How an uncritical media have helped distort the American education debate.
The current American debate over education reform has centered, for the most part, on several major themes; that American schools are, in some broad sense, “failing”, that American students are vastly outperformed on international tests of assessment by ‘lesser’ nations, and that teachers and their obstinate unions are the main reason for this failure.
This June 2011 piece in the prominent American magazine The Atlantic by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein is an excellent example of every one of those above elements distilled into one article, down to its title, “The Failure of American Schools”. While the piece was written by a former public official intimately involved with the “education reform” movement, it is only slightly more ‘biased’ on the subject than treatments of the issue by most journalists.
Before continuing, it should be said that one of the main underpinnings of this standard “failure” narrative—lukewarm American scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—is in many ways flawed. For one, the jurisdictions tested don’t lead to apples to apples comparisons. Scores for the entire Chinese school system, for example, are not available; rather the cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, both highly unrepresentative of the “average” Chinese student, participate in the test. Even for the places where true country to country comparisons are being made, a closer look at the test scores shows that the source of America’s middling international ranking is more ineffective education of chronically disadvantaged ethnic groups, rather than a fundamental problem with all of American pedagogy.
That American schools are “failing”, in the sense that they are not adequately preparing their students to compete in the global economy, has become an article of faith of not just education reformers, but of the media itself. A study looking at media coverage of the subject from October 2010 to October 2011 found that 10 percent of all education news coverage was framed through a crisis frame, portraying the system as irreparably broken and incapable of fully educating its students. 20 percent of these pieces did not even engage in a discussion of solutions.
In terms of solutions, another major flaw of American education coverage is that it has by and large bought the claim of education reformers that most blame for the supposed ‘failure’ of American schools falls with teachers, as opposed to external social problems in impoverished school districts. This teacher-centric understanding has prompted media outlets in both Los Angeles and New York to publish—with teacher names attached—reports prepared by the respective school districts on teacher effectiveness based on a “value added” score, or a measurement that purports to measure the year-over-year improvement on standardized test scores a teacher provides to a student, accounting for socioeconomic differences. However, these statistics are highly flawed, often failing to adequately control for socioeconomic status and fluctuating wildly from year to year. Still, these evaluations were made public, with the predictable backlash towards teachers who scored poorly on this dubious metric.
However, the biggest problem with the media’s coverage of education is an aggravating tendency to cast any and all signs of improvement in near-messianic terms. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the generally positive, if not effusive, coverage charter schools have received from the media, even including a blockbuster 2010 documentary, Waiting for “Superman”, which focused on the lengths families went through to get their children into charters. The film, which portrayed charter schools as the be-all and end-all of education reform, reflected many of the problems with regular media coverage of charters and reforms in general; an inability to recognize the variation in quality among charters—there are some that are as bad as the worst public schools in their states—an overreliance on anecdotal storytelling, and a lack of context on education trends in the US independent of what the ‘reformers’ are saying, likely a product of many media outlets no longer staffing education beat reporters.
It would be unfair to characterize the entire media as having failed in reporting on education reform; even the media outlets that released the “value added” data in New York and Los Angeles followed up with reports exploring the flawed nature of the data, for example. However, what is clear is that public misconceptions like the widespread public belief in the effectiveness of charter schools, can be largely blamed on inadequate media coverage.