Failing Education Reporters

From a backlog in my Instapaper queue comes a recent article in the American Journalism Review challenging the common media assessment of the American education system as “failing” and in need of “reform”.

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 (“rigid and sclerotic”) are more dangerous than usual. How could they not be? With nearly 100,000 public schools, 55 million elementary and secondary students and 2.5 million public school teachers currently at work in large, small, urban, suburban and rural districts, education may be the single most complex endeavor in America.

Most news outlets certainly don’t discuss that complexity or even acknowledge the wide diversity of schools and students in this country.

Journalists also tend cover education issues the same way they do other stories: by selecting a villain and hyping the crisis. You can probably guess who gets the blame in this scenario.

But like “failing schools” and “crisis,” the phrase “ineffective teachers” has become media shorthand (it appeared 136 times in news accounts during January alone, Nexis says). And given the many factors that affect learning, it also looks like scapegoating. NPR’s Tovia Smith, for example, concluded her story in early March about a program that holds back third graders who are having trouble reading this way: “As another academic put it: This policy flunks kids for failing to learn, but given how widespread the problem is, maybe it’s the school that should flunk for failing to teach.”

The notion that education is in “crisis” – that is, in a moment of special danger – is another journalistic favorite. While few reporters ever mention it, anxiety over the nation’s educational achievement is probably older than the nation. 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 undergoing rapid technological change.

So, “[h]ave the nation’s schools gotten noticeably lousier? Or has the coverage of them just made it seem that way?”

This article makes a strong case for the later.

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