The Golden Age of Education Reporting?

Education reporting has never been better than it is right now.  That said, there’s room for improvement.  That’s the conclusion I have come to after 41 years on the beat and after attending the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association in Boston last weekend.

When I got into the game in 1974, EWA was gasping for breath.  When I joined its Board in the late 70’s, I discovered that the executive director kept the organization’s financial records in a shoe box; moreover, there was no annual budget, just some numbers scribbled on a legal pad.  The education beat itself was, for most reporters, a way station, a stepping stone to something with prestige.  Only a handful of reporters like Mike Bowler, Anne Lewis, Ron Moskowitz and Fred Hechinger made a career out of reporting about schools.

When Lisa Walker became Executive Director of EWA, she and a revitalized Board brought EWA into the big leagues. Under current Executive Director Caroline Hendrie, the organization now stands alone as a model–and the education beat has become a beacon for reporters assigned to cover other issues. The EWA’s powerful ‘listserve’ allows reporters to stay connected and share insights and, when appropriate, sources.  

National coverage is strong: Chalkbeat (now in 4 states and expanding), The Hechinger Report, Pro Publica and Politico Education are providing outstanding national and local coverage. NPR (National Public Radio) has a strong education team, as does the PBS NewsHour (the latter team includes my former colleagues at Learning Matters).  Although Education Week is a trade publication, it remains a “must read” for anyone interested in the both the big picture and the weeds of the business.  (One of my regrets is that when we negotiated the merger into Ed Week, I did not ask for a lifetime subscription!)  There are more interesting education blogs than I could begin to count, and that’s a good thing.

When The Tampa Bay Times won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, that clinched it: education had become THE cool and significant issue to cover!

However, troubles continue.  The reporting is generally better, but the audiences are smaller, particularly for the print reporting.  Is the news hole for education still shrinking because advertising is the largest determinant of the amount of space devoted to news? As far as I know, only NBC has a national correspondent assigned to cover education (the estimable Rehema Ellis), and, if you think about leaving public radio and searching elsewhere on the dial for education reporting, forget it.

There are important education stories waiting to be told, of course. My own list includes, in no particular order:

1) The ongoing reliance of high schools on ‘credit recovery’ to boost their graduation rates. Yes, graduation rates have climbed, but how much of the increase is due to quickie, computer-based ‘courses’ that students take in a week or two?

2) The widespread failure of online K-12 programs, particularly the on-line charter schools…and the continuing growth of same because politicians don’t seem to care. Here I think it’s worth following the money.

3) The reluctance of charter school leaders to weed out scammers and profiteers in the world of non-profit charter schools. I have written about this on my blog.

 4) The failure of the largely successful Opt-Out ‘Movement’ to say what it stands for (because we know what it’s opposed to).  If the ‘test-and-punish’ regime is going to be overthrown, how will schools assess student performance?  How should teachers be evaluated?  Who’s getting it right?

 5) How does it happen that school boards often are persuaded to spend lots of money on technology without a serious plan for using it? Los Angeles is the poster child, of course, but have other Boards learned their lesson?  Hardware and software are a $15-20 BILLION business in education.

 6) Why not look into intra-union power struggles between the national and state chapters and between state and local chapters? Chapters have been padlocked, and people have gone to prison.

7) Diane Ravitch against the billionaire funders of what she calls ‘corporate reform’ and others call ‘data-driven decision making’ is a superb feature story, in my opinion. She’s 76 years young….and she has Gates et alia on the ropes. How did this happen?

8) Speaking of Gates, perhaps a reporting team with an interest in history could dig into the connections between the Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. The Foundation gave states big grants so they could hire McKinsey to help them write their ‘Race to the Top’ proposals.  How did requiring states to use student test scores to evaluate teachers become of of Race to the Top’s ‘four pillars,’ a requirement for getting the bailout money that schools so desperately needed?

You may have other suggestions, and, if I have missed some solid coverage of the issues I have listed, I apologize.

In sum, education reporters are getting it right.  Now keep on keeping on!

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21 thoughts on “The Golden Age of Education Reporting?

  1. Thank you. I recall this excellent story, but it doesn’t really cover the ‘pillar’ I mention. Lyndsey nails the Common Core aspect, but Race to the Top also insisted on judging teachers by their student test scores. Was that also Gates’ influence, or can that be attributed to the New Schools Venture Fund, Joanne Weiss and others? I think it’s worth a serious look.

