Friday, July 20, 2018

Fixing Education Journalism

I'm not going to attempt the entire fix in just one post. But Amanda Ripley wrote a thought-provoking piece about "Complicating the Narratives" in which she discusses how journalists need to apply the lessons about human psychology in conflict to how they cover issues (Ripley often covers education). Alexander Russo wrote an ed-centric piece in response to her piece, interviewing her for a bit more clarification. I'm just going to add my two further down the food chain. I'm going to cut some corners here because both of those pieces are pretty hefty; if you want a fuller picture, follow those links (I also recommend Paul Thomas's blog, where these issues are regularly discussed).
Hey! Look what isn't mentioned!

Ripley offers six steps to improve education journalism:

1. Amplify contradiction
2. Widen the lens
3. Ask questions that get to people's motivations
4. Listen more, and better
5. Expose people to the other tribe
6. Counter confirmation bias (carefully)

And that list isn't bad, though I don't think it's complete. But Russo gets my ears to perk up with this observation:

Those of us who write about education may think of ourselves as objective seekers of the truth, but we choose and frame and report our stories in ways that aren’t always as self-reflective as may be necessary. In the process, we may be allowing ourselves to be used by polarizing forces that want us to take up their causes, playing the role of the kids goading classmates to fight rather than the role of translators we aim to be.

Well, yes. Russo quotes Ripley suggesting part of a solution:

Education journalists tend to hover around a conflict, throwing gasoline on it every 20 minutes or so but never asking…’What’s driving people to have these very predictable positions?'

And yes, there is the usual journalistic focus on conflict, coupled with the addiction to false equivalencies (e.g. creationism and science are just two equally valid points of view, which-- no, they aren't). Focusing on motivations would, indeed, be helpful-- exactly why is this person pushing a particular point of view? Exactly why is this other person disagreeing?

But for me, this all nibbles around the edges of some critical issues in education coverage.

If I could add to Ripley's list, I would add this:


Maybe I'd underline it, too.

One of the things that drives me absolutely bonkers is the widespread, absolutely unquestioned use of terms such as "student achievement" and "teacher effectiveness" in placer of the more accurate "standardized test scores." This is no more sensible than referring to pro-choice activists as "anti-baby" or using alcohol consumption figures as an "American happiness index." But by using the terminology, journalists helped cement the unsupported notion that standardized test results are a good proxy for educational achievement just as surely as writers of an earlier era sold a particular point of view by always preceding the word "Communist" with "godless." Seriously-- I cannot overstate how much this bugs me. Most of the architecture of ed reform is built on the assumption that these tests are valid, are being used for their correct purpose, and generate hard data. And ed journalists just keep pushing those assumptions without ever examining whether they are valid. Examine those assumptions.

Too many ed journalists also amplify and repeat the notion that the ed debates involve just two sides. It doesn't really matter what you identify as the two "sides"-- as soon as you've decided there are only two, you are in trouble. You're ignoring some important parts of the debate. Examine those assumptions.

Ripley and Russo like the idea of talking to actual students, and talking to actual teachers would be great, too. But journalists always need to question who selected the people they're talking to. Teachers who have been awarded certain honors have been chosen to reflect the values of whoever is awarding those honors, and students are often hand-picked so that only the "good" ones are shown to the public.

To Ripley's list I would also add this:

8. All sides are not equal.

Yes, if journalists pay attention to Ripley's six suggestions, they should sort of stumble into this. But the education debates are unique in how mismatched the players are.

Pushing various forms of ed reform are organizations with vast resources, huge piles of money to throw at the issues. There are people out there being paid handsomely to do nothing but write and talk about how awesome various ed reform ideas would be. There are entire organizations that have been set up to do nothing except push an ed reform policy. And when billionaires like Bill Gates place a call to Important People to explain why, say, Common Core should be a thing, their calls are answered.

There is nothing similar on the pro-public ed side. Ed reform advocates like to point to the unions as equally as powerful as the various billionaires and corporations, but the union positions are a bit more complicated, and not always solidly on the side of public ed  (e.g. the leadership support for Common Core over rank and file objections). The rest of the pro-public ed side is made up of people like me-- folks who are advocating, in their spare time, for free. Folks who don't have great media connections and who, because they have a real day job, are not easily available for a quick quote or timely interview. Education continues to be one of the few journalism areas where actual practicing experts in the field are rarely consulted.

Education journalists have been really really really really REALLY slow to recognize that much of the education "news" coming across their desks is actually PR from people with vested business interests in whatever piece of "news" is being sold. And most of them have not developed the contacts in the teacher world that would allow them to say, "Hey, could you look at this and tell me if it smells funny?" Journalists repeatedly fail to ask the critical questions because they lack the expertise (which is not a failure on their part) and they lack contacts with the needed expertise (which is). So dozens of journalists write pieces about charter schools that send all their graduates to college without ever asking how many students in the original ninth grade cohort were washed out before they could become graduates. Or they get suckered into promoting the non-existent DC miracle.

That pushing is coming primarily from the folks with the money. Guys like me do not have an available mechanism for pushing our story ideas to mainstream ed journalists. I mean, I suppose I could, but as it is I'm trying to finish this post before my babies wake up from their nap.)

There are some people out there doing good work in the world of education journalism, and it's great that conversations like the one Ripley kicked off are going on. It's a much more complicated field to cover than it was twenty-five years ago, and many editors have not caught on to that ("Hey, Freshface McNewby-- why don't you go get your feet wet by covering education! Who's your team? Why, that would be you!").

Ed journalism can be better-- much better-- and Ripley has opened up a worthwhile conversation. Let's hope it actually helps.

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