How Strong Is Education Reporting?

I had the distinct honor and privilege of serving as a judge for the Education Writers Association’s annual reporting awards contest, and I want to tell you that I was blown away by the quality of the reporting.  The awards will be presented at EWA’s 71st annual National Conference in Los Angeles in a few days, but you can find the names of the finalists here.  Look at the list and pick a few at random to read, watch, or listen to. I predict you will be impressed.

Alexander Russo, who has established himself as a roving gadfly/critic/analyst of education reporting, has criticized the awards for pieces that are not found on the list, apparently because they were not entered in the first place.   While that approach may be of value, I think it’s far more important to consider the stories that, as far as I can tell, education reporters are not telling, chief among them being the faux retreat from ‘school reform’ by its staunch supporters.

Here’s the story that shouldn’t be ignored: The proponents of disastrous ‘school reform,’ which has given us 20+ years of ‘test and punish’ & such, are now positioning themselves as voices of common sense.  Exhibit A is this recent Washington Post column by two former Secretaries of Education, Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings.  One guided the Department under George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” and other created the infamous “Race to the Top” program.

Their breath-taking chutzpah begins with the title of the piece: What ails education? ‘An absence of vision, a failure of will and politics.’   But their opening sentence actually tops it: “We have long benefited from a broad coalition that has advanced bold action to improve America’s education system.”

Just exactly who are the WE that have benefited from the ‘bold action’ that the Secretaries refer to?  It’s far easier to identify those who have NOT benefited from “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.”  Let’s start with students, because their performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which everyone agrees is education’s ‘gold standard,’ has basically been flat for the 20+ years of Bush and Obama.  Next on the list are teachers, whose salaries and morale have declined over the years of increasing reliance on multiple-choice testing and ‘test-and-punish’ policies.  Collateral damage has been done to the occupation of teaching, which has lost prestige and now fails to attract enough candidates to fill our classrooms with qualified instructors.

So that’s–literally–millions of students and teachers who have NOT benefited from the ‘broad coalition’ that Duncan and Spellings are so proud of.

So let’s try to figure out who benefited. Here are five:  Testing companies (whose profits have climbed an estimated 5000%), those ideologues intent on fracturing public education to satisfy their political agenda, profiteers who are riding the charter school bandwagon (whether for-profit or not-for-profit, because that’s become a distinction without a difference), and–surprise–the two former United States Secretaries of Education. One now leads the University of North Carolina higher education system, and the other is one of three Managing Partners of The Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ very wealthy and active education venture.

By the way, the financial costs of standardized testing are difficult to compute.  A 2012 study of 44 states came up with $1.7 billion, or about $65 per child, but that number leaves out teacher time devoted to test-prep and administration, as well as the money spent on processing, transfer, and reporting. What’s more, the study covered only grades 3-9, and high school students take lots of those tests.  We do know that testing companies’ profits have skyrocketed over the past several decades–during which time teacher salaries have declined, as noted above.

But it’s not just Duncan and Spellings who are intent on reinventing themselves. The 74, Campbell Brown’s faux-journalistic web-based enterprise, the ever-present Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (whose ‘reinvention’ I poked fun at recently), Tom Toch and his DC-based think tank (whose shoddy analysis of Washington DC schools I dissected not long ago) , and the right-leaning Fordham Foundation.

The latter has published a few articles about the failure of ‘school reform’–without taking any responsibility for its role in encouraging those disastrous policies over more than two decades.   Here’s an interesting bit from one of them, “Reformer, Heal Thyself,” by Max Eden: “Why is it that “accountability”-minded technocratic reforms can’t practice what they preach?  Perhaps it has something to do with the sociological structure of the reform movement, which is largely defined by a series of circular, self-congratulatory confabulations. Reformers create hero narratives and invest their own social capital and status in the status of their supposed heroes. A threat to the reputation of “transformational” leaders is a threat to the reputation of the entire movement. It’s far easier to look the other way and keep doing the same old thing.”

I write about the ‘reformers’ at some length in my new book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”  It will come as no surprise that Arne Duncan, Margaret Spellings, Rick Hess, Tom Toch, Campbell Brown, Checker Finn, Mike Petrilli, and others in the ‘school reform’ cabal are high on the list of people we need to be rescued from.

Using the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, as a bete noire, which is what Duncan and Spellings are doing, is a convenient cover for not taking responsibility for the damage done by the past 20+ years of ‘school reform.’  Their call for a new coalition–which they seem willing to lead–deserves analysis by thoughtful reporters.

And, to end where I began, we are blessed to have a ton of really good reporters out there today.  Congratulations to all those being honored by EWA.

Now, don’t stop.

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5 thoughts on “How Strong Is Education Reporting?

  1. As a business person interested in education, it was very rewarding to read your analysis of what is wrong. After 20 years of our slowly but surely moving backwards, what is your recommendation for action by those of us in the hinterlands?

    At age 95 my contribution may be minimal, but possibly with your guidance I can talk to some people here. Also, I am confident that IEL can be helpful. Since they are respected in the pre K – 12 area they could have influence, hopefully with your help.

    Warmest regards,

    Bert Berkley

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are a role model for us all, Bert, and I agree that the Institute for Educational Leadership has the prestige and the chops to be helpful in bringing together this divided nation, regarding public education.

      As for what’s to be done, please read my new book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” (The New Press, 2017).

      Best, John

      Like

  2. John, Thank you for continuing to express beautifully what I and many others have long felt to be a problem. For not being cowed by “mainstream” narratives that your view of what ails our schools is apologist or worse. For continuing to investigate what we know are systemic inequities and cheating in DCPS and beyond. And for encouraging good education journalists — who, like the teachers whose work they cover, are brave — we need them more than ever!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. John,
    Thank you for the clear description of who has benefitted from phony education reform, and who has suffered. I saw my school in Oakland brought into a state of demoralization due to the overbearing threats of NCLB. And once President Obama came along, we experienced further destruction due to the demands that test scores be included in teacher and administrator evaluations.

    I agree that there is excellent education journalism being done, and am glad it is being recognized and celebrated. There is an important footnote, however. that deserves attention related to the Education Writers Association, a non-profit, sponsored by many of the same foundations that have actively promoted the “reforms” we now decry.

    My blog, Living in Dialogue, won several awards from EWA, including a first place prize for a series of posts analyzing the Common Core from the perspective of an experienced classroom teacher. The year after I won that award, the EWA changed its rules so that independent, unpaid bloggers such as myself were no longer able to participate in their awards process. At the same time, reporters working on corporate-sponsored projects like the Seattle Times’ “Education Lab” remain eligible.

    I have suggested to the EWA that this exclusion means that they are leaving out bloggers that are doing important work — including former and current classroom teachers. People like Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian, whose blog, I Am An Educator, is sharing valuable analysis of the nexus of race, class and education reform. Mercedes Schneider, whose Deutch29 blog continues to dig into the nitty gritty facts from her position as a high school teacher in Louisiana — and dozens more, covering education issues from the grassroots.

    It is true that these education writers do not meet all the criteria of traditional journalism. However, as the ownership (and sponsorship) of media becomes more and more concentrated, it is ever more crucial that programs like the EWA conferences create space for such unfettered voices. I hope you will join me in encouraging the EWA to return to allowing independent bloggers to fully participate in their events and writing contests.

    Liked by 1 person

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