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  2. Right. Gates obviously had influence there too, in funding teacher evaluation systems, and “coaching” districts/states on RTTT applications. (and funding “studies”) (https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20144016/pdf/20144016.pdf; http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2009/09/all_states_now_eligible_for_ga.html). Teval was certainly a major “pillar” for Gates. http://www.livingindialogue.com/responding-to-bill-gates-destructive-model-of-teacher-evaluation/. I don’t know if I’ve seen one comprehensive piece on that but Gates definitely was a major player in the teval game.

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  3. Here’s a couple other “stories” that no one covers: Time on task does matter. Why do today’s students not even get offered a “summer curriculum” to work on during the summer vacation seemingly mandated by 19th century agricultural planting and harvesting schedules? Another one is for local reporters to insist that districts and charters make public the amount of their expenditures that is ACTUALLY spent IN classrooms.
    Jim Kelly

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  4. John,

    It would be great if a reporter would do some serious work on the issue of school governance. How can districts thrive when there is a constant turnover in most districts of superintendents and board members at the local level. The churn at the state level is also an issue, but the heart of the problem lies at the local level. No wonder that teachers become cynical about the “next great thing.”One can look at places like Long Beach, CA as a place where stability of leadership has made a huge difference. Contrast that with LA or San Diego.

    I would also love to see more exploration about the siloization (is that even a word?) of supports at all levels of programs that are supposed to support children, families and schools. In almost all communities there is little or no communication between districts and general purpose governments. The resources, like mental health, legal clinics, health clinics, could make a significant difference in heading off issues like truancy, chronic absenteeism and the like.Full disclosure that I do some consulting with them, but look at the work that Say Yes to Education is doing with its partners in Buffalo. It is a terrific model of collaborative governance.

    Just some quick thoughts.

    Chris

    On Fri, May 13, 2016 at 9:31 AM, The Merrow Report wrote:

    > John Merrow posted: “Education reporting has never been better than it is > right now. That said, there’s room for improvement. That the conclusion I > have come to after 41 years on the beat and after attending the annual > meeting of the Education Writers Association in Boston ” >

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  5. Excellent column, John, and a lot of good suggestions. Thank you. Particularly like Chris Cross’s suggestions on school governance and the silo-ization of services for families and children. I have three additional suggestions:

    1. Someone should do a story on the junk science of PISA’s international comparisons. Somehow, despite the apartheid system it administers, the city of Shanghai has been conflated with China and held up as a model of equity and excellence for the U.S. to emulate. Staggering new data reported just this week by the Wall Street Journal suggests that perhaps only one-quarter or one-third of all students in China enroll in high school. In rural China, where about 60% of China’s students are located, the enrollment figure is incredibly low, just 6%.

    2. The globalization of school privatization needs attention. Charters and vouchers embody this trend in the United States. It’s a complicated story, but the privatization of every school in England (where 60% of secondary schools are already privatized) is under consideration. And Wired magazine reported last month that for-profit chains, often affiliated with the Pearson test and publishing company, are now peddling education, in the form of training, for between $6 a month and $2 a day in the developing world. Since 2003, according to the article by Anya Kamenetz, the proportion of the world’s primary-school students who are enrolled in private institutions has jumped from 3% to 13%.

    3. Finally, the misuse of NAEP results needs attention. NAEP by now has so many different series, with different populations and geographic areas, and different starting dates, that it’s possible to make just about any case you want out of the results. A special concern is the tendency to confuse NAEP’s “proficiency” benchmark with performance at grade level. They bear no relationship at all, yet we see the confusion all the time from the latest Atlantic magazine (reporting on Detroit) to former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. This is a very serious issue with significant implications for the benchmarks associated with the Common Core assessments, PARCC and SBAC.

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    • I agree with Richard Phelps’ account. I don’t know if education reporting has been worse in the past — perhaps so — but I have found the education reporters these days to be acting in ways disconcertingly similar to the political reporters who covered the run up and beginning of the Bush/Cheney War in Iraq.

      Instead of doing independent research about what facts are true and what facts are cherry picked out of context to mislead the public, those reporters managed to convince the American public there was incontrovertible proof that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction aimed at the US. And it wasn’t that Bush/Cheney and company were outright lying — recall that every word they used was parsed so that it may have been “technically” not a lie but purposely designed to give an impression that the people who wanted the war were well-aware was not true. Recall the attack on Joe Wilson and the outing of his wife for even asking questions? The reporters were part of the problem, and they were led by Judith Miller at the NYTimes, who traded becoming the stenographer for the pro-war movement for “inside access” to powerful people. Her reporting – while again, technically not outright lies — was designed to mislead the public into believing something that wasn’t true and quashing any questioning by dismissing it as knee-jerk anti-war radicals who didn’t care that America was about to be under nuclear attack.

