- we don't need to talk about making education reporting great again. If we could just make it reporting again, that would be a huge help.

1 comment:

  1. "As with reporting on any subject, it's not just a matter of bias-- it's a matter of knowing what the hell you're talking about."

    On one of the newspapers I worked for, knowing what the hell you were talking about was likely to prevent you from every covering that subject…on the grounds, apparently, that knowing too much would automatically result in bias.

    You can't make this stuff up.