      There are many new “Judith Millers” in the educational press. Now many of them are young, unseasoned “journalists” who previous worked for institutions connected with the reform movement (TFA teacher, etc.) And then there is Beth Fertig, at WNYC, who really should know better.

      Remember how the pro-war Bush administration would always cite Judith Miller’s “reporting” (often based on their own leaks) as “proof” that the Iraq invasion was necessary? The “reform” movement often cites Beth Fertig’s “research” that offers incontrovertible proof that high attrition has nothing to do with the high performance of charter school chains that are getting miraculous results with the exact same kids you find in the worst failing schools. The exact same kids, as Beth Fertig’s “reporting” has proved without a shadow of a doubt. She did a report 5 or 6 years ago that seemed incredibly suspect but was constantly cited and I always assumed she was slightly embarrassed at being the main “proof” that no child was every pushed out of a high performing charter school.

      But after never examining the issue again, she choose to do so right after all the negative press came out where videos of “model” teaching targeted low performers was available for all to see. Suddenly, she decided to do a new report again designed to “prove” that high performing charters would never purposely push out a kid and no need to look closer at attrition rates. She had done a very limited study of only certain months attrition — as you pointed out in this blog. Why? Why then and why limit it to EXACTLY the kind of study that the reform movement wants because it leaves out many of the kids who leave?

      In a world where education reporter was better, that report would have been severely criticized with NEW reporters following up to learn the real attrition rates. But silence (except for your blog). No follow up.

      The same education reporters seem to treat the “opt-out” movement as TEACHER led or at least co-led with a few parents. There is NO sense that this is a grassroots campaign by parents sick of test prep and terrible tests that oddly must remain top secret! Anyone opposed to standardized tests is simply a union lackey (or fooled by them) just like anyone opposed to the Iraq War was just a knee-jerk anti-war leftist.

      In both cases, the press barely bothered to report on WHY the critics opposed the war and standardized tests and whether that criticism is valid. The press never reported on WHO was promoting the war and the tests as absolutely necessary and whether their reasons had any basis in fact beyond what their press releases and funded “studies” told them. Sure there were always a few voices of reason, but the mainstream press ignored them, either in ignorance, laziness, or because it is much easier to please the powerful people and get ahead than to make them mad by questioning and digging deeper into their claims. And whether that “powerful person” is Dick Cheney or Bill Gates, the end result is terrible reporting but having a nice secure job with “prestige”.

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  6. I have issues with the editorial boards of many major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, for their acceptance of the corporate line; I think most reporters have not lost their skepticism and bullshit detectors. I wish Beth had challenged the data because Eva Moskowitz and Success Academies continue to boast about her ‘findings’ and even call it ‘the gold standard’ because it’s NPR.

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    • What’s worse is that Beth Fertig essentially wrote the SAME article a few years ago that was touted by Success Academy and staved off any real oversight for many years. Can you imagine how Success Academy administrators must have delighted in being able to weed out even more kids without a care, knowing any criticism would be met by pointing to Ms. Fertig’s certification of their uprightness. I figured Ms. Fertig was embarrassed about being the “gold standard” — I mean, how does it feel to have personally certified that no kids are weeded out and know that for years their parents have been made to feel awful and at fault thanks to Beth Fertig. And then she goes and doubles down on the misleading data instead of doing a new report? I can’t believe she is that ignorant and the timing is particularly troubling. Obviously there are many nice paying jobs in the reform movement and their hired reporters, and very few jobs for middle age reporters if NPR’s funders decide she is expendable.

      What would have happened if you had run your report on Success Academy before the end of your career? Remember how fast Omnibudsman Michael Getler attacked you because he insisted using anonymous sources is only allowed in matters of national security?! He completely ignored the data that you presented, and decided that if you can’t convince more people to go on the record and have their 6 year old son’s private school records made public, then you must not do anything but praise a charter school. I’m sure the fact that some billionaire funders weren’t happy had nothing to do with Mr. Getler’s complete willingness to throw 5 and 6 year old children under the bus unless their parents were willing to have their private records released.

      I always wondered how Mr. Getler rationalized his attack once all the information came out. It was very revealing to see the job of the “omnibudsman” at PBS was to protect the pet interests of billionaire funders!

      Obviously Beth Fertig knows exactly where her bread it buttered and she has no interest in rocking the boat. I guess I feel sorry for her, ultimately, because I assume she can’t fool herself. But I hold her personally responsible for allowing got to go lists because without her cherry-picked data, Success would have had to stop that practice years ago. Now, thanks to her, I have no doubt there will be more kids made to feel the misery that Ms. Fertig’s study “certifies” needs no oversight whatsoever.

      I do believe there are some more skeptical reporters out there, but the ones most richly rewarded are the ones like Beth Fertig. She should have recused herself from any reporting if she doesn’t have the guts to tell it like it is because she values her job more than the lives of some at-risk kids who she finds not worthy enough to care about, just like the people in the reform movement want her to think.

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  7. Beth and I have communicated about my issues with her reporting about Success Academies, but I do not know if she feels remorse about what amounted to carrying water for dubious (and worse) practices.
    Regarding the PBS Ombudsman, I am not the only one who has issues with his judgment, as you might imagine. Happily, Kate Taylor’s subsequent reporting for the New York Times about Success Academies’ modus operandi confirmed what we reported.
    On the other hand, a hedge fund mogul just gave SA $25M, and it’s one of three finalists for the Broad Foundation Prize for Charter Management Organizations. I wonder if the Broad selection committee was influenced by Beth Fertig’s reporting for WNYC?

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    • I hope you got an apology from Mr. Getler but I suspect not.

      Kate Taylor had a very good report about Central Park East today – at least from my perspective as someone who doesn’t know much about the issues there. She examined some of the hard data in a way that I haven’t actually seen her do with Success Academy.

      “Last year, only 17 of the 30 children offered kindergarten seats through the lottery ended up at the school, leaving another 13 seats to be filled from the waiting list. There were 77 students from District 4 on the list, but in the end fewer than 10 students from District 4 enrolled in the class, while more than two-thirds of the seats went to children from other districts.”

      Now Central Park East isn’t demanding to expand to 100 schools based on claims that there are “20,000 students on wait lists” But this kind of data illuminates the big picture. Kate Taylor didn’t just write “there were 300 students in the lottery for 30 spots” which would have provided me with a very different picture of Central Park East and I could have been misled into thinking that there should be more Central Park East schools in District 4 due to an extraordinarily high demand. I wish there were similarly helpful numbers to judge the real demand for more Success Academy schools.

      Success Academy is touting remarkable results. And yet almost no reporters are examining the overall data to see if the results stack up. There are bits and pieces where you can see that half the starting Kindergarten students are MIA by 8th grade. Extraordinarily high suspension rates (but not in schools serving middle class kids) and suddenly declining class sizes point to a huge red flag. The NYC IBO had a report in which they reported that 53 charter schools IN AGGREGATE lost 49.5% of their starting Kindergarten class by 5th grade. But the actual numbers for the 3 or 4 Success Academy schools in that cohort have never been requested from the IBO by any reporter. Kate Taylor explaining that Central Park East’s lottery doesn’t reflect any real demand for the school in District 4 is one of the most important facts in her story. We need similar real data points for Success Academy and whether their schools are achieving those results with the majority of at-risk students who entered their school on Day 1, or if their testing cohort consists of a culled number of those lottery winners plus the backfilled students who are forced to take a test to prove their academic prowess before being allowed to take the spot in the grade they won the lottery for.

      Instead the only “data” is the carefully limited reporting that Beth Fertig does — coincidentally exactly what the Success Academy PR folks want reported. Don’t look at how many Kindergarten students who win the lottery disappear. Instead take an entire school of Kindergarten through 5th graders (at least 3 grades worth of students who have already been culled and don’t lose many students), and come up with a total number of students who leave only during a specific 9 month period and present it as if it is evenly distributed over each grade because why would anyone care how many Kindergarten kids leave before 3rd grade? And yet, knowing how many of that starting cohort of Kindergarten kids leave before testing is exactly what tells you whether a charter school is really committed to educating ALL the students who walk through their door, or just the ones who are easiest to teach.

      I suspect that the Broad selection committee cares as much about high attrition rates for at-risk kids as the SUNY Charter Institute does. They don’t care at all. They care about results with whatever kids are in the school come testing time. And if such thinking provides an incentive for all charter schools to simply abandon the most hard to teach kids, my assumption is that deep down, the people on the Broad selection committee and the SUNY Charter Institute actually believe those kids deserve to be abandoned. Maybe Beth Fertig believes that, too. And that’s the saddest truth of all. They don’t care at all how many of those kids are being abandoned because they, quite frankly, don’t care. In fact, given that keeping those kids in the schools just leads to lower test scores, I am certain that the Broad selection committee wants more charters to follow the “best practices” of Success Academy and weed them out of their schools as well. To the strivers go the spoils, and to the schools that cater to them and rid themselves of the non-strivers. I suspect the Broad committee, the SUNY Charter Institute, et al have no problem with that. Certainly their actions speak volumes about how little they care.